Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Little Blue Dots

“Stay out of Iowa”

DAVENPORT, IOWA - THURSDAY, JUNE 12, 2008 - Nearly every state has blue signs as you cross the border. They’ll sometimes suggest that you stop at a visitor’s center, or turn on some AM radio station for tourist information. At the Iowa boarder, I took the advice.

“What do you think of when you think about the Quad Cities area?” some unnamed guy said to another unnamed guy.
“I think of the Mississippi River. It flows right through the city…” the other man said.
“That’s right… it emboldens the natural beauty of the area…”

Emboldens. I thought it was an interesting choice of words, considering that just 70 miles west, a similar body of water forced 10,000 to abandon their lives. But it wasn’t until later that I figured out the station was an advertisement on repeat, designed to lure tourists to the visitor’s center, not to warn them about 500-year floods.

Even so, I pulled over at the first visitor information hub and was surprised to find actual visitors there, still planning vacations despite all the things they may have heard on the news. In Davenport, the paper seemed to be in denial. “Flood of ’93? No way,” a headline on the paper’s Web site read. Then again, it wasn’t flooding everywhere. Davenport was very much dry, with the Mississippi looking as normal and healthy as it ever has.

“I’m trying to help sandbag in Iowa City. Could I get a map of Iowa, and could you tell me if any roads around Iowa City are shut down?” I asked one of the smiling, white-haired managers.

The lady pointed to Interstate 80 on the map; a section of interstate that was supposed to get me into Iowa City. It was also supposed to get me out.

“Tomorrow there’s talking about closing it near Tipton,” she said politely, and handed me an official map of the state.

Hoping the way in or out of Iowa City wouldn’t get washed out, I said thanks and went on my way. Some 30 miles later, it was easy to tell what could happen to the interstate. On both sides, cloudy water turned Iowa cornfields into Vietnam-esque marshland. The flooding came from the same source that ruined Cedar Rapids -- the Cedar River.

Lights from a work truck flashed orange across the pavement of I-80; a crew was monitoring the progress of the water. It didn’t take a hydrologist to figure out the road probably wouldn’t remain open for much longer.

AM radio chatter kept me company on the trip from Davenport to Iowa City. The state was in mourning over four boy scouts who died in a tornado in far western Iowa the previous night. The nation was captivated how the surviving scouts organized a triage. David Paulison, the head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, was visiting the state.

Most of the news was centered on Cedar Rapids, where 100 city blocks were taken by the Cedar River. Citizens there were aghast -- one woman called in with her evacuation story, which started out coherent and calm, but she began to tear up when she said her home was under military occupation. This was a person who just went through the worst catastrophe in her life.

There was a repeated, overriding message in the day’s broadcast.

“If you have no business here, you should stay out of Iowa,” a male talk show host said, muffled through the AM fuzz. “Don’t go out to sightsee.”

This was troubling. The plan wasn’t to go to Cedar Rapids, not because they didn’t need it, but because the situation seemed severe to the point of impossibility. I was a gringo, and the point of coming was to fill sandbags, not risk emergency crews’ lives to save my Illinois ass. But had the waters, even in Iowa City, become so bad that I’d end up a victim instead of a volunteer?

Gloves and a Shovel

IOWA CITY, IOWA - This all started with a quick Google search: “Iowa sandbagging.” That search led to a newspaper article about volunteer sandbaggers. And that newspaper article led to the number for “Iowa Concern,” a program from the University of Iowa that serves as help hotline and information hub in times of crisis. They suggested joining the sandbagging effort in Coralville, just north of Iowa City. But the exact location of the sandbagging effort was difficult to locate, so more sandbagging opportunities were found from the City of Iowa Web site.

A glance at a map of Iowa City is all it takes to understand the risk. The 300-mile Iowa River slashes through half of the state and begins in southern Minnesota; an important hub for leisurely canoeing. The two branches of the Iowa River meet up in the small town of Belmond, Iowa, population approximately 2,560. From there it heads in a southeasterly direction, with the Cedar River flowing into it near the 1,900-person town of Columbus Junction. The whole mass of water is dumped into the Mississippi at the southeast corner of the state.

But while it’s in Iowa City, the river cuts the city in half as it winds up and around the University of Iowa like an upside down fishhook. Distinguishing aspects of the university include the first law school west of the Mississippi, the alma-matter of 13 Pulitzer Prize writers and 60 All-American football stars, and 1,984 acres of riverfront property. Then it’s a series of bridges before the water comes up to the sewage treatment plant, followed by a slight eastern bend before the river exits the town.

The view from Foster Road, north end of Iowa City

Looking at the same map, it seemed the easiest site to get to was at the North end of town, near a church called Parkview Evangelical. Coming up on the church, it was immediately obvious how bad things were. The first sight coming into town was a barricaded road, once a major thoroughfare, with an instant ocean of gray just behind it. I parked among the other volunteers and got out to take a better look.

Houses were peeking out of the gray. What was once a subdivision, where people slept, raised children and worshiped was now the center of a salvage operation. Trucks weighed down with furniture moved out as sand-filled dump trucks came in. There were no signs of sandbagging here -- just a push to empty Parkview Evangelical of the last bit of wares before the gray took over. And in that moment of desperation, the army of volunteers got slapped in the face, as the rain began to fall.

People started sprinting. I found a woman wearing an orange reflective vest and asked her where I could go to sandbag. She said that there wasn’t any more need for sandbaggers, but items from the church still needed to get moved out. However, it seemed that there were a lot of people were helping the moving process, so I decided to set out and try to find the Coralville Mall sandbagging location, where more immediate help was needed.

Driving north, I came to a bridge over the Iowa River. The waters were strong and high, with little peaks of white dotting the surface of the river as it surged downstream. Two trucks labeled “USGS.GOV” pulled to both sides of the bridge, amber lights flashing; perhaps the crews were trying to figure out whether to close this main artery through town as well. I drove past, but was unable to find the mall, and decided it would be best to turn around and ask the people at the first location where some other places were to sandbag. Returning to Parkview Evangelical, a policewoman directing traffic said I should help out at the south side of town.

To the best of my knowledge, I took a path I thought would get me to the south end of town, following my gut instinct more than my city map. The way took me through the heart of Iowa City, where a bank’s electronic sign urged me on. “Thank you volunteers,” it flashed over and over. I crossed paths with a dump truck full of sand, and thought it would be a good idea to follow. Wherever that sand was going, someone was going to have to bag it up.

Eventually the names on the street signs resembled ones on the map, and I found my way to Stevenson Road on the south side of town. I looked out my window and found a little more than a dozen people shoveling from a large pile of sand and passing green bags in a line. I parked the car and went to the two closest people. They were talking shop; where the bags need to go to protect the tan steel-sided structure. The tinted glass door of the building read “Java House Bakery.”

“You need any help over here?” I asked.
“Sure, do you have any supplies?” he said, with a slightly puzzled look.
“I’ve got gloves and a shovel,” I said, pointing my thumb back to my car.
“Yeah, jump right in!”

Little Blue Dots

“We need another person!” a woman in the conga line of people moving sandbags shouted.

I got in line and began shuttling the bags between two people wearing University of Iowa Hawkeyes shirts. In fact, nearly half of the workers were proudly wearing Iowa shirts of some kind. No doubt this was Hawkeye territory. The line wrapped around the building, out of sight, where the bags were integrated into the wall. It was a slow and painstaking process, but the wall nearly surrounded the building and was being filled in, sandbag by olive-green sandbag.

A while of being in the middle and the movements became automatic. One would shovel, another held open the bag. Four or five scoops and the bag was set aside. One or two would kneel and tie off each bag by its black cord and throw the 25-pound slug on wooden pallet. A forklift lifted and carried pallets to the far side of the building, and would come back to drop off empty pallets. When the pile of sand was whittled down to dust, a dump truck piled on more, and the dance went on.

When the line of sandbag-relaying volunteers was no longer needed, I grabbed my shovel and began filling bags. Brenda, an employee of Iowa University for the past 26 years, held open the bag as I filled it with four scoops. I asked her to tell me if I was scraping her hands with the blade of the shovel, but she told me not to worry, just to keep on shoveling.

“The campus is 25 percent flooded with water,” she said, her pink shirt tinged with sand. “The library is flooding with water.”

She passed the bag behind her and said she’d also done some sandbagging yesterday. She said she was lucky enough to live on high ground and did not have any flooding at home. I asked if she knew the owners of the warehouse, and she told me she didn’t.

“I just found this and decided to come help out,” she said, mentioning that on a normal day, she might be out playing golf.

“I decided I’d do something constructive,” she said.

Meanwhile, two young boys climbed to the top of the sand pile. One dug his shoes into the sand, pulled them out and stared at the hollow space where his foot once was.

“Look, I made a cave!” he said.

As he sat on the pile, he frowned at his once-white tennis shoes.

“Mom, can I have new shoes?” the boy said.
“Yes you can have new shoes. Just as long as they’re brown.” The boy’s mother said as she tied off the bags from Brenda.

One of the men got the boys off the pile and found them a small shovel and a stack of sandbags. The boys began to imitate their older counterparts, shoveling, bagging, tying and even carrying.

“Don’t pick up two at a time, you’ll hurt yourself!” one of the parents said.

The mother’s job had something to do with Verizon Wireless; she said she could move her work anywhere so long as she had internet. But now that the flood took away internet access, nothing could be done. She stopped for a moment to think.

“We’ve been doing this for four days now,” she said, wiping sand off her arms, and exhaling a deep breath. “What day is it?”

She was a friend of Java House owner, and her expression only softened as she spoke about people like Brenda, who came without any clue about the owner’s family or friends. Many people shoveling and bagging knew the owner one way or another, the woman said, giving the slightest of smiles as she spoke compliments about the anonymous people that just showed up.

A tall and slender man in a gray talked with the baggers about flow rates and levees. The mother nodded in his direction.

“You see that guy in the gray?” she said. “That’s an engineer contracted from the city. He’s down here to make sure the wall is built right. He knows all about how much water they are going to let out upstream, how high it’s going to get.”

On both sides of the bakery’s loading bay door were stickers like blue quarters. They could have been just an ordinary sticker, something that a child might randomly stick on to his surroundings willy-nilly in a fit of boredom. From the pavement to the stickers measured approximately four feet.

“He came around earlier and put up blue dots,” she said. “The blue dots show how high it’s going to get.”

Meanwhile, helpers moved bowls, cups, boxes, everything. A group helped wheel out an oven, then an industrial mixer. Some of the last things to go were the bathroom doors. Anything that could be unscrewed, taken apart, lifted or dragged was being taken to higher ground.

A woman finished a conversation and closed up her cell phone.

“The rail cars went down,” she said. “They tried to block part of the [Cedar Rapids] river with some loaded rail cars on the railway. But the whole thing just went down.”

As the pile of sand shrank with every scoop, clouds like gray fists popped out in the sky. The low rumble of thunder muffled the sound of shovels scraping on concrete. Brenda glanced up at the clouds as they flashed lightning.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” she said.


After the last of the pile was scooped up and the volunteers moved on, children stood by and drug shovels over the concrete, gathering small mound of sand from the dust. The sky continued to darken.

With the last sandbag filled, some volunteers swapped flood stories as others made final preparations inside the bakery. Sandbags lined the base of the massive oven; it was décor more suited for an army mess hall than a civilian bakery.

Matt Henderson, an Executive Director of Development for the University of Iowa Foundation, offered me a beer. As I cracked open a cold one, Henderson took me on a tour of the bakery and offices and told me about the business that everyone came together to protect.

“Tara was studying business at the University of Iowa when she came up with her business plan for a coffee shop,” he said.

She was able to turn her idea into a full-fledged enterprise with the help of investors, and the first Java House opened its doors on the second story of a bookstore. That was a year after the great flood, in 1994. Now there were eight Java House coffee shops in the college town, and this structure housed the bakery that supplied the shops with fudge brownies and cinnamon rolls. It was also used for office space.

“It’s become fairly successful?” I asked.
“I would say so,” Henderson said.

One of the final tasks was a crucial one: cutting the gutter downspout and rerouting the gutters over the levee. The rainwater would collect inside the sandbag barrier and flood the bakery from the inside out if the simple task wasn’t completed.

“Hey, get a picture of this,” volunteer Steve Baker said, clad in a white Iowa T-shirt and yellow Iowa sun visor as he sawed through the downspout.

It wasn’t much longer until night came. In came four pizzas, and volunteers took the first real break of the day. Then came the rain, and everything changed.

“We aren’t going to come back here.”

It was on them in an instant, pelting concrete with fat drops. The rain mixed with the remaining dust from the sand pile, making a brown soup on the spot. Volunteers rushed to route the final gutter downspout as rain crashed over the sandbags.

The gray Hawkeyes hooded sweatshirt that Tara’s son wore became stained with every drop of rain. The hoodie became darker and darker as he stood; the boy was unwilling to leave his mother or the other volunteers.

“No,” Tara said, her hands on the boy’s shoulders. She shook her head. “You can’t stay the night here. We aren’t going to come back here.”

She told her son that she’d stay the night watching over the bakery, her livelihood, and would be back in the morning. The boy finally walked away with the volunteers heading for high ground.

It began falling even harder. A volunteer walked from bakery to the end of the property and looked at the neighboring lots.

“It’s already starting to flood the parking lots over there,” he said.

The forklift came out, dropping off pallets of sandbags to fill the final gap. Soaking workers ran between the pallets and the last remaining gap-- the spot in front of the warehouse door. Just as soon as one pallet was empty, another would be lifted in. It became manic, almost animal, as bag after bag was thrown into place, with Baker behind the wall, lining up each bag to keep the pile stable. Nobody said a word, but everyone understood that this was the last stand.

On the ground, a beer can and a pizza crust floated in a brown puddle, exposed by the forklift’s flood lights when it swung around. Two police officers walked up the drive, towards the last remaining volunteers. One was lanky and wore a police hat and long poncho, the other was shorter, stocky and wore just his uniform. The stocky officer went on to talk to Steve, while the lanky officer stood back and chatted with another volunteer. It was some kind of official notice; a voluntary evacuation.

Steve asked the stocky officer if he’d be allowed to come back to fuel up the water pumps, but the officer wasn’t sure.

“We’re trying to evacuate this area,” the lanky officer said. “We’re just going around and telling people that. But we know you’ve got to do what you got to do.”

Leaving Iowa

This portion of the 500-year floodplain map from the City
shows the Stevens area in red -- meaning underwater.

The environment changed. What started out as a relatively dry day, shoveling sand became a frantic struggle, slugging drenched bags in the pouring rain. With the waters rising, possibly creeping in and overtaking the bakery soon, the situation changed. It was the kind of situation that only the essential people should be involved in, a situation where a gringo like me could easily find himself in trouble and make a difficult operation near impossible.

It was dark, and the flood was coming into town. For me, a tourist with the most marginal of maps and no comprehension of Iowa City’s 500-year floodplain, a decision had to be made. As the final pallets were being emptied and filled in the last of the levee, I felt it was necessary to shake hands with Baker and start my personal evacuation.

Getting to I-80 was not terribly difficult. But with water piling up on the window, it was nearly impossible to spot any standing water. In the middle of these flash flood conditions, it occurred to me that this wasn’t anything new. It was the Iowa way of life for many long weeks.

An afterimage happens when a bright light, flashing even for an instant, gets lodged in your retinas, stuck as an optical illusion until it fades. It usually isn’t something to get worked up about. But when a zap of lightning slams into a ditch next to you, sending sparks and flames bursting from the ground, it leaves such an afterimage. And that’s what happened on I-80 that evening, an event that repeated itself with every blink and every bolt that struck in the distance.

When the lightning went away, the fear went away, and the lightning became a strobe light that revealed surroundings little bits at a time. Headed in the direction of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids was a convoy of Iowa National Guard M998 Humvees, some towing supply trailers. I remembered the reason why they called it the “Eisenhower Interstate System;” the president of the same name wanted the roads for national defense. It was an ominous sight to the roads used for its original purpose.

Along this drive I had my worries about I-80 being closed, most of which concerned getting swept away. A detour would only be an inconvenience. So it wasn’t entirely a bad thing when the Iowa State Troopers closed off the interstate at exit 265, forcing a roundabout way to Davenport. After that, all I could do was keep an eye on the taillights in front of me and listen to the sporadic news briefs on AM radio.

“I’m worried, because I don’t think a lot of people are aware of this,” a city engineer said on the radio, the transmission crackling with every lightning strike.

Somewhere, a pumping station that guarded a sewage plant was overtaken by the flood. The woman warned that sewage would start to come out of the system and into people’s homes.

“Even though it’s not recommended you flush your toilets, you should do that and plug the toilet up,” she said. “We didn’t have any towels left, so we stuck a bag of salt in the toilet.”

It wasn’t until 50 miles later that I was able to drive out of the storm’s way, but the waters continued to rise in Iowa City. The slender blue line that separated the two halves of Iowa City on the map truly sliced up the city; most of the bridges crossing the Iowa were closed by the authorities, leaving few ways of getting from one end of the city to another. I later learned that the US Army Corps of Engineers measured the crest 31.5 feet above flood stage on Sunday, June 15. That was a full nine feet above flood stage, and three feet above the 1993 record.

According to the Associated Press, 5,000 Iowa City residents were evacuated the same day, and some 40 homes already had flood damage by then. Sixteen buildings on the University of Iowa campus were flooded, and personnel were advised not to return until June 23. As of June 18, I have not been able to find the condition of Java House, but I have every reason to believe that it didn’t survive.

The trip came to an end, but the ordeal wasn’t over. The story wouldn’t end with Cedar Rapids, or Iowa City. It wouldn’t end with Iowa, or Indiana or Illinois. The story wouldn’t end with the anguish of 38,000 evacuees, ruined crops, ruined businesses and ruined lives. It wouldn’t end comparisons with Katrina’s devastation or large figures about economic impact. I knew as the water continued to flow, the story would run with it. Little blue dots would be cropping up somewhere else soon.

1 comment:

kunkelb said...

Hey Matt:

Just now reading your blog!! What a great write-up the you trip to Iowa City. I sent you site to a couple of gals her in the office and they were very impressed with the article. Hope you go a long way with your journalism career. You've got a good start.

Things are settling down here in IC but there's still a long way to go before back to normal, and some things will never be back to "normal".

It was nice meeting you and "sandbagging". Best to you.