Thursday, July 03, 2008

Flood ground zero

Yesterday I reported for volunteer work with Serve the City to distribute the city's newsletter for flood victims downtown. About 50 of us showed up and after some instruction and a word of prayer, we divided into five groups to tackle five areas in the flood zone. I paired up with another volunteer and she drove to our section, dubbed "Area C," encompassing the neighborhood west of I-380 to 4th St. S.W. and south from 10th Ave. S.W. to 15th Ave. S.W.

While she walked one side of each street, I walked the other, knocking on doors. At first, I anticipated handing the newsletter to the homeowners directly, but it soon became obvious that a majority of these homes were uninhabited because they were uninhabitable--rooms gutted to avoid mold, glass missing in windows, screen doors broken or swollen from the water. I tucked most of the newsletters in the doors or in small boxes mounted on the houses for paper delivery in case the owners came back. On each home, we could see the flood high water mark, some 4' high, others as high as 6', even this far from the river. Wooden porches sagged or appeared wavy from the flood two weeks ago which covered more than nine square miles and devastated more than a thousand city blocks.

In spite of the absence of a majority of residents, signs of life sat silent on these porches: a coffee can filled with cigarette butts, a vacuum cleaner coated in silt, a muddy shoe without a mate, a dirty snow shovel used in mucking out a basement, a set of silt-covered patio chairs and a couple of stools, even plants beginning to rebloom in preflood gardens edged by rocks still anchored in place, a broken garden statue carefully reassembled on a step.

I wanted to take pictures--oh, how I wanted to take pictures!--but my conscience wouldn't let me. These people have suffered so much, including invasion by "Strike Teams" and now drive-by gawkers, something to which they have expressed violent public objection and outrage. I also recognized that I was there to help them, not to benefit my freelance work. I felt that as soon as I whipped out my cell phone camera someone would come around the corner or peer out a window. So out of respect to the victims, I took it all in and tried to make mental notes of what I observed.

Around the corner on the next block, I met three men sitting on a porch taking a break from hauling out debris from the home. Their eyes appeared weary; masks dangled around necks moist with sweat, drinks dangled in their hands with nails darkened by sludge. In spite of the devastation around them, they smiled when I handed them copies of the newsletter. Iowans, after all, are polite.

At the next house, a man named Tom sat in the shade of his porch on a lawn chair. His shirt read "Property of Gatorade." He shared how the water advanced on Thursday, June 12th, the day of the big thuderstorm; how it filled the street in front of the house that morning and to his family's surprise, rose quickly by that afternoon and reached the front door four feet above the ground. They later learned the water rose two more feet inside the first floor. He wiped his forehead with the memory of it all. I asked about the block of concrete steps in front, offset and sitting askew from the front porch by at least three feet. He smiled and shook his head. "Yep, can you believe it? The water lifted and moved our front steps--that block of concrete's gotta weigh at least a ton. Some fellows from the National Guard stopped by one day and asked if they could help and we said, 'Sure, can you move our steps back?' and all these young guys, you know, all macho, said, 'You bet!'--but they couldn't budge it." He smiled at our reaction.

On the last block we ran into other volunteers wearing bright orange "Corridor Recovery" T-shirts. They were employees of Aegon, a major financial employer here who encouraged their people to take time off work to help in the flood recovery effort. One girl called to another that the lady down the street had just returned home from chemotheraphy and should take priority; I asked if the woman was a flood victim in one of these homes and they answered, "Yes." Four of them headed down the street to her house to offer help and continue cleaning her home. After removing sludge in basements, mold becomes the next concern. I wondered if the woman had no family who could take her in.

A large waste retrieval truck rumbled loudly down the street and parked in front of a house nearby. A large claw swung out over the curb and scooped up a debris pile near where we stood. About 50% of the detritus has been removed while the hazardous waste such as cans of paint, cleaners, etc. still sit in the hot sun awaiting pick up.

Block after block, shards of glass lay scattered on sidewalks shifted by flood water. I stepped over broken cell phone components, stray VHS and cassette cartridges, CD disks, wheels broken from cabinets or tool boxes. A small toy resembling a Beanie Baby lay on its side, brown sludge disguising its pink fur--possibly Squealer the Pig. In front of another house, I nearly stumbled at the sight of a pair of dice lying directly in front of the walk--one red, one white, bearing the numbers 6 and 3. An unlucky roll? At another location, an Awana award ribbon lay where it rested after the flood, smeared with mud. In the dirt-smudged window of another home, small angel statues alternated with sports trophies, sitting together on the window sill below the flood line. Bits of people's lives, representations of hopes, dreams, accomplishments and activities, from children to just memories, lost items no longer deemed as important as their homes or putting their lives back together.

Sections of foundations had washed away from some of the homes, circled by caution tape. One in particular allowed a clear view of pipes under the first floor in the basement. How a flood could knock out portions of foundation walls like this shocked me. Some of these homes appeared to have cinder-block foundations, which probably allowed for this kind of damage.

Some houses bore more of the overpowering acrid smell of water-soaked rotting wood, mold, and bacterial growth in the sludge. I wondered then if I should have brought a mask with me due to spores or other dangerous particulates in the air. After all, I'd urged so many people who came to the Red Cross pick-up last week that they should wear masks and change them every three hours, and here I was sans mask. I guess I thought being outside negated the need for a mask.

Many of these displaced residents are still living in local shelters. As of yesterday, FEMA trailers started to arrive with more on the way. Officials have requested 500 trailers but there are an estimated 26,000 residents displaced by the flood. We've got a lot of work ahead of us as a community.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Animals of the flood

People's pets--the smallest victims of the Cedar Rapids flood--found themselves rescued and temporarily housed in the Kirkwood Community College Equestrian Center until their owners can reunite with them or while families who lost their homes in the flood can make new living arrangements. This is a view inside the shelter. The guy in the yellow T-shirt is Quinn, one of the volunteers with whom I had the privilege of working with today.

I cleaned out stalls and gave the dogs clean food and water. Talk about noisy! These poor animals, under such stress when they just want to be with their families. Here is one of the dogs I took outside for a walk--or rather, he walked me--a feisty little terrier named Spot. We had fun. :o) Here he is, after a good workout and a chance to dig into his dinner: His paperwork notes that his owner's name is Angie and lists an address, which means they've been reunited. I would guess his owner is trying to find a new place to live so, in the meantime, Spot will extend his stay at the center.

Working in teams of 3 or 4, we made quick progress. The rescue operation is caring for about 600 animals now after a high of a thousand. Kevin, a handsome young hunk from Chicago, and Leslie, a trained animal rescue worker from Connecticut, both came to Iowa to help during the flood aftermath. What lovely people! Here's Leslie and I:

The New York Times wrote a very nice piece about the rescue operation and care of these animals, including how it compares to Katrina.

I also delivered meals today with Horizon's "Meals on Wheels" program. Tomorrow morning I report to Prairie High School to travel by van into the downtown area to distribute flood recovery newsletters to the affected homeowners. Every little bit helps.