Six years after catastrophic floods, Cedar Rapids is still waiting for levees

Back in 2008, a historic flood ripped through Cedar Rapids, Iowa — the kind of weather event the city was told it didn’t have to worry about. Gary Ficken, the president of Bimm-Ridder Sportswear, says the town hasn’t fully recovered.

“The days that led up to it, the media was saying, ‘The river’s going to be high and we’re going to go over flood stage, and you need to prepare for the worst.’ So basically what we’d planned on was we’d have a long weekend, we’d close the street, have Thursday and Friday off, and have a long weekend and be back on Monday.

Well, all the predictions were off base. Nobody predicted 5 inches of rain on the crest day, just a perfect storm. The floor level of our facility is 4½ feet above the parking lot, and the water became 11-feet deep in the parking lot. So preparing for the worst was a completely different story.

It was something I’ve never seen or smelled before in my life. Desks were literally picked up by the water, pushed through the wall, and were two or three offices down the row. We had 55-gallon drums that were sitting on top of printing presses. Some neighbor’s deer rack must’ve floated away from their home into our parking lot. It was just pure devastation.


Damage at Bimm-Ridder. (Gary Ficken)

There’s just a stench when water hits where water isn’t supposed to go, and there’s just mud everywhere, it’s hard to walk through it, it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

I honestly feel like we went three or four weeks just on pure adrenaline. You just get tired, it’s just survival mode. You just start mucking out, trying to get the mud out, in our case getting the machinery to the point where we could get it out of the building and into the parking lot, sorting through things and seeing what’s salvageable.

Initially, I just assumed that we’d have insurance for this — and that was a horrible horrible lesson. If it had been a fire, we were covered. If it were a tornado, we’d be covered. A flood, nope, it’s not a covered event. We had $70,000 worth of computers and IT stuff, so we got a check for $70,000, on a $1.2 million loss. Business interruption insurance doesn’t kick in. Spread that among 900 businesses, and obviously there was tremendous fiscal loss.

The flood insurance is a policy that you get through the government, so that was a new lesson for many of us here, that if you want flood insurance, it’s a government program. I can tell you in 20 years of running this business, I never thought about it. I’ve never had an insurance agent ever bring it up. As a small business community, we had a $233 million loss, and just a pittance of it was covered by insurance, so the idea of a fresh start didn’t really cross our minds. We had this massive debt, and we had to figure out who could survive and who couldn’t. The U.S. Department of Labor, we asked for predictions, and they told us 55 percent of us wouldn’t be here in year 3.

And you had the same thing on the homeowner side, where you had that flood insurance situation, where banks would require those that lived in a 100-year floodplain to have insurance. But we were on the 500-year floodplain.

Now, that’s the negative side. On the upside, government owned assets, that’s all been rebuilt. That’s all new, and better than ever. We have a new library, a brand new convention center, a brand new hotel downtown. But what now years later you start to see, which is really good, is that now that some of that infrastructure has been rebuilt, you’re starting to see the downtown, the different neighborhoods start to come back, new small businesses, popping up.

So in hindsight, the city as a whole, it is a new start. The flood-affected area will be new and shiny and look tremendously better than it did. But the individual pain, that will never go away.

There is no government aid for businesses on floods. So at the three-year mark, only 18 percent of businesses were closed. We destroyed all previous history in the U.S, because we were told what would happen, and we said “no, that’s not going to happen.”

You know how that issue goes, you’ve got x percent that just believes everything goes in cycles, and there is no such thing [as climate change]. I think where climate is starting to be talked about now is with floods, you used to say 100 years ago, and then 50 years ago, and now 15 years ago, and we’ve had three worse than those two, and that’s starting to change people’s minds.

We were over flood stage again this year, and it was minimal damage. The city is better prepared, and we’re supposed to be starting to see some federal money from the latest water bill, so we can actually start building some permanent flood protection, and it doesn’t take us 15 more years — permanent walls. Some people don’t want that put in place, because nobody wants to lose the view of the river, but they’re constructing a good plan.

I think people still get nervous when we go a week with a lot of rain, but the comforting thought is that if something does happen, the community will rally. We saw what happened when this happened, and nobody sat around waiting for help.”

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.

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