Flood Recovery Likely to Be Slow

Hazards Delay Return to Homes

Residents along the Mississippi River are experiencing the worst flooding in 15 years.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008; Page A02

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, June 16 -- Floodwaters have quickly receded, down from last week's high of 15 feet above flood stage. But as they retreated Monday, it became increasingly evident that it will be a slow, painful recovery for this city of 120,000.

Over the weekend, city officials had let some people back into homes and downtown businesses to retrieve important possessions and files. But after several accidents attributed to flood damage, city officials suspended the reentry program until every building can be inspected by "strike teams" including fire, police, health and energy officials.

"There are incredibly hazardous things going on," said Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, spokesman for the Iowa National Guard. "Live power lines, gas leaks, petroleum, chemicals. We are working feverishly so people can get into their homes, reclaim some goods and then get out, but we have 3,900 homes to inspect."

The delays in letting people back into their homes is spawning anger and frustration in many quarters.

"I'm moving back to Chicago," April Carter Pauls said with a scowl. She was brimming with frustration after a tense encounter with National Guardsmen who would not let her and her mother into their home in the working-class Czech Village neighborhood to retrieve their two cats.

Carter Pauls, 46, who moved back to her native Cedar Rapids recently because her husband is being deployed to Iraq, was particularly peeved by what she termed the disorganization of the guard.

"We gave them our keys two days ago, and we can't get any information from them. We hear they are losing keys and busting windows," she said. "And then if they don't have security, people could lose everything they've worked their whole lives for. The poor side of town is just going to be forgotten."

Another Czech Village resident, Lynne Wedewer, yelled at police at the checkpoint, blaming the inspection process for the fact that her block still does not have electricity. Her father uses an oxygen tank, which they are running off a generator. She said they vacated a motel room after one night to give it to an evacuee.

"At this point, there's no reason they can't turn the electricity on," said Wedewer, 47, who works with autistic children. About 6,000 residents are without energy, down from 30,000 days earlier.

More than 1,000 city blocks are still barricaded by some of the 750 National Guardsmen in the city. Though the Cedar River has dropped seven feet since Friday, many houses and government buildings still stand in floodwaters that include agricultural chemicals and raw sewage from the overwhelmed wastewater treatment plant.

Mayor Kay Halloran said some residents are losing their temper but are otherwise taking it in stride.

"Yesterday, someone stepped in what they thought was a puddle that turned out to be a 10-foot hole," she said, referring to an Alliant Energy worker who fell into an uncapped manhole. "We aren't going to take that risk again. This is going to be a slower process than we had hoped."

Cedar Rapids is in one of the 24 Iowa counties designated disaster areas where residents can apply for individual federal assistance. On Monday, residents visited several information centers set up at schools to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief.

But after Hurricane Katrina, residents said they are not looking forward to dealing with the agency.

"FEMA is not here like they said they would be," a volunteer at an information center in Czech Village told people waiting to apply for assistance. Tina Pledge, 37, had met with a FEMA representative at a mall after she called the agency.

Theresa Vincent, 43, hopes to get a FEMA trailer, since the house she rents and almost all her possessions were destroyed.

"I don't even have renters' insurance, because I don't earn enough to afford it," she said.

Damage to Cedar Rapids has been estimated at more than $700 million. Residents say it will probably take months or years for the city to recover.

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