CEDAR RAPIDS MISSION: Students get to work shoveling sludge

Friday, July 4, 2008 | 11:57 p.m. CDT; updated 4:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Marty Swant

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — I didn’t know exactly what to expect in Cedar Rapids. When I went to New Orleans, it was months after Katrina had hit. Here, it has been only three weeks. Some families have yet to return to their houses.

My group of 11 left from the Crossing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Others had left that morning around 8. On the 4 1/2-hour drive, people talked and got to know one another. Everyone seemed excited to be going, and to help in whatever way he or she could. We made it to Cedar Rapids sometime around 10 p.m. At that point we couldn’t see much flooding in the darkness, but I had noticed during our drive that fields and wooded areas were flooded. It surprised me to see how easily water could overtake something.

We are sleeping in a former car dealership with girls in one room and guys in another. They are very basic accommodations.

On Friday, we got started around 8 a.m. We received instructions about where we would be working, and we were provided with donated rubber boots and long-sleeved shirts. Our first main work site was a business located in the Czech district of the city. In the upstairs portion of the building, everything had dried out. But the basement was filled with sludge. I don’t know if you’d call it mud, but there is a grimy layer of sewage all over the floors.

First, we used shovels to clear out debris and Sheetrock, working in dim sunlight, since electric lights aren’t allowed. When we are working in the sludge, we’re required to wear hazmat suits that cover us from our ankles to our necks to keep us from being exposed. Latex gloves, with long black rubber gloves over those, and full respirators with filters and goggles are needed to keep us from breathing in the mold when we’re dumping out the sludge.

The second half of the day was spent at a church, carrying Sheetrock outside and again bucketing sludge. By this time, two more carloads of people from the group had arrived.

Our day wound down around 4:30 p.m.. We had to change out of our clothing and throw it all away, because of the mold. At the car dealership, people stood taking turns in the shower truck parked outside. Dinner is sloppy Joes. All the food is being provided by families in Cedar Rapids. Since it’s the Fourth, we’re going to see fireworks in the city, in an area of town that isn’t flooded. Some areas are more active than others, but it won’t be as festive as a normal Fourth of July. People are still devastated.

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