EDITOR’S NOTE: In response to the massive damage from recent flooding in Iowa, a group of college students from The Crossing, including reporter Marty Swant, organized a mission trip to Cedar Rapids to help with relief efforts.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The thief stole everything. Moving rapidly over the ground, it picked at everything within reach of its grubby hands with a merciless fervor. It rushed down the streets of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, stealing the heritage of Czech Village while soaking its stench into the floorboards. Floodwaters, like a ruthless burglar breaking through a window, shattered the safeguards on which the city had once relied.
The Army Corps of Engineers had prepared the city for water levels reaching the heights of the 1993 flood, but this year’s level exceeded anything from the past, said Karen Mickey, owner of Mickey Chrysler-Dodge in Cedar Rapids.
“I couldn’t believe it was really flooding as bad as it was,” said Rob Olson, Mickey’s nephew, who also works at the car dealership. “It’s crushed everybody in town.”
Two weeks ago, Mickey asked her son, Andy Patton, a staff member with The Crossing’s college ministry Veritas, if he thought students from Columbia would want to come and help out in the area. At first, Patton wasn’t sure if anyone would be excited about the relief work. But the response was “overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” he said.
Over the next week, he worked out the details and the list of volunteers grew. During the morning services at The Crossing, the group of volunteers requested donations, and the congregation responded by giving $6,500 in financial assistance, along with supplies, clothing and toys for flood victims.
From last Thursday to Sunday, a group of about 30 college-age students from The Crossing, a church in Columbia, assisted flood victims in Cedar Rapids with rebuilding what was destroyed when the waters of the Cedar River overflowed three weeks ago.
Some volunteers from the church arrived in Cedar Rapids on Thursday morning, while others came later that night or the next afternoon. They slept in a building that used to house part of Mickey’s car dealership, with food provided by families in the community and Red Cross disaster relief trucks. While witnessing the devastation and working to rebuild the town, the students said they experienced the joy of service and saw hope shine through in the dark days after the disaster.
When Cedar Rapids resident John Berge saw what was left of Two Star Detective Agency, owned by his father, in an area of town known as Czech Village, debris was piled six feet high, he said. The basement was still under several feet of water, which had to be pumped out.
Chemicals burned Berge’s face during the first few days as he worked to clean out the building. He’ll soon need to have remnants of chemicals removed from his skin for the third time.
The building was not Berge’s only loss. Berge’s silk-screen business and his 1967 Ford Mustang that was parked outside were also ruined by floodwater.
Wearing the required DuPont Tyvek suits, respirators, goggles, rubber gloves and rubber boots, students worked Friday and Sunday morning to shovel buckets of sludge and debris from the basement of Berge’s building, while others continued to clean the first floor. The task would have taken Berge much longer to complete by himself.
The waters hurt the community in other areas, too. About a 30-minute drive from Cedar Rapids, on the outskirts of Vinton, Iowa, the flood smothered crops as it crept toward Tom and Renee Blasdell’s house, which the couple built from the ground up.
The Blasdells had been through floods before, but nothing like this. Normally, they could escape by boat and return a few days later, Renee said. But now there was nothing to return to but the odor of rotten deer meat and molding walls. It seemed that they would be forced to burn the house down in order to fix the health hazards.
The volunteers from The Crossing worked all day Saturday to throw away all of the property that couldn’t be salvaged from the Blasdell’s flooded home. Water had reached midway up the second story, which had not been visited since the Blasdells escaped at the outset of the flood.
Creating an assembly line, the volunteers brought everything out of the house and threw it into a pile to be discarded. As a deep freezer was thrown onto the back of a dump truck, maggots fell out and began writhing around in the sunlight.
Lying among the refuse was a chest filled with over three decades of memories. Photos in albums were now swirls of unidentifiable color. College awards, old baby clothes and evidence of career accomplishments were all waterlogged.
But a few mementos survived: one photograph from the Blasdell’s first year of marriage and another of their grandchildren. These brought tears to Renee’s eyes as she looked over what was lost.
As the day ended, everything ruined was taken away and the walls were torn down, the Blasdells were overwhelmed with the possibility of keeping their house. When the group said goodbye to the Blasdells, Renee told volunteer Candace Lawhon that the group’s efforts restored her faith in humanity.
“It was just heartbreaking to have to see them have to change their lives,” Lawhon said. “I wish we could do more.”
Patton said he was blown away by the impact the team’s presence had on the people they helped. The team was inspired by doing more than simply serving themselves.
“I think a lot of us would say that we have been helped a lot,” Patton said.