Cedar Rapids Rotarians fill in the gaps
Rotarians and volunteers at a Salvation Army depository in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA, unload a semitrailer full of relief aid for flood victims. Bottom, a homeowner of Cedar Rapids uses a power washer to clean flood water stains from his house. Photos by Alyce Henson/Rotary Images
Downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA, once flourished with small businesses, entertaining residents with its many restaurants, theaters, and museums.
But after a record-breaking flood in June destroyed much of the area, it's now a virtual ghost town, populated mainly by garbage trucks overflowing with debris and large humming vents airing out office buildings and storefronts.
After a month of heavy storms, the Cedar River crested at 31 feet on 13 June, engulfing more than 9 square miles of Cedar Rapids. The floodwaters left at least 25,000 residents homeless and more than 5,300 houses and 1,000 businesses damaged or destroyed.
As Rotarian Ken Kolek walked through the eerily quiet downtown streets, he said the city hadn't quite come to grips with the vast devastation that reached deep into surrounding neighborhoods.
"While the government is doing the best it can for flood victims, it's up to Rotary to fill in the gaps they miss," said Kolek, a member of the Rotary Club of Cedar Rapids-Daybreak and a past governor of District 5970 . "We're not looking for a miracle -- just a little help consistently spread around to give this city the support it needs to rebuild."
Open wallets, hearts
The small Rotary Club of Greenbelt, Maryland, came up big for the seven clubs in the Cedar Rapids metro area. For two weeks after the river crested, the 20-member Maryland club collected desperately needed money and consumable goods.
Wick Caldwell, 2007-08 Greenbelt club secretary, e-mailed all Rotarians in District 7620 (Maryland; Washington, D.C.) to ask for help and to spread the word about the effort.
"This is just what Rotary does. And we do it well," said Caldwell, whose club organized a similar project for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. "This is simply local folks helping local folks."
A semitrailer filled with goods from Maryland arrived 13 July at a Salvation Army relief site in Cedar Rapids. More than 70 Rotarians, their families, and other volunteers were there to receive and organize the contributions. They formed a circular line and quickly unloaded the goods, which included food, water, household items, cleaning supplies, and furniture.
Volunteers worked feverishly to sort the donations, and within an hour of the trailer's arrival, pickup trucks loaded with supplies sped off to food pantries, Goodwill Industries collection centers, and other relief agencies in and around Cedar Rapids.
"This is a phenomenal turnout and great example of volunteerism," said William Jacobson, a Cedar Rapids resident and governor of District 5970. "I'm very pleased with the way Rotarians met the challenge when called upon and rolled up their sleeves to work for their city in a time of need."
One Rotary club member stepped up after the flood destroyed a Boys and Girls Club location, including everything inside. The children were able to use an alternative site for recreation, but with all the sporting goods unusable, options for activities were slim.
Michele Boyer, of the Cedar Rapids-Daybreak club, called a friend whose business connection to Dick's Sporting Goods, a nationwide sports and fitness retailer, yielded brand new equipment for the Boys and Girls Club. The store donated items for almost every sport a child would want to play, including baseball, basketball, and even badminton.
"It's as simple as just asking," said Boyer. "In a critical time like this, it's important Rotarians draw on the relationships we have."
In neighborhoods near downtown along the water, the streets serve as a stark reminder of the devastation caused by the surging Cedar River. As many as 2,000 homes contaminated by polluted floodwaters wait to be razed, their front doors branded with orange spray paint by city officials.
Block after block, dazed families who have lost everything have begun removing debris from their homes. Houses are still tainted with grimy flood lines, some revealing that only the tips of their roofs were spared.
The economic fallout will be crippling. An estimated 50 percent of businesses will not survive the flood damage.
The crisis has been a test for the Cedar Rapids Area Rotary Presidents Committee, a unique alliance formed four years ago to serve the community with cohesive projects rather than separate autonomous ones.
All seven metro Cedar Rapids club presidents, vice presidents, and immediate past presidents serve as members and are charged with working with other agencies to best identify local needs. After the flood, they developed three phases -- the three Rs -- for providing aid: relief, recover, and rebuild.
The committee quickly set up a flood relief fund , administered by the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, to collect donations, which will be distributed to local charities and relief agencies.
Long-term rebuilding initiatives are hard to fathom while families and businesses are still mired in the immediate fallout of the disaster. But Kolek believes it's up to Iowa Rotarians to show Cedar Rapids their commitment to a better future.
"This will take out-of-the-box thinking and new ideas to rebuild this city," he said. "And it may take 10 years to get back to normal. But in the end, Cedar Rapids will be stronger.
"If ever faced with a major disaster like this one, we want the affected Rotary clubs to look at how Iowa Rotarians handled the situation and reach out to us for advice."
How you can help
The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation opened the Flood 2008 Fund on 15 June. The Flood 2008 Fund is for flood relief and recovery donations. One-hundred percent of financial donations to the fund will support response, recovery and rebuilding efforts throughout the Cedar Rapids-metro and surrounding communities.
See a slideshow of Cedar Rapids damage and relief efforts.