Cedar Rapids Flood Recovery
In June 2008 Cedar Rapids was engulfed by flood waters from the Cedar River. The river crested at over 31 feet, which was 20 feet above flood level. Virtually nothing was spared by the flood. Floodwaters spread across more than 10 square city miles, placing 14% of the city under water. Over 1,000 blocks in the heart of the community were flooded. More than 300 public buildings and 900 businesses were damaged. 5,390 homes belonging to more than 18,000 citizens were affected, and 10,000 residents were displaced by the disaster. However, and most importantly, in the midst of the horrific property damage, the Cedar Rapids fire department performed 423 boat rescues with no loss of life.
The flood caused over $5.4 billion in damages to the community. Arts and cultural assets were displaced or destroyed, as were numerous faith institutions. The force of the event displaced
1,547 children from area child care centers. In addition to the devastation to residential and business properties, all local government facilities were crippled.
Six weeks after the flood the first open houses were held to develop a new flood management strategy. This planning began the process of defining the boundaries of neighborhood reinvestment and redevelopment. More than 2,600 community members participated in the flood management alternatives. The final series of public meetings resulted in the City Council approving a flood management strategy in November 2008, just five months after the flood.
The flood management strategy includes more than seven miles of new structural flood control measures that correlate with adjacent uses and site conditions. Permanent floodwalls are planned near industrial uses close to the river’s edge and planted levees are to be built near neighborhoods and new greenway areas. The plan requires removable floodwalls and gates at critical points of connection between the community and the river.
Without question, the flood caused the greatest hardship on those segments of the community least able to deal with it. A citizen-led steering committee comprised of flood-affected residents and partner agencies began a planning process in January 2009. Participating partners included the Downtown District, the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce (now Cedar Rapids Metro Area Economic Alliance), Linn County, and neighborhood associations. Eight workshops were held to determine and assess the needs and interests of residents, neighborhoods, and the broader community. Seventy city staff members from all departments received training in facilitation skills in order to help residents talk to each other, respond to questions, and express their grief and loss.
It was important that the entire community understand the devastation that so many of their fellow citizens had endured, from lost homes and treasures to vanished businesses and jobs. Many community landmarks and neighborhoods were forever transformed. More than 1,400 residents participated in the five-month neighborhood planning process and shared their stories with each other. The result was a framework for how Cedar Rapids would rebuild – housing, business reinvestment, arts and culture, parks and open space, health, community services and transportation.
Three areas of challenge presented themselves:
The community continued to work together and hold conversations on each issue area to rebuild in a manner most meaningful to residents.
The community’s strategy creates approximately 220 acres of new greenway in the 100-year floodplain. Now valued at $570 million, the plan balances protection with recreation, and includes:
Obviously, substantial sums of money were going to be necessary to implement the plan. In 2012, Cedar Rapids proposed a novel funding source to the Iowa legislature. On December 3, 2013, two years of strategic legislative collaboration culminated in the creation of the State of Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, which made its first award to Cedar Rapids in the form of a 20-year, $264 million commitment to flood protection. The Flood Mitigation Board will provide disaster mitigation funding to all Iowa communities by reinvesting a portion of future sales tax growth in those cities across the state dealing with watershed management and flood protection problems.
At the federal level, Congress is considering approximately $70 million in funding for Cedar Rapids as part of the Water Resources Development Act. The complete flood management plan, in collaboration with the US Army Corps of Engineers, has become reality less than six years after the flood. Throughout the recovery the private sector has worked to come back better than it was before.
The private sector has invested more than $373 million across commercial, industrial, and residential projects. In March 2009, Cedar Rapids citizens committed themselves to these efforts by voting for a five-year, one-percent local option sales tax by a strong 59% to 41% margin.