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Flooding: Upstream or downstream, we’re all in this together

Ann and Jim Kuhlman’s lives changed forever when the Winnebago River flooded their Mason City home in 2008.

Ann, a lay pastor, received a surprise phone call cancelling her church service. Disbelief turned to shock as she and Jim watched floodwaters surge toward their home. They scrambled to evacuate with a few possessions, their dog, and some medicines.

The torrent topped a levee, sending eight feet of water and sewage into their basement. “There was a lot of stuff that was very meaningful to me that was just – WHOOSH! – in just a few minutes, it was just all gone,” Ann lamented.

Having led student volunteers to help with Red River flooding in Minnesota, Ann realized the futility of trying to salvage anything. “We just threw out everything,” she said. Ann lost most of the contents of her basement office: books, sermon notes, beautiful crosses, college papers.

After the floods, the Kuhlmans lived in the main floor of their home for a time, but the historic limestone structure was not salvageable. The city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bought the property for open space.

“It will be for the better interest of people living farther down river if that whole area is devoid of buildings and can simply be used as floodplain . . . go back to nature,” Ann rationalized. “A lot of times we just have to give up and move on and get to higher ground.”

Bimm Ridder Sportswear, which sells licensed apparel and headwear, was one of 900 businesses in Cedar Rapids impacted by the 2008 floods. President Gary Ficken said the firm suffered $1.2 million in damage from the six feet of water that engulfed the building, equipment, and inventory. Luckily, Ficken had removed the computer server from the building as floodwaters approached, saving most company records.

Although Ficken resumed temporary operations from his home, he had to lay off several employees. He was grateful for assistance from a competitor that printed T-shirts for free, and a trucker that helped with shipping.

With a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan for $900,000, Ficken was able to relocate and reopen his business by late 2008. In 2011, Bimm Ridder had record sales of $3 million. But loan payments obviously reduce the bottom line.

To aid in the comeback from the disaster, Ficken helped form the Cedar Rapids Small Business Recovery Group, which hired specialists to help companies with paperwork, financing, and marketing. The group also worked with city, state, and federal governments to secure aid for businesses.

In other flood-stricken cities, more than half of small businesses have closed within three years, Ficken said. Cedar Rapids held the losses to 18 per cent, thanks partly to the Recovery Group.

Rick and Denise Ball felt more fortunate than some neighbors along the Cedar near Columbus Junction. Although 2008 floodwaters inundated their living quarters, the Balls had time to move some belongings to higher ground. “We weren’t devastated like some people were,” Denise said.

Rick had built a shop four feet above the 1993 flood crest. The Balls were living in an apartment in the shop while Rick was finishing a log home on a hill nearby.

At first, the Balls didn’t worry about the approaching flood. “But it just kept coming and coming,” Rick said. He used his backhoe to build a berm around the shop, and pumped out initial seepage.

But the couple soon realized the futility of those efforts, and moved some possessions to the partially-finished house. They lifted other things up on counters. Then they watched in despair as the waters kept rising – above counters, into cabinets, and up to the second story. Rick later took a boat to a door on the upper floor.

“The water had completely destroyed everything,” Rick said. “It was the stinkenest, rottenest mess . . .”

Rick used his backhoe to pull the mud-soaked carpet out a shop door. Almost everything else in the building – from cabinets to furniture – the Balls piled up and burned. Rick buried the remnants.

Denise was thankful to save family pictures and a few other treasured items. “The things that we didn’t get out, we could live without,” she said stoically. “At least we had a safe place to go. We just moved up the hill.”

Up the hill – but not away from the river, where they’ve lived since 1996. “We’re pretty much connected,” Denise said. “But the river needs to be respected. You never know what it’s going to do.”

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