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Wading and waiting for relief in the Heartland

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Times Chicago Bureau chief P.J. Huffstutter has been on assignment covering the Midwest flooding. Here are a some of the scenes and people she has come across during her reporting.

Iowa journalists get aid from colleagues who've been there...

When a natural disaster strikes, journalists can end up being part of the tale, both as storytellers and as victims.

When the Cedar River swamped Iowa's second-largest city, flooding 1,300 city blocks, it also threatened the offices of the town's daily paper -- and flooded out the homes of two dozen staffers of Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids.

"The city was under water on my third day at work," said Steve Buttry, 53, the newly appointed editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "I hadn't even moved in yet. The police wanted us to evacuate, but we convinced the city to let us stay."

Sometimes, only someone who's been there truly understands.

While the staff was slogging through contaminated waters, and the company's TV station found ways to keep broadcasting after the power went out, care packages from fellow journalists started showing up.

The Omaha World-Herald shipped boxes of crackers and snacks that could feed the staff when no other food was available. So did the San Diego Union-Tribune, whose staff covered the Southern California wildfires last fall. The Telegraph Herald of Dubuque, Iowa., sent a truck loaded with water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer -- even cots for those stranded at the paper or homeless because of the flood.

But one of the most treasured items came from a staff member from the New Orleans Times-Picayune who lost her home during Hurricane Katrina. She sent dozens of clean shirts with a hopeful mantra that kept her and her peers going during the rough days. The shirt read: Times-Picayune, we publish come hell and high water.

"It's a pay-forward kind of thing going on," Buttry said, "and we're grateful."


Helping Fido find his way home . . . .

As the Cedar River swamped the state's second-largest city in mid-June, Cedar Rapids police raced to evacuate the downtown animal shelter -- and reached out to Kirkwood Community College with a desperate plea for help.

The college has one of the country's leading agricultural sciences schools, and plenty of open spaces -- including two livestock arenas and dozens of classrooms devoted to teaching veterinary and animal health technology.

The staff rushed to turn equipment normally used to house cows and sheep into dog runs and cat crates. And as the water continued to rise, word among fleeing residents spread of the ad-hoc emergency shelter.

"I thought if we got an extra hundred animals, that would be a lot," said Anne Duffy, professor of veterinary technology and one of the people running the shelter. "But people kept coming and coming."

They arrived at dawn, at dusk, in the middle of the night, panicked, crying, saying they couldn't take their pets into the Red Cross Shelter up the road.

"What were we supposed to do?" Duffy asked. "Say, 'No, go sleep in your car'?"

Even more animals arrived as the days passed, after rescue crews with the city police and the Humane Society of the United States, along with others, crisscrossed the 1,300 flooded city blocks in search of pets left behind by their owners.

"We had hundreds of people begging us to go rescue their dog or cat," said Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Kent Choate. "These people had put their pets upstairs, on the second floor, with some food and water. They thought they'd be gone a day, maybe two at most."

At its peak, the shelter was caring for more than 1,000 animals -- including birds and rodents, and even a mare and its days-old foal.

Now, school staff and hundreds of volunteers are trying to reunite families with their pets.

Some people have already come to pick up their animals. Some evacuees have tearfully said they can no longer care for their pets, because they're now homeless. Others, however, simply can't be found: They left contact numbers with the shelter for phones that have been disconnected or that are in houses that can't be entered.

Hundreds of animals are still waiting to be picked up: As June was drawing to a close, 6-27 the shelter still had 352 cats, 252 dogs, 18 birds, 5 ferrets, a lone iguana and a rabbit (it had been picked up by one family, but later found on the street by another and returned to the shelter)

The emergency shelter is closing down and, by July 10, plans to start finding new homes for these animals -- either here in Iowa, or with agencies and other care facilities outside the area.

"I came THISCLOSE to begging the animal rescue workers to let me adopt a dog yesterday, and I still feel like a heel for leaving him there...

I'm a complete sucker for a pair of big brown eyes and a thumping tail. My boyfriend knows this. Before I stopped by the shelter Friday evening, he gently reminded me that a) I travel so much for work that b) my goldfish died while covering Hurricane Katrina and, c) even now I can barely keep houseplants alive.

Oh, and I'm sort of allergic to most dogs.

"Don't come back with a kitten or a dog," he warned. "Seriously, pets take a huge amount of time and energy that you don't have. Remember what happened to your ivy last month?"

I mentally chanted a mantra -- not yours, not yours, never gonna be yours -- while walking along the rows of wood-and-metal cattle pens. It was working. I smiled at the basset hound, cooed at the chatty Siamese, and scratched the ears of an adorable boxer. Everything was fine until I turned a corner and there he was: a lab-golden retriever mix, with his tongue lolling, golden tail wagging, and butt wiggling in utter happiness.

One of the rescue workers had found him swimming along a flooded Cedar Rapids street. There were no tags. No microchip. No name. All they know was where he was found: The 3700 block of G Avenue NE.

He bumped up against my knee, plopped down and looked up at me. All logic went winging out of my head. I forgot that there might be someone out there looking for him. I forgot the reminders of my boyfriend, or the realities of my allergies. I was in love.

"In the first few days after the shelter opened, we were inundated with people offering to adopt or host some of these animals," said the shelter's Anne Duffy. "We needed to figure out first if they already have families."

So if someone who used to live on or near G Avenue in Cedar Rapids is looking for a happy-go-lucky golden dog, he's safe and waiting to go home. If not, then I'm starting a campaign to convince my boyfriend that his ancient Siamese -- 18 years old -- would love company.

As for my allergies? Not that bad.


When the weather becomes your guide. . . .

In a region where people routinely use seasonal changes instead of calendar dates to mark the passage of time, you cannot escape talk of the weather -- or the wry jokes that this is all a sign of Armageddon.

I was sitting at the breakfast table at the Brown Street Inn in Iowa City on Saturday morning, and chatting with innkeepers Mark Ruggeberg and Bob Brooks and several of the other guests.

"If we start seeing the locusts swarm, or frogs falling from the sky, then we'll know we're really in trouble," Brooks quipped.

For nearly an hour, every story shared -- from politics (how will the flood affect the election?) to the arts (how to manage with so many performance spaces destroyed?) -- was tied to the weather.

One pair, meeting at the inn for a romantic getaway, shared how they had worried that the incoming waves of construction and recovery crews -- as well as displaced local residents -- would mean that they wouldn't find a room. (They weren't wrong to be concerned: hotels in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are well booked.)


Parkersburg striving for another kind of touchdown. . . .

Last month, the town was decimated by a tornado. A couple weeks later, flood waters rose from nearby Beaver Creek.

In the weeks that followed, this rural hamlet has fought to come back and rallied around a long-shot hope: That somehow, in some way, Parkersburg will be able to host the high school football team's season opener in early September.

It might seem strange, considering that at least a third of the town's nearly 2,000 residents lost their homes, and the streets -- though passable -- are lined with piles of debris more than 15-feet high. The street signs have been replaced by spray-painted sheets of plywood. Parkersburg's lone grocery store is in ruins, as was the only gas station and its City Hall, along with government records and historical documents that date to the 1800s.

Yet if there was ever a town that can find hope through football, it's Parkersburg. The Aplington-Parkersburg High School Falcons have grabbed two state championships, and made the playoffs 18 times.

And in a school with a student body of less than 250 people, it's turned out four NFL players over the last two decades: Denver Broncos' Casey Wiegmann, Green Bay Packers' Aaron Kampman, Detroit Lions' Jared DeVries, and Jacksonville Jaguars' Brad Meester.

They, along with former players and friends across the country, are working frantically to raise money and rebuild the school field before the season starts.

They need every bit of help they can get: The field is badly damaged -- wind drove debris and chunks of wood so deep into the earth that they are having trouble getting some of it out.


To take the money .... or not

For days, I've been getting emails from readers who are baffled by the idea of how Midwesterners could hesitate to accept federal mitigation funds and move to a new location. To these readers, it seems outrageous and insolent -- a slap in the face of this country's generosity, at a time when the national economy is hurting.

Given that my family's paternal side has farms in the northwestern corner of Iowa -- and some of my favorite childhood memories are of riding through the fields with my grandfather -- I kind of get it.

It's not about being ungrateful. It's about not wanting to turn their backs on their way of life.

People here who live on, or near, a waterway have adapted to life with floods. For generations, they've glued their furniture back together, or helped neighbors dab diluted lemon juice on lace curtains to lift stains. They knew that, depending on the year, the river could bring about a booming crop, or climb over the banks and pour into their basements.

Land nurtured their family tree for generations. It fed them. And for some, it made them rich. With the rising prices of corn and the booming interest in energy-efficient fuel alternatives, many families have been offered amounts of money for cropland in recent years that once would have been considered obscene: $6,000 an acre, $9,000 an acre, or more.

So the idea of the federal government paying them to leave their homes doesn't sit well in Iowa towns like Palo, or Vinton, or Oakville, or New Hartford. All small. All heavily flooded.

It's partly a financial concern. Will they get a "fair" amount for their property?

But their hesitancy also is rooted in an untenable idea: If they take the money and leave, the land -- in their eyes -- will essentially be dead. No one will ever be able to build a life on that plot of land.

And if enough people leave, the town could be dead, too.

In some ways, it's a universal question: At what point do you give up and leave? Families in Louisiana and Mississippi wrestled with it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So did those in California, after last year's wildfires. So did Midwesterners, back in 1993.

"We lost a few people back then, but most folks were determined to stay," said Tom Ambrose, 61, from New Hartford, Iowa. Ambrose lost his home to a tornado last month. Earlier this month, floods took out the house his family had rented.

"Now, everyone's torn. This is their town," Ambrose said. "This is my town. The thought of it dying breaks my heart."


June 19

Sometimes the little things mean a lot . . . .

When you lose the fight against a river and have been walking around in soaking wet shoes for several days, the majority of your clothing sitting under several feet of water, the simplest things can seem downright decadent.

Clean socks. Clean underwear. A shirt that doesn't stink. A bottle of hand sanitizer, with that astringent alcohol scent, is a perfume far more alluring than Chanel No. 5.

At a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, more than a dozen sun-burnt men and women wandered through the aisles late Tuesday morning with giddy smiles on their faces. Their shopping carts were filled with food, bags of white athletic socks, piles of cotton bras.

The store's rubber boot selection was a tad thin. So was the underwear aisle. One grandmother didn't care what the clothing looked like, and snapped up every medium- and large-sized pair she could find: Spring-green lace boy shorts. Cotton-candy pink bikinis. Rainbow-hued and polka dotted thongs.

"I have three daughters, four granddaughters and a dozen female friends in the Coralville and Cedar Rapids area, who haven't had clean things since all this happened," said Gerry Albreight, 68.

There's no or limited laundry service, because many cities have been begging their residents to conserve water. "I never thought I'd be looking at something like this, let alone think about buying it," Albreight said, holding up a pair of frilly, black lace underwear.

She shrugged. It's clean. She added it to her cart.

Not that I'm opposed to frilly panties .....

I headed to the Wal-Mart when word spread through the lobby of the hotel where I've been staying that it a) hadn't been touched by the flooding, b) would be open and c) had tons of clothes.

When I got to the of jewel-toned T-shirts with the word "IOWA" printed across the chest, I grabbed one in every color they had - until a man pulled up his shopping cart, piled high with plastic jugs of water.

He looked horrible. We started to talk. He said he lost most of his possessions in the Cedar Rapids flood. So had several of his neighbors and two of his children. I offered him some of the shirts I'd grabbed. He tried to decline. I put all but the purple one back on the shelves.

With a smile, he took them and gave me a hug.

I'm wearing the purple shirt right now, and it's glorious not to smell like anything but fresh cotton. It's a luxury that makes me feel like the wealthiest person on the planet.


And then the tornado siren starts shrieking .....

When the waters were rising across the state on Saturday, thunderstorms and threats of funnel clouds were feeding the floods.

I was sitting on the top floor of a nine-story hotel, trying to write my story for Sunday's newspaper when the sirens outside wailed and seemed to scream GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT! I grabbed my laptop, and ran down all those flights of stairs. The sky really does turn jet black, and a tinge of green. It is true: Watching a funnel cloud form can turn you - well, me - into a fascinated, frozen victim waiting to be swept away in a roiling wall of wind and waste.

So I'd like to apologize right now to the extremely surprised bride and groom who were lining up to receive their guests in the downstairs functions room at the Sheraton Iowa City Hotel, when a half-dozen uninvited, extremely ill-smelling guests temporarily crashed the party and huddled near the exit stairs.

On the plus side? No tornado. Another bonus: The bride looked gorgeous.


Truth, rumor and the consequences. . .

These days, weather forecasts can make people cry. So can rumors. On Wednesday morning, while people were lined up at a Starbucks a few blocks from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, the chatter revolved around one thing.

Would it rain? Outside, the sky looked a bit cloudy. True, the clouds were white and fluffy. At any other time, they might look pretty against the sapphire-blue sky. But they were clouds.

One man said a television report he had just seen predicted there were going to be thunderstorms across the Midwest in the next couple days.

The room filled with the sound of people groaning. One woman, her eyes tearing, covered her face with her hands. A worker behind the counter piped up: Rain was predicted -- but for the Great Plains to the west, and to states in the south.

Not here.


When 'take a deep breath' is not sound advice. . .

Normally, depending on which part of Cedar Rapids you're standing in and which cereal plant you're closer to, locals say the air smells here either like burnt oats or sugary-sweet, like a bowl of Lucky Charms.

Now, as the waters recede, it is almost unbearable. Inside flooded houses where mold is flourishing, the air is so acrid it can make your eyes water.

Many of those trying to scrub their possessions clean wear white surgical masks. Some are trying to protect themselves from any airborne contaminants as well as block the pungent smell -- a blend of manure, raw sewage and molding furniture.

The masks don't really help neutralize that smell. When you try to breathe through your mouth instead, it's worse: As the land dries out, the wind is beginning to blow tiny bits of debris through the air that are easy to breath in. So are the biting bugs and gnats and flies that hover over the wet areas in thick waves.


Speaking of biting bugs. . .

All this water has created a Club Med-like environment for mosquitoes that are as large as a cow.

OK, maybe not a cow. Perhaps a calf. Or a Chihuahua. I'm not sure. There are too many of them swarming to see anything but a buzzing flock of pain.

By the way, I seem to be a gourmet treat for the mosquitoes. I am feeling quite ungraceful as I repeatedly slap my forehead while trying to have a serious conversation with a tearful woman in a small town off the Cedar River about losing every family photograph she owns.

"So, do you not -- slap --- have any family members -- slap slap - that might have copies of your grandchildren's baby photos?" slap, slap, SLAP.

Finally, she just stopped crying and started giggling, and handed me a compact from her purse. I had seven dead mosquitoes smeared on my forehead. She handed me a tissue, and we sat in the mud and laughed.

What else can you do? In the middle of my forehead is a welt the size of a silver dollar. I think it might have been worth it.


Happily, and hopefully drier, ever after . . .

Even in the face of disaster, Midwesterners have a sense of humor. When the flood waters began to rise earlier this month, Iowa National Guard Specialist Curtis Lloyd Wright had to put his wedding on hold.

For days, the Macksburg, Iowa, resident has been deployed to the opposite side of the state, in Columbus Junction, just a half-mile from where the Iowa and Cedar Rivers converge.

He and other Guardsmen have been helping residents of the town of nearly 2,000 fill sandbags in hopes of holding back the waters. It was a valiant effort, but one that failed to save the town's downtown center.

Out on the front lines, word spread of Wright's canceled nuptials and his worries of how to pay for rescheduling the ceremony, something he's had to do several times.

So when the bride called City Hall and said the couple was going to get married this week -- "come hell or high water," according to councilman Hal Prior -- Columbus Junction officials knew the least they could do was provide the high water.

So Thursday afternoon, Wright and Danielle Ritter planned to stand hand-in-hand and share their vows on a sandbagged-lined viaduct overlooking the muddy and debris-filled flood waters.

Family and friends mapped out different ways to traverse the state's roads -- some of which are still under water or were washed away completely -- in order to attend.

The dress code? Wear something clean.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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