In the wake of the Parkersburg tornado last May, residents of Charles City were raising funds for that community and helping with the clean-up.
Charles City knows about tornadoes. The county seat town of about 7500, had been devastated by one in May, 1968. Residents had just marked the 40th anniversary of that event.
Then Charles City had its own 2008 disaster.
It started with flash floods on the morning of Sunday, June 8, in the northern part of town as rain ran off already saturated farm fields. Then, in the morning hours before noon on Monday, the Cedar River crested at over 25 feet, more than ever before.
“This is Main Street Bridge, Charles City, Iowa”
Mayor James Erb, Charles City: “Within one day this all came and crested. ... We really weren't able to confirm what was going on because it in effect swamped the gauges and we didn't really have any measurements upstream like at Austin that would have alerted us to the, the record setting amount of crest we were going to confront.”
The threatened sewage treatment plant was saved, but the town was split in half for a day or so when the bridges over the river were closed.
Then around 2 or 3 am, 5 days later, a second crest rolled down the river. It was over 20 feet.
Some locals say they had three floods.
However one counts them ... when we were there in October, things looked pretty normal on the surface. Still, there were a lot of homes and dwellings, including a Frank Lloyd Wright house, that were damaged in varying degrees by the water.
What financial help will come from various government entities and how is rather complex. And that’s not what this story is about.
This story is about a town’s attitude and spirit.
Karen Vander Lee’s 1920 house is near the river. She had 6-8” of water on the main floor. And she’d stored about half of her household goods in her basement when she’d moved back from New Jersey a few years before the floods.
Karen Vander Lee: “It's a little bit like a burglary only the river did it to you . ... I thought I'm not going to let this bother me. I have my family, I have my friends, I have the greatest life and this flood was an annoyance.”
Cleaning-up can be daunting. But once again the town came together just as it had to sandbag. Two private companies volunteered their employees and equipment to help pick up flood debris in between the two crests.
Karen Vander Lee: “So there were people who just came out of the woodwork to help each other. Kids from the high school did it. They were great. The Chamber of Commerce. I'm not aware that they have any assigned role in floods but man they stepped up to the plate, they organized volunteers, they just did what needed to be done and any time someone had a question call the Chamber of Commerce. “
This is Cedar Circle – a somewhat newer neighborhood. This residential area had never flooded before; but it did this time.
The LaBountys had five to six inches on the main floor of their home, which has necessitated extensive work.
Gene LaBounty: “We had to tear out all the sheet rock and the flooring and insulation. So ...”
Cindy LaBounty: “We had to take the cupboards out. I mean everything has to be taken out because of the water underneath. So you can take care of things so it doesn't mold. You know you've got to just clean everything out and our furniture a lot of our furniture got lost. Christmas things, pictures, things that you can't replace. But it just all happened so quickly.”
Their children were a big help before and after the flood. Gene and Cindy have been living with a daughter and her husband. For them, family and friends made a big difference. And they count their blessings.
Cindy LaBounty: “Absolutely. It could have been so much worse. We have each other.”
Gene LaBounty: “Everyone's healthy.”
Cindy LaBounty: “Yep, nobody got hurt.”
Gene LaBounty: “So we're doing alright.”
Cindy LaBounty: “You just, day at a time. Things have a way of working out. It's not easy but, but things work out.”
Some businesses were also affected, notably several restaurants. One of them was the Dairy Queen. Ironically, the floods hit about the time a new owner was taking over. The family that had run it for years helped the newcomer clean it up and get it open again.
Plaza Mexico, which opened here in 2002, managed to reopen on July 24, after numerous residents asked the owner to bring it back.
The McDonalds had to be razed so it could be rebuilt at a higher elevation. While the work has gone on, the owner offered his employees work at McDonalds in two other towns, and is paying for their gas.
Lost sales for businesses means lost tax revenues for governments, so too could lower property valuations. But disasters aren’t just about money.
This is the suspension bridge that’s spanned the Cedar River here for more than 100 years, a symbol of the town. It’s gone now, torn out by the 2008 flood.
A new bridge won’t be exactly the same, of course, not with modern building codes. But it wasn’t long before the town started exploring how to replace it.
While recovery work proceeds, Charles City is looking to its future. In 2007, a community effort succeeded in getting Charles City named one of Iowa’s Great Places.
Part of its application was a plan to create a white water kayak park, coupled with a variety of other attractions, along and on the river. The floods have slowed down the funding for the project, but the city isn’t deterred.
Tom Brownlow, Administrator: I think that's the way to go. Cities have sprung up around rivers for a variety or reasons for transportation, for power, just because of the natural beauty we shouldn't let an event like this change that. The city wants to push forward and turn this into an asset.
Additional Images: Floyd County Historical Society, Jeff Pavlovich, Charles City Press, Tracy Meise, Charles City Area Chamber of Commerce