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Iowa Flood Stories 2008: Columbus Junction

posted on December 12, 2008 at 10:47 AM

Late in the summer, IPTV heard about a flood victim who said, "don't forget us." We haven't. Out and About Correspondent Dan Kaercher travels to places that flooded in the summer of 2008.

Columbus Junction sits just west of the confluence of the Iowa and Cedar Rivers.

According to the 2007 census estimate, 1,850 people live here.

It’s an ethinically diverse town and has been since the early 1900s. Today, about 40 percent of the population is Hispanic.

On June 10, all those people came together here to save their town. In the end, the water won. But you might what remains of this levee, a monument to Columbus Junction’s finest moment.

For five days, hundreds of volunteers bagged sand, built levees, and did what they could, including The Columbus Gazette publisher and editor.

John Carpenter, The Columbus Gazette: "It was a community response and I can’t think of anybody that I know that didn’t have some sort of role in it. Regardless of whether they were down there helping serve food. They might have been babysitting for two or three families so, so the adults could come down. Everybody had a role of some sort in it."

The disaster also broadened the definition of community. Help came from towns and individuals all over the area – like trucks and drivers to haul sand.

John Carpenter, The Columbus Gazette: "We had towns from everywhere. A fella in Muscatine that runs a little catering business called A Man and A Grill. All of the sudden I saw this truck come pulling in there pulling his grill and he just started firing up the grill and began cooking food and hand it out."

The battle took place here on the plain east of town. Most homes and the older business district are on high ground. But there is a low area between the historic downtown and the river.

That’s where you could find the main grocery store, the fire department, health clinics, a Casey’s with the only gas station, a motel, a bowling alley, senior center and not least, the water treatment facility.

Mayor Dan Wilson, Columbus Junction: "So when we set down what our objectives were, obviously to protect the businesses was one of those, but our primary goal was to protect the water plant because water to the community is crucial."

The levee wasn’t what gave way first. The weak link was water eroding the land under the railroad tracks that ran on the north side of the newer business district. And despite the fact that the area ended up under water, Mayor Dan Wilson says the levees paid off.

Mayor Dan Wilson, Columbus Junction: "We had enough lead time for for all these business and medical facilities and whatever was going on in the establishment to get their stuff out. So during that week that was crucial, that they had time to get equipment out, get supplies out, get inventories out so our damage was only to building structures. Secondly, our levee work that we did and all the preparation kept the water from really flowing through here at a speed where it’s going to cause lots more structural damage."

Once they knew it was a lost battle, the water treatment plant was shut down and sealed so it wouldn’t be contaminated by the flood water. Drinking water was brought in by the national guard.

And even though the Tyson Louisa County Pork Plant was an island just north of town, the company was able to tap it’s wells. With extra fire hose donated by other towns, firemen crawled this bridge to lay hose which then ran some 3500 feet to the city, so the town had washing and flushing water.

At Roundy Elementary School a lot was happening too. Columbus Community School District Superintendent Rich Bridenstine volunteered the schools’ staff and facilities.

Among many things, the fire department moved to the school bus barn, while the National Guard was housed and fed at the Elementary School.

Tyson parked some refrigerator trucks at the school lot. One of the town’s clinics had mobile facilites parked up here as well. And the other clinic set up in the school and was there till mid-October.

Dan Kaercher: "So all the things you did during the flood aren’t exactly part of the job description for a school superintendent."

Rich Bridenstine, Superintendent, Columbus Community Schools: "In many ways it’s a job that requires you to do lots of things when you’re in a school district this size and this is just one more thing that needed to be done by the school district for the community. The community has been so good to the schools that it’s important that we partner with them."

In some ways, Columbus Junction was lucky. Few homes were lost.

Most of the businesses, not all, were back by November. And during the flood, there were local alternatives for some things, like the Hispanic grocery stores on Main Street.

Griceli Amigon, Owner, Rey De Reyes: "Yeah, I tried to get milk, lettuce, butter, I never sell before."

The big challenge says Mallory Smith, Community Development Director for Columbus Junction, is keeping the spirit and sense of community going that got them through the flood.

Mallory Smith, Community Development Director, Columbus Junction: "Now we need to take that for the much more difficult task of long term redevelopment because it will take a long time. Some of our, some of our buildings in our organizations has sustained tremendous damage. We're looking at over a hundred thousand dollars to remodel the senior center. So the fund raising that goes into that and then the effort to get that up and running again."

The odds are good that Columbus Junction will get back to normal. The Columbus Gazette headline after the flood tells the story.

Headline: A Community of Great People

Additional Images: The Columbus Gazette/Tammy Virzi, kenpurdy.com


Tags: Columbus Junction disasters floods Iowa Iowa-storms-08


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