An act of God?

One Iowan's view on the flooding that devastated his state

June 25, 2008|By Kurt Ullrich

One can only wonder if a plague of locusts is far behind. This has been what some might call a biblical year out here in the Midwest. January began with lingering heavy and persistent snows, followed by an earthquake, deadly tornado activity, and severe June flooding.

Reports by the national media have made it sound like we Iowans are chest-deep in water, which isn't exactly the case. For most, the rain and flooding have been nothing more than a nuisance, washing out driveways, closing roads and bridges, etc. Getting from here to there has become more complicated. The rest is television.

A drive across Iowa last week on a hopelessly crowded and, if I might editorialize, uncharming interstate highway system didn't reveal much other than a few fields looking like beautiful Northern lakes, as if at any moment you might see a boat pulling a water skier. Take a cursory glance at the landscape on a sunny day and it's really quite striking, even cheerful. Tragedy and grief seem worlds away.

However, a stop in downtown Cedar Rapids brought it into focus. For days, the Cedar River flowed as if some great suicidal artery had been slashed somewhere up north, releasing an unrelenting gush of mud, human waste and chemical-infested water.

Portions of downtown nearest the river were completely covered in water and are now covered in unidentifiable muck. Stepping across streets encrusted with dried up remnants of god-knows-what, I crossed Eighth Avenue in a southwest Cedar Rapids, where members of the Eden United Church of Christ were busy cleaning out the church's lower level. Chairs, cabinets and hymnals were piled high at the curb. The instruments of fellowship and hope have become useless junk.

On that gorgeous sunny day, the neighborhood surrounding Eden was eerily quiet. There was a humming in the air, as in any city. Gas-powered generators roared in the distance, supplying power to a few. Otherwise, it felt hushed. Homeowners in surgical masks hauled tangible evidence of a life's work to the curb.

This neighborhood of neat, modest homes is where on a summer day you'd expect to hear the sounds of children laughing and the pleasant cacophony of radio streaming out open kitchen windows. Not anymore.

Across town on high ground, President Bush was meeting with earnest bureaucrats who busily showed him flood maps and statistical data, hoping to leave lasting impressions on a man in a position to help. It's the same group of officials who employed the services of the National Guard to keep citizens from returning to their homes after the waters receded. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, you wonder why reasonable folks pay any attention to a government wanting to inspect homes in the name of safety by sending guys in buzz-cuts to break down the front doors.

And then a president comes around and practically parodies himself: "I hear your concerns and I'm here to help." Uh, sure.

No, sir, I'm not an anarchist; however, I do have a few questions. I look around a neighborhood filled with hard-working people and wonder what zealous holy men around the world might make of this? Was this flooding-as-divine-retribution for the sins of Midwesterners? At some point, some religious nut-case will announce, in a self-righteous, pious tone, that Cedar Rapids got what it deserved. Maybe he'll mention that the National Muslim Cemetery is located there, a place where the graves face Mecca. I can practically picture a guy in a bad toupee gesturing at us with a King James Version, using a Good Book for lousy reasons.

I've got news for anyone who believes some sort of justice is being meted out by a higher authority here. It doesn't work that way. Floods are neither tests nor punishments, and if we begin to believe otherwise, we might as well take our rational sense to the curb, along with the rest of the saturated dross.

These are trying times in the Midwest, but nothing we can't handle. We have learned to play life as it lies, without pointing fingers, without blaming anyone's god and without wondering why.

Tomorrow will be better, and the day after even better. On the day the Cedar River reached its highest level in Cedar Rapids, a local jazz radio station played "Cry Me a River," and I didn't know whether to laugh or weep. In the meantime, I'll keep looking at an ever-deepening sky, not for rain but for locusts.

Kurt Ullrich is a writer who lives in Maquoketa, Iowa.

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