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Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Recovers From Floods

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Mississippi River has not been kind today. In western Illinois, flood waters overwhelmed two more levees, inundating thousands of acres of farmland. With a record amount of water making its way south, the federal government said another 30 levees are in danger. In Iowa, the Cedar River is still running high and it's not expect it to drop below flood stage until Sunday. But that hasn't stopped the city of Cedar Rapids from jumpstarting the recovery of its flooded neighborhoods.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE: The rough estimate right now is that these floods will cost Iowa a $1.5 billion, a billion of that just here in Cedar Rapids.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER FLOWING)

KASTE: The downtown is already humming with pumps and generators as disaster recovery companies try to dry out the office buildings along the river. Eric Johnson is with one of those companies, TC3. He's heard the billion dollar estimate.

KASTE: A billion dollars?

ERIC JOHNSON: Yes.

KASTE: That's being realistic?

JOHNSON: That's probably light. Downtown is virtually devastated on the first floor.

KASTE: Ericsson's company is just one of many cleaning out the buildings downtown. He's not impressed by some of the work being done by his competitors, especially when it comes to the fine art of pumping river water out of an office building.

JOHNSON: The basements have four drains, so it's connected to the sewer. And so if you pump to fast, all you're going to do is pull in sewer water. One of our neighbors is doing that right now. He's pumping sewage. Well, his level is lower that everybody else so he's getting all the sewage. He's not smart enough to shut his pump off but that's another subject.

KASTE: Things are moving more slowly in the residential neighborhoods. All told, 25,000 people were forced to evacuate last week.

Unidentified Man: Oh, just on the boots, trying to keep the pants from getting soaked. Who knows what was in this water.

KASTE: Now Penny Davidson(ph) and Chrissie Anderson(ph) are coming back for their first look at the mud-encrusted contents of their house. They think they'll have to throw away almost all of it.

CHRISTIE ANDERSON: Beds, collectibles that we've collected over the years, some photos that we're not going to be able save, wedding dresses, my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASTE: They're probably going to have to gut their house. Davidson says they'll take it all down to the studs, just the way people did in New Orleans.

PENNY DAVIDSON: The insurance man is actually on his way here to take a look at it, but previously on the phone they told us nothing's covered.

KASTE: Their insurance doesn't cover floods because their house is in the 500-year flood plain and they just assumed it wasn't a risk. Davidson says he doesn't see how they'll rebuild without government help. Government officials have set up a temporary command center in this community college on high ground. FEMA says 14,000 Iowans have already registered for federal assistance and the agency has paid out $7 million, with more money to come. But these are grants, meant to cover immediate expenses. For rebuilding or replacing homes, the government offers low interest loans.

Richard Hainje - FEMA's regional administrator - says if that's not enough, there are other resources.

RICHARD HAINJE: The faith-based and the non-governmental organizations, they actually come in in a very large way, and they can bring a lot to the table.

KASTE: As to the bigger picture, washed out roads, damaged bridges and so on, Hainje says the situation is bad but not dire.

HAINJE: That will not be a crippling factor for the Iowa economy because, you know, you can still get across the Mississippi River and you can get across the Cedar River - I don't know - untold numbers of places. It's coming back online.

KASTE: That doesn't mean recovery won't be expensive. The state is still assessing how many bridges and roads and railroads need repair. Hainje says the estimate of a billion plus dollars in damage in Iowa is probably not far off the mark.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.