Who will pay?
With Midwest flooding affecting hundreds of towns across 10 states, homeowners may find themselves left with the cost of cleaning up
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Across the Midwest, people are still digging out of the diluvian disaster that, over the past two months, submerged homes, businesses, and whole towns in new lakes formed by torrential rains. Take Chad Kuntz, a farmer, and his wife Natalie, for example. The Kuntzes moved their family into three different houses in two weeks after rising floodwaters threatened their heirloom farmhouse in Oakville, Iowa.
The Kuntzes had more notice than most residents that the Iowa River was about to blow through the levee near their home. So, on June 10, they started packing.
On June 13, the police announced a mandatory evacuation and the Kuntzes moved their belongings and three kids-ages 6, 4, and 2-into Mrs. Kuntz's parents' home on the other side of a divided levee a mile and a half away.
On June 14, authorities ordered that neighborhood evacuated when the Mississippi River threatened to breach the levee there.
The same day, a woman with a home for sale in nearby Mediapolis, Iowa, offered the Kuntzes refuge. The housing market had been in the doldrums, and she hadn't had many offers. But as more and more of Oakville submerged, flooded-out homeowners were suddenly clamoring to buy her house.
That forced the Kuntzes to find new shelter. To that point, their Christian faith had helped them bear their trial with patience-even when the Iowa River swallowed their own home on the same day. Still, Natalie Kuntz, a homeschooling mom, started to pray a little differently: "I said, 'God, I know You wouldn't have let our house flood if You didn't have a plan. But at this point I would really like to know where You want us to live.'"
Families throughout the Mississippi River Valley have asked themselves the same question since torrential rains triggered the worst flooding in the state's history. Since May, storms across the Midwest have killed at least 24 people. Analysts say flood damage is likely to exceed the $21 billion sustained in the wake of what are known as the Great Floods of 1993. Hardest hit was Iowa, where floods soaked all or part of 340 towns, and 83 of 99 counties have been declared disaster areas.
For the Kuntzes, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the flooding is the drowning of some residents' dreams. "I have friends with no flood insurance and without God in their lives," Mrs. Kuntz said. "Without God to cling to, they have no hope. There's only despair in their voices, and it's just horrible."
For their part, the Kuntzes lost a home that had been in their family for generations. But shortly after Mrs. Kuntz asked God how He planned to put a roof over their heads, her cell phone rang. The caller was a Mediapolis teacher whom both Kuntzes had had in high school.
"I've got a house in town that I neither want to sell nor rent," the teacher said. "But you are welcome to live in it for as many years as you want."
The Kuntzes are among 38,000 people driven from homes in 10 states, primarily Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri. Businesses, particularly agriculture, have suffered mightily, driving up grain prices in a season when food prices were already soaring.
Iowa farmers lost an estimated 25 percent of the year's corn crop. In Indiana, where swollen rivers drowned nearly 10 percent of corn and soybean crops, lost revenue could reach $800 million. On July 2, Indiana officials announced they will use $50 million in state funds to help farmers get low-interest loans, money they can combine with funds from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to restore their ruined fields. With federal fund-matching, the program could result in $200 million in agricultural aid, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock said.
In Missouri, "it's hard to see where the river ends and the land begins," said homeland defense chief Michael Chertoff, after a July 8 helicopter tour of Missouri, where four areas received federal disaster designation. Presiding commissioner Bill Ransdall estimates road damage in Pulaski County alone at more than half a million dollars. Worse, ongoing rains have forced grading-machine operators to repair the same roads over and over again.
"This is just about driving me into the insane asylum," a Pulaski western district road supervisor told the Waynesville, Mo., Daily Guide.
President Bush in late June declared four regions in southeastern Minnesota federal disaster areas. But in an informational meeting in Austin, Minn., on July 8, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials told residents not to expect to receive aid for some repair projects until December. FEMA programs reimburse disaster victims for 75 percent of costs associated with debris removal, water control facilities, road systems, protective measures, public buildings and equipment, and public utilities.
Infrastructure damage in Austin is estimated at more than $1 million. But Iowa cities are faring far worse: In Davenport, officials estimate that they will spend nearly $4.5 million on flood cleanup, including repairs to public infrastructure of up to $3 million. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second-largest city, officials peg damage estimates at $1 billion. FEMA officials announced on July 7 that they would begin inspecting the approximately 1,000 houses damaged in the area's 100-year floodplain to determine repair costs. Where repair costs meet or exceed 50 percent of the home's pre-flood value, the house would be considered "substantially damaged" and ineligible for federal assistance unless owners agree to elevate the home one foot above the floodplain. That type of construction could cost each homeowner an additional $25,000.
Since late June, Cedar Rapids city officials have haggled with homeowners over the parameters of a potential city buyout of flood-damaged homes in an effort to ensure they don't flood again. But city manager Jim Prosser noted that federal dollars for such a plan would be distributed among many Iowa cities, not only Cedar Rapids. He suggested that homeowners should look to take responsibility for their losses rather than rely on a city bailout.
"We didn't cause the flood," he said.
In addition to thousands of lost homes and businesses, Cedar Rapids floodwaters also wiped out large chunks of history. The 80-year-old Paramount Theater is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places; at the peak of the deluge, floodwaters splashed against the bottom of the marquee. Also a total loss: The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, dedicated in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and Slovak President Michael Kovac. Recently renovated, the institution had preserved the history of Czech and Slovak immigration and assimilation into Cedar Rapids during the 19th century. The area is still home to approximately 13,000 residents of Czech-Slovak descent.
Christians in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere have seen the disaster as an opportunity to love their neighbors. Serve the City, a coalition of 37 evangelical congregations and seven para-church ministries, is coordinating volunteer efforts in the area. Affiliated with Mission America Coalition, a national network of city-based Christian volunteer programs, the group is working in partnership with the Red Cross, dispatching 3,500 Good Samaritans to aid flood victims.
New Covenant Church, one of Cedar Rapids' two largest evangelical congregations and a member of the Serve the City coalition, has for three years emphasized praying for the city and sharing with neighbors in need. "We have pictures around our church facility of the cityscape," said Karla Underwood, a New Covenant member and Serve the City volunteer. "So when the floods happened, it was like a dive-in opportunity. We said, 'Let's pitch in here and get this done.'"
Though Chad and Natalie Kuntz suffered devastating material losses, the disaster and its aftermath have deepened their trust in God. "God was very, very near through all of this," Mrs. Kuntz said. "He has taught us that it's not about what you have. It's about loving those around you, and that no matter what, He is there."