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Cedar Falls Flood Relief a Success

  • Published
  • By 1LT Pete Shinn
  • 185ARW
It was a narrow thing, but Cedar Falls escaped much of the flooding that ravaged downtown Cedar Rapids starting on June 11th. And keeping the Cedar River within the confines of the city's levee took a total community effort, including a major contribution from the Iowa National Guard. That's the consensus of key city officials, state lawmakers, Guard members and ordinary citizens who dealt with the crisis, many of whom described it as the worst natural disaster in the history of Cedar Falls.

Noreen Hughes, originally from New Jersey, has been living in Cedar Falls for around a year. She's a member of a traveling theater ministry and expressed amazement at how Cedar Falls pulled together to rescue much of the town from flooding.

"I think the Mayor said a couple of days ago, 'It's the volunteers that have saved Cedar Falls,' Hughes said. "It's just really cool to me that we can function as a body like that and as a community," she continued. "It's just wonderful how everybody can work together in that integral kind of a way."

But Cedar Falls is not without its flood-related losses. According to Jon Crews, who's been mayor of Cedar Falls, on and off, since 1971, around a thousand people north of the Cedar River had to be evacuated during the worst of the flooding. The city also conducted between 60 and 70 fire rescue missions to evacuate those who didn't leave on their own. Crews praised the wide range of individuals and organizations that had responded to the flooding. He also noted the critically unique contribution of the Iowa National Guard.

"FEMA's here and the Red Cross and UNI and obviously, local volunteers. But [Guardsmen] provide a role that none of those could do as far as the uniforms and just the sense of, 'Hey, this must be serious. Those people are in uniforms,'" Crews said. "I know we're not doing a forceful thing, but you can very strongly encourage people not to come in areas that are a concern for safety reasons. We had people come down with baby strollers and little kids to look and it's not the area to be, so it's been very helpful to help keep those away from those areas of concern."

Richard McAlister, Director of Administrative Services, has worked in the Cedar Falls city government for 34 years. He concurred with Crews on the positive impact of the National Guard in helping the city's leadership maintain control of a potentially chaotic situation.

"What we discovered is when you have a National Guard presence, it certainly changes the dynamics," McAlister said. "It made us much easier for us to do our jobs. So I would say bringing the Guard in and providing the perimeter security changed dramatically the way people behaved and put us in a position where we had much greater control."

SFC Joel Travis Peters of the HHC 133 in Waterloo spearheaded the security operation. He's a 17-year veteran who has served in Kuwait, the Sinai Peninsula and, for 22 months, Iraq. Peters agreed with McAlister's assessment of the positive psychological impact of having uniformed service members in place. But he also conceded that impact didn't necessarily mean instant obedience on the part of all citizens attempting to enter restricted areas.

"Some yes, some no," Peters said. "They do what we ask them when we ask them and we're polite about it, and they're very gracious as well. There are a few who need to be told a little bit firmer than others, but that's to be expected."

Hughes, who works with the traveling ministry, needed no such firm approach. She said seeing National Guard members at checkpoints made an immediate impression on her.

"First my thought is, 'Wow! This is pretty serious,' Hughes said. "But second of all, I'm really thankful that you guys can be here and you can do your part in that way and I'm really grateful for that."

And it turns out the National Guard brought more to the table in Cedar Falls than security expertise. Peters also had the unique distinction of helping to build the Cedar Falls levy system in 1999 in his civilian job. This system ultimately saved much of the city. And although he's been all over the world as part of the Iowa National Guard, Peters reflected that the Cedar Falls deployment is perhaps the most special to him.

"They're all good, but this is nice to be able to help my fellow citizens and community members here in my hometown," Peters said.

What's more, the National Guard did much more than simply provide security for Cedar Falls. McAlister, the Director of Administrative Services, noted the Guard's ability to transport city officials into evacuated areas means Cedar Falls will likely have a smoother recovery from the disaster than it otherwise would have.

"We were fortunate last night that they were able to take us north of the river, into areas that have been inundated and, for the most part, are very hard to get accessibility to because of damaged roads," McAlister said. "I think actually having gone into the field and observed the areas now, it's certainly going to change the way we approach bringing people back into the area," he added. "I think without that knowledge from the field we probably could have made some bad judgments in terms of how we would provide access."

Of course, security and transportation into otherwise impassable areas is one thing. But the National Guard's expertise in handling the worst Mother Nature can dish out is what really sets it apart in the mind of Susan Staudt, who has been the Cedar Falls City Attorney since 1999.

"I think [the National Guard gives] people in the community a great sense of... urgency of the situation because the National Guard doesn't come into a community for nothing," said Staudt, "but it also...a sense of comfort that we've got that protection and people who are maybe more experienced with dealing with natural disasters on varying levels, that they're here to help our city government officials deal with the situation."

That experience went on display almost as soon as the first National Guard elements began arriving in Cedar Falls on Tuesday. So said Bob Krisseg, who represents state House District 19 in the Iowa legislature. Krisseg joined LTC Mike Olson, the first and highest ranking Iowa National Guard member on the scene, and Iowa State Senator Jeff Danielson, who is a fire fighter in Cedar Falls, in walking along sandbagged areas and identifying potential failure points.

"We just started along and we found one problem after another," Krisseg said. "Then we tried to come up with a remedy or suggestions and we used our cell phones to contact people in the community to try and address those issues."

Krisseg emphasized that LTC Olson's expertise proved "invaluable" in helping keep the levee from failing at key points. LTC Olson, for his part, praised the residents of Cedar Falls.

Olson teamed up with two representatives and traveled to different locations along the levee. "We mobilized the local citizenry to get out and help with the sandbagging effort. By my estimation we had 3,000 to 4,000 citizens out here, all lending a hand," said Olson

Senator Danielson noted the quick action of the Iowa National Guard may have played a role in helping to avoid flood-related casualties among the citizens of Cedar Falls. And he pointed to the hometown roots of many of the soldiers who took part in the Cedar Falls operation.

"The Guard was tremendously helpful in getting people evacuated from waterlogged areas," Danielson said. "They know the people and they know the area. We all work together as a community and the National Guard has been an integral part of that."

Olson agreed. And he also emphasized the local nature of the National Guard response in Cedar Falls.

"Yeah, it's personal to a lot of the folks here, myself included. I'm a Waterloo native," said Olson. "I would say 75% of the initial element that was assigned has either lived in Waterloo or Cedar Falls or attends the University of Northern Iowa."

Steve Mitchell has been Cedar Falls Fire Chief for the past five years. He now serves as incident scene commander and runs the city's Emergency Operations Center during the flood. He told me the Iowa National Guard contacted him with an offer of assistance 12 hours before he thought he might need it, and responded quickly when he did. But, like Danielson, what really impressed Mitchell was the hometown flavor of the National Guard response.

"I think it's great because I went out and talked to some of the guys on checkpoints last night. They're local guys. They know the area," Mitchell said. "They feel good about protecting their own area, so I felt really good about that."

SGT Sean Rohret is with the 133rd Infantry, Charlie Company, and he definitely fits Mitchell's description. Rohret lives and works in Waterloo. Rohert has deployed as part of a peace-keeping mission to the Sinai Peninsula and has also served a tour of duty in Iraq. He expressed gratitude for being able to contribute to the overall effort of the entire community in rescuing Cedar Falls.

"I did expect to be doing a lot more of this than I have and it's pretty gratifying to actually be able to get out here and help the community. I'm glad to be doing it," Rohret said. "I've seen a lot of people out sandbagging, a lot of people coming up to us, asking us where they can go to help," he added. "It's been a pretty wonderful experience getting to see everybody come together."

Specialist Jerrid Denney is a full-time student and works for a small employer in Des Moines on a full-time basis. Denney said, for him, the deployment to Cedar Falls brought with it mixed emotions.

"You see a lot of devastated people," Denney explained. "But you see people happy to see you."

But for Krisseg, the lawmaker, there was simply no downside to the National Guard's involvement in protecting Cedar Falls. Indeed, Krisseg suggested his experience would encourage him to take an even more active role in supporting the Iowa National Guard in the Iowa legislature.

"You know, that's some of the things we do at the state level, is try to make sure that [the Guard] have the assets to provide the mission that's necessary. And that's been one of the areas that has been under a lot of scrutiny. The assets haven't been there," Krisseg said. "I see the value of that, so as a legislator, I want to make sure you have all the necessary assets. People - I don't know if they really fully understand and appreciate that. I think they will when all this is over and done."