From Tragedy To Togetherness: The Story Of A Flood

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Heartbreak, Self

Flood survivors recount how they lost everything but kept their marriages together.

For two weeks in June 2008, heavy rains and widespread flooding pummeled the Midwest. The nation's worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, the floodwaters decimated downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, causing an estimated five billion dollars in damage and displacing over 2,000 people. The waters of the Cedar River crested at 31.2 feet, the highest in the town's 168-year history. The flood ripped buildings from their foundations, tumbling and twisting homes and offices.

My husband and I watched all of this on the news.

The flood ruined our town. Our home was lucky enough to be spared damage, but the marketing company where I worked was destroyed. Six months after the flood, I helped hang a banner declaring that the company was back in newly remodeled offices. The next day, I was laid off. Several more layoffs followed. The waters had receded, but the effects of the flood were still being felt. The flood caused approximately 7,000 job losses. In a city of 126,000 that loss hurts, and that was before the full brunt of the recession hit.

As a couple, my husband and I volunteered — gutting and cleaning homes and businesses until I got sick with migraines and nausea. The doctor chalked my illness up to allergies and tensions from the flood. The stress took a toll. I yelled at my husband when I thought he'd violated the water ban (we could only use water in our house on the odd calendar days). He rolled his eyes when I cried in front of the news. We stopped going out to eat; our favorite restaurants had been filled with water. The effects of the disaster were wearing on us, and we hadn't even lost our home. 

Our marriage wasn't the only one affected by the disaster. I spoke to some couples who revealed to me the challenges they went through and how they overcame it.

1. Linda and Max

On June 9, 2008 Linda, 65, and Max, 62, were evacuated from their home where they had lived for 30 years. "We didn't think it would be too bad. Maybe just the basement would have water," says Max. 

"We walked out of our home with the clothes on our backs," Linda said. "We lost everything in the flood." But she shook her head and quickly corrected herself, smiling at her husband. "Well, not everything."

Their house was filled with eight feet of water. A small sign on their newly painted living room wall marks the flood line.

While Linda did most of the talking, Max let me know what he thought. This was a man who had perfected the art of the eye roll. When I first met Linda and Max, Linda wanted to know if they should talk about their sex life. Before I could answer, Max said, "Sex, what sex?"

They both laughed

"We're too busy for sex." says Linda.

"Yeah," Max laughs, "We only have time for mind sex." Linda explained that it took seven dumpsters to clean out all the flooded belongings from their house.

"The eighth dumpster took our sex life," she jokes. 

Both Max and Linda agreed that the process of rebuilding after the flood was the most difficult challenge their marriage has ever faced. They didn't fight more, simply because they were too tired to fight. But Linda recalled some big arguments that arose, one involving where to put their new shower. Another when Max wanted to tear out her water-logged lilacs.

"I pray to God every night, please take those lilacs," he said. "When you've been together long enough you know that those fights are really about the frustration, not about lilacs or a shower." 

2. Katie and Andrew

Katie, 26, and Andrew, 27, an Iraq veteran, were just shy of their three-year wedding anniversary when the flood took their home and their places of work.

"Everything we knew," explained Katie, "every piece of normalcy in our lives was just gone."

The nonprofit office where Katie worked was destroyed. During the flood, Andrew worked at a local hospital nearly three quarters of a mile from the river. It too sustained water damage. Katie and Andrew spent the summer fighting for their homes and their jobs. To boot, Katie discovered she was pregnant only three weeks after the flood hit.

"It was not the most relaxing time in our lives," Katie said. "We had been trying to have a child that spring. When the flood came we didn't think about it much. We heard that it was hard to conceive when you're stressed. But here he is."

For two months after the flood, the couple lived with friends. As Katie worked to rebuild the non-profit, Andrew worked to rebuild their home.

"It was definitely the hardest thing we've gone through as a couple," Katie says. "When Andrew was fighting in Iraq it was hard, but nothing like this. We had no refuge. No place to go for stability. The only people we could turn to were each other." 

Like Linda and Max, Katie says she and Andrew they were too tired to fight. Although they were frustrated and worn out, they tried to make sure they made time for one another. Living in someone else's home, they took a lot of walks to get some private time. In August, the couple took a quick vacation to regroup and relax.

"We didn't talk about the flood at all," Katie says. Katie believed that the flood drew her and Andrew closer. "I saw all the amazing things my husband was capable of." 

Both Katie and Andrew and Linda and Max have seen friends and neighbors torn apart by the flood. Linda witnessed the marriages of her friends undergo a strain that will change them forever, but was convinced that the worst of times show a person's true mettle.

"If that's how they are during bad times," she said, "that's who they truly are. You're either committed or you're not. There's no faking it." 

Almost a year later, Cedar Rapids was still facing a difficult reality: many homes will never be rebuilt, businesses will never return. Many of the houses near our home were still empty and crumbling, a dark flood line wrapping around them like a black ribbon, staining the siding right above the first-floor windows. I spoke to one woman who lost her home, and when the financial and personal loss became too much to bear, her husband left her with three children and no place to go.

In the face of the overwhelming loss, our efforts don't feel like much, but volunteering with my husband, knee deep in river muck and sewage, showed me a deeply compassionate side of him I'd never seen before. Once, as we were helping a tent business clean out their warehouse, the owner told us we didn't have to go into the murky interior. We could, he said, stay outside and rinse tents. My husband pulled up his boots, snapped on a mask, and went in. I think I even saw him roll his eyes, just a little. Years later, I know that even though our losses cause me to cry and him to be callous, we'll get through it. In the end we'll be together, doing what we can to rebuild. Our favorite restaurant even re-opened, and we've had several date nights. 

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