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Iowa still has great need for volunteers

Hundreds of homes remain to be repaired following 2008 flooding.

CEDAR RAPIDS, IA | January 7, 2010

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are not the only long-term, major disaster recovery areas in the United States just ask the people of Iowa.

In Spring 2008, when floods impacted dozens of cities and towns across the state: thousands of homes were destroyed; block after block of homes and businesses in Cedar Rapids were covered by flood waters and mud; and farmers lost an estimated $3 billion in crops. Damage has been reported in at least 85 of the state’s 99 counties.

Volunteers from across the Midwest have helped with the initial cleanup, but keeping the need in front of potential responders is challenging. The floods occurred in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign when the national news media was focused on other topics.

"A lot of people (across the country) didn't realize what had happened with the elections (going on). It didn't get the news reports it should have gotten," said Laurie Hawley of the mission services department of Reformed Church in America (RCA). "If people don't know about the disaster, they can't go and offer their help."

Gayle Stricker, co-chair of the Disaster Human Resource Council of Iowa’s VOAD (Volunteers Active in Disaster) said while there is considerable progress being made in the state, there is lot more to be done.

"For some people, it will never be normal again," Stricker said. He said this is especially true for people who had lost their homes. "When most people think of disasters, they think of one particular community being affected," he said. But this disaster, he explained, affected nearly the entire state.

David Dethmers, Coordinator of Reformed Church World Service (RCA) said there is one pressing issue for the communities that were affected by the disaster. "Many of the properties that were damaged were rental properties. (Since) those are no longer available, it is driving up the price of rent," he said.

Although Cedar Rapids was hit the hardest, Tina Potthoff, communication director of Rebuild Iowa, a state agency established within weeks of the flood, said her office had worked closely with 85 out of the 99 counties in Iowa. She said about $3.5 billion was allocated to the state from federal funding.

"I feel like we're making good progress considering this disaster was the largest in Iowa history," Potthoff said. She said however, the state is only at phase one in terms of recovery.

Potthoff said the most important thing is to see progress on a daily basis. She said a lot of the businesses have reopened in the Cedar Rapids area but most owners are in debt. She said there was an estimation of $8 billion to $10 billion in damage to the state.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal programs provided assistance to about 40,000 individuals who applied for help, she said. Most individuals received about $15,000 to $20,000 for the damages to their houses and properties. She added that about $800 million came from the Department of Housing and Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars. Potthoff added however, she hopes future federal support will have fewer restrictions than those that came with the CDBG dollars.

Restrictions on rebuilding project have also come from the state. Even when experienced volunteers have been available, Hawley said the state has not allowed electricians and plumbers who are not licensed by Iowa to work in housing projects. She said it costs about $12,000 per home for the work done by those Iowa-licensed workers, while it could be free if the state would allow licensed volunteer workers from other jurisdictions to work on the housing projects in Iowa.

Dethmers added there is still a lot of home rebuilding projects for volunteers across the state. Thousands of volunteers have responded since the floods occurred and national disaster response organizations are working to publicize the continuing need. In one such effort, the Emergency Response Program of Church World Service (CWS) is helping coordinate an ecumenical rebuilding program in Iowa later this year. CWS coordinated a similar month-long program in New Orleans last May when some 500 volunteers from 10 denominations participated in an ecumenical rebuild that repaired a dozen homes.

Melissa Chi contributed to this story.

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