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Four Essential Virtues in a Post-Disaster World: Flood Recovery in Cities

By Gina Ford and Jason Hellendrung

Cedar Rapids city

In June 2008, a devastating flood hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Ten square miles were submerged underwater, including the downtown. The flood displaced 310 city facilities and devastated more than 7,000 properties—including over 5,000 homes. Today, the total cost of damages and rebuilding is approaching six billion dollars. 

Just before the flood, we had been selected to generate a riverfront master plan for the city. Overnight our charge became to create a recovery plan. We led an expeditious process that set the course for rebuilding and reinvestment in Cedar Rapids and that November, the City of Cedar Rapids approved the River Corridor Redevelopment Plan. The plan was later awarded the 2011 APA National Planning Excellence Award for Best Practices in Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Planning.

In the wake of Sandy, a disaster much closer to home for us, we have been reflecting on those first days and months following the Cedar Rapids flood. What advice can we offer citizens and leaders affected by natural disaster? Specific solutions aside, we keep returning to four virtues that led to success in Cedar Rapids: patience, optimism, cooperation, and community/unity. 


After losing so much, patience may seem impossible. The community wants instant progress, but recovery takes time. We remember The New York Timesreport on the first city-wide post-flood public forum in Cedar Rapids. The headline read, "Iowans Washed Out of Homes Find Their Future Hard to Grasp." The idea of a long-range recovery plan in the face of immediate hardship is almost unthinkable. Furthermore, long-term planning is incredibly frustrating. The frustrations are, in part, due to the many layers of government, from local to state to federal, that must be involved—which can be anything but fast moving partners.

The good news: progress comes. In Cedar Rapids, four and a half years later, progress can be seen everywhere. A recent headline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette reads, "Cedar Rapids Sets Record for Construction." The article touts over $340 million dollars of construction just this year in a community of roughly 130,000 people. In the coming months, the city will unveil many public amenities in the form of both new construction (a library, new convention center, and central fire station) and renovation (the city's hotel, an arena, Paramount Theatre, City Hall, and Veterans Memorial Building). Cedar Rapids City Councilor Monica Vernon describes the city's progress as "a testimonial to having a plan and working the plan."

Sustainability & Recovery Framework Plan

Framework Plan 


Post-disaster, people help each other in unexpected ways. Transparency and open communication in the rebuilding process can help keep this momentum going, creating healthier long-term community relationships. In Cedar Rapids, scores of community members were involved in the recovery planning process. One of the silver linings to a disaster is the opportunity (and we'd argue necessity) of embracing new partnerships. Silos are a roadblock. Through the process of recovery, a more resilient city network and more sustainable operations systems can emerge. From what once were conflicting interests comes unexpected sharing and mutual benefits.

A great example of cooperation happened during the second phase of recovery in Cedar Rapids, the neighborhood planning process. To help facilitate the dialogue with residents from the flood-impacted neighborhoods, the city trained members from every city department in meeting facilitation. Previously, the departments had little overlap and did not have a sense of shared mission. These facilitators then worked together with the community in a series of public meetings and workshops that included residents, business owners, and community leaders. Collectively, these facilitators contributed over 6,000 hours of their time to the planning efforts, working alongside each other toward a common vision. 

The sense of partnership fostered by the facilitators extended beyond that four-month process. In February of 2009, the city council approved a residential property acquisition plan that called for three different actions: 192 flood-impacted properties within the 100-year floodplain to be converted to floodplain greenway to be acquired with FEMA funding, 544 flood-impacted properties in the zone of potential future flood protection to be acquired with CDBG and State funding, and another 600 properties beyond repair in flood-impacted areas. To date, over 1,300 properties have been acquired—a process that involved Community Development, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Code, and the City Manager's Office as well as FEMA and HUD. We attribute the speed of the property acquisitions both to the long-range plan, and to the spirit of cooperation nurtured in the planning process. 

Cities Community Meeting

Community Meeting 


The two major concepts that kept coming up in the first years of recovery planning in Cedar Rapids were creating "the new normal" and building better, sustainable neighborhoods. Both speak to another silver lining: the ability to see the city in a new way. Communities and their leaders must seize the opportunity to formulate a better, greater, more sustainable place. In Cedar Rapids, the community saw rebuilding as an opportunity to make a better place for their kids—and their kids' kids.

One of the great successes of the planning was the 10th Street Medical District. The recovery plan identified the one-mile urban corridor, anchored on each end by St. Luke's Hospital and Mercy Medical Center, as a tremendous opportunity to create a unified medical district. The Physicians' Clinic of Iowa (PCI) had recently decided to locate a new facility outside the city. But the new normal brought the hospital leadership together, and armed with a vision and a plan, convinced PCI to reconsider and locate in downtown. This approximately $45 million dollar investment has had a total economic impact on the city of $100 million dollars. This also helped spur investment in constructing a new Community Cancer Center. The 10th Street Corridor and pedestrian improvements are underway now.

10th Street City Sustainability Corridor Map

10th Street Corridor 


The Cedar River was once the dividing line between two small towns, Cedar Rapids on the east and Kingston on the west. Though Kingston was annexed by Cedar Rapids in 1870, the psychological divide persisted. Dubbed "The Year of the River," 2008 was meant to be the year of a great campaign to reconnect both sides of the city with the river, revitalizing downtown and enriching its nearby neighborhoods. We were meeting in City Hall to kick off the riverfront master plan process to this end just as the floodwaters began to hit record-levels and the city began evacuations. Literally overnight, excitement about the river turned to complete shock at its destructive force. 

Despite this cruel twist of fate, the community kept its sights on the potential of the riverfront throughout the planning process, continuing the call for a shift in mindset from "river as divide" to "river as heart." Out of the planning emerged a vision for the river that respected the uniqueness of each bank. The plan creates removable floodwalls, promenades, and plazas along the harder, more urban downtown edge and a wider greenway system of levees along the softer Kingston-side—all while providing active community gathering spaces to bring the city together. All of these new spaces in the framework are connected by trails and riverfront paths, linking the 10 neighborhoods impacted by the flood.

Today this vision is moving toward implementation and encouraging reinvestment along the river corridor. A community amphitheater and levee project, designed by Sasaki and under construction now, is both the first piece of flood protection construction since the flood and a new, central gathering space downtown. Also downtown, an emerging artist neighborhood called New Bohemia is moving forth with a number of key reinvestments, including an urban beach (volleyball courts in a riverfront park) adjacent to a new City Market. Reinvestment projects are also underway in the hard-hit Kingston neighborhood, including development-driven proposals for mixed-use, multi-family housing

In the years since the Cedar Rapids flood, we have witnessed many more natural disasters—some of which have been some of the worst of their kind. The spring of 2012 was the second-deadliest tornado season on record. The summer of 2012 marked the most significant Midwest drought in decades. And this fall, Sandy was what may be the worst storm in East Coast history. In the face of climate change, we need to think differently about how we design and revitalize urban environments.

For the communities that are just starting the process of rebuilding, we hope these reflections on our experience with Cedar Rapids are useful. Marie York, the 2011 National Planning Awards Jury Chair, stated, "The efforts of Cedar Rapids and its citizens are a testament to what can be achieved when a community must and does pull together for the common good."

Pulling together is exactly what we all need to do, both as we embark on rebuilding—and as we devise proactive efforts to make our cities more resilient.