â€œItâ€™s quite humbling to witness their courage and ability to recover from such adversity. Hopefully, the family will land on higher ground, metaphorically and figuratively.â€
-Iowa Public Radioâ€™s Stephen Grant
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Hi, Aaron Henkin here, your host for the NPR Station Showcase with PRXâ€¦ Thanks for checking out the podcast. Each week, we tune in to one of the more than three hundred public radio stations across the country, and we hear the work of a talented local producer. This week we meet Stephen Grant of member station WSUI, Iowa Public Radio, in Iowa City. This station is just a block away from the Iowa River, and Stephen says life at his office got turned upside down a few weeks ago when the river started its dramatic rise. As youâ€™ll read in the interview below, he and his colleagues spent two days hauling everything they could out of the stationâ€™s basement and sandbagging around the perimeter of the building. Luckily, when the river finally crested, it was a few inches lower than expected, and the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted. In the midst of the chaos, Stephen took his microphone to nearby Coralville, and he put together a story about a local family that was less lucky. Their home was flooded and they were relocated to a local high school gymnasium. As soon as Stephen was able to get back in to work, he shared the Duffy familyâ€™s story on the air.
When you interviewed the Duffy family, they’d been living in the Northwest Junior High School gymnasium for seven days… have you had a chance to follow up and see how they’re doing now? Are they still there?
Following the Duffy interview I was very much invested in how this young family was holding up. Later that day I called Joe Hansen, the onsite Red Cross Public Relations Coordinator, to see if they were still at the school. He told me they were and so, using the excuse that I wanted to give the Duffyâ€™s a copy of the news feature, I asked if I could come out and visit. He gave me the green light and off I went, several CDs in hand. Joe and I found the Duffyâ€™s in the park feeding the ducks, taking a much needed break from the shelter. We were greeted with the warmest smiles. Jamie tells me that they may have at least another week at the shelter, possibly two, before getting into some kind of housing. Since my first visit, theyâ€™ve begun their applications through FEMA for financial assistance and have learned that FEMA will pay up to $800 for a security deposit and another $800 for first monthâ€™s rent. They plan to exhaust as many support options as possible. Both Jamie and Rusty tell me they refuse to move back into their apartment because of health hazards like mold and bacteria. She wonâ€™t allow her baby, Alexander, to live in those conditions. During our conversation I learned this is a family that is no stranger to hardship. Rusty told me that two years ago he and Jamie lived out of their car for an entire winter and then the Wednesday before their evacuation Rusty had outpatient kidney stone surgery. So during all of this heâ€™s been recovering. Here you have a family with numerous unknown hardships out in front of them and they continue to be all smiles, level-headed and optimistic. Itâ€™s quite humbling to witness their courage and ability to recover from such adversity. Hopefully, the family will land on higher ground, metaphorically and figuratively. I do plan to check in with them again.
Tell me a bit about what the scene was like in that temporary shelter… was it pretty crowded? What was the vibe like in there?
When I first arrived at the shelter early that morning, I truly didnâ€™t know what Iâ€™d be walking into. News reports had estimated that over 5000 people in the Iowa City and Coralville area had been displaced by the floods, so I was expecting to see large numbers. But as I entered the schoolâ€™s gymnasium, my initial reaction to the scene was, â€œWhere are all the people!?â€ There were only four people in the gym, in addition to the Duffy family and a hand full of Red Cross staff and volunteers. It was strange. The other oddity that jumped out at me was the room was completely dark except for one row of fluorescent lights along the south wall. The air felt heavy and the room was warm.
As I made my way into the center of the gym the scene began to change. I discovered my initial impression of the room had been inaccurate. Everywhere I turned, there were tell-tale signs of lives interrupted. On several cots blankets were tossed back, pillows were still dented with the impressions of the heads that had slept there the night before. A belt and a t-shirt hung off the edge of one cot, shoes and personal belongings were scattered around others. In a few places, paper bags used as makeshift suitcases were lodged underneath. Glancing over the entire room, I noticed that cots were grouped in unusual configurations. Some were in rows like in military barracks while others formed clusters where it appeared families had pulled them together. A few cots had been moved farther away to less inhabited areas for those who seemed to prefer isolation. I sensed that the people were trying to establish their own territory, trying to reclaim a sense of place amid the chaos. There was something about emptiness of the room and the implied presence of inhabitance that turned out to be more unsettling than if the room had been swarming with people. It felt like I was standing in a room full of phantoms.
Joe Hansen told me the shelter was currently housing about thirty people, and the shelter at Johnson Country Fairgrounds was housing around fifty. The low numbers make sense when you look at the topography and demographics. In Cedar Rapids, more than 1000 residential blocks were flooded displacing over 24,000 people. There, the Red Cross shelters were packed and serving 20,000 meals a day. In Iowa City and Coralville, however, the University of Iowa campus suffered the majority of flood damage with a much smaller area of residential neighborhoods being affected. Those areas consist of mainly middle to upper class income families. So it turns out that most of those evacuated are staying with friends, family or in hotels, which have been offering reduced rates. So what weâ€™re really seeing in the shelters here are primarily the low income individuals or families with limited alternative options.
It was interesting to hear about the psychological repercussions that these disaster victims go through… what do you [think] the hardest thing is for outsiders to understand about the magnitude of this disaster and what it’s done to disrupt family’s lives?
In many ways, this is a tough question to answer. We can look at the typical stages victims of disasters go through, as Colleen Brems mentions in the piece. Certainly many of us have experienced something along these lines at some point in our lives. Just look back to 9/11 or Virginia Tech and the overwhelming feelings of anger, grief, anxiety and shock Americans felt that day, whether directly affected or not. In this regard, many people are able to relate to what these displaced people are feeling. But Iâ€™ve noticed that, at some point, the immediate impact of disasters becomes personal and it becomes less possible to truly understand what a person is experiencing emotionally or psychologically unless we have gone through it ourselves. Even with the greatest amount of empathy and understanding, all we can do is imagine what itâ€™s like. What I mean is that itâ€™s subjective for each victim. For outsiders watching the floods unfold on CNN or MSNBC, perhaps it is most difficult to truly know what it feels like to have your entire life history wiped out, your cherished possessions destroyed, and in some cases, completely erased; being left only with memories. Iâ€™ve got to say that personally knowing several families whose lives have been disrupted by this hydrologic catastrophe the one theme that keeps rising to the surface is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. But, I want to point out as well, that I am awed by everyoneâ€™s resilience and buoyancy. Itâ€™s quite remarkable, really.
How about your own situation? Did you get flooded, too? How’s the whole situation affecting your life?
Fortunately, my apartment is a little over a mile east of the river so, while it was a concern, the risks of being washed out of a home were small. Where the devastation hits home is watching friends and colleagues directly impacted by the flood and, of course, seeing the monumental damage done to the University of Iowa campus. I completed both of my undergraduate degrees here, one in piano performance the other in Russian language . . . currently, I am completing a Masterâ€™s degree in Broadcast Journalism. The Arts Complex right along the river was severely compromised and it was painful to watch these buildings, which have been my academic home for more than eight years, go under water. At last report, twenty university buildings have been affected, sixteen significantly. I guess I was losing sleep over whether or not I would be back in classes in the fall. But University President Sally Mason and other officials are doing amazing things to guarantee that classes will resume. The other frightening disheartening moment has to do with our radio stations, which are only a block away from the Iowa River. WSUI, the NPR affiliate, is Americaâ€™s oldest radio station west of the Mississippi river. Itâ€™s been in operation since 1919. We spent two days in the basement bringing up archived materials, old reel-to-reel tapes, hundreds of vinyl records and old black and white photos. Our engineers yanked every possible piece of equipment out of the station to rebuild a temporary site just in case we went under water. Then the computer I use, which has several in-progress radio features on it, was taken home for safe keeping. And then, of course, we were sandbagging like crazy. On Saturday, June 14tha mandatory evacuation went into effect and we were shut down. University police came by and bolted the doors shut and slapped evacuation notices on the doors. Thankfully, river levels crested late Sunday night, a few inches lower than expected, and by Monday our doors were reopened. The down side was we had no broadcast signal, no FTP site to send audio, and no internet. This made getting the news out a challenge. But our engineers Jim Davies and Nate Schultz did a few back handsprings and we were operational by Tuesday. Thanks to their efforts Duffyâ€™s Ark and other features made it on the air.
You can hear more from Stephen Grant and Iowa Public Radio online at the Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers from around the world share their work. Log on, write your own reviews, and have a say in what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org.