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Lisa Gavin scrambled through her home with garbage bags on June 12, 2008, throwing in the things she thought she and her 7-year-old son would need for their temporary living arrangements. She also looked for items she most wanted to save.

She didn’t have time to think it through. Her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was flooding, and she had never planned for it.

“It was not even on my radar that this could happen,” Lisa says.

When she purchased the house seven years earlier, the realtors had laughed off a question about the potential for flooding. Her home is a mile and a half from the river, they noted. Even during the devastating Iowa floods of 1993, they said, only a small amount of water seeped into the house. The location was classified as low risk for flooding.

“It was not even on my radar that this could happen.”

Like many people, Lisa did not realize that low risk does not mean no risk. In June 2008 — after a wet fall, snowy winter, and wet spring — heavy rains caused the worst flooding in the city’s history.

By June 12, the Cedar River was already 17 feet above flood stage and rising — with more rain on the way. Lisa’s home had six inches of water in the basement. Her sump pump was overwhelmed by the inflow.

“I really thought I would lose my house,” Lisa recalls.

She was relieved when she did not. Lisa knows she was luckier than many people in her community. But the damage from the water that poured into her basement was much worse than she expected.

Everything had been tossed around, including her dryer, which floated in the floodwaters. Her freezer upended and spilled its contents, making the basement “smell like someone had died in there.” Water currents damaged the home’s foundation. The drywall, insulation, and electrical systems needed to be replaced.

“I had no idea how much damage floodwater can do,” Lisa says.

Lisa is more prepared now.

Contractors installed a drainage system to redirect water that seeps through foundation walls to underground trenches. These trenches funnel the water away from her home.

She also had workers install a double sump pump with a battery backup. If one pump can’t keep up with the inflow of water, the second will kick in. The battery will keep it working if the power goes out. A sump pump alarm alerts her if the pump is failing to keep the water in the sump pit from rising too high.

“I had no idea how much damage floodwater can do.”

She has stored important documents, family mementos, and emergency supplies in bins she can get to within minutes. And she has made multiple plans for where she and her son could seek shelter in an emergency, in case her first options are not available.

The change in preparation and mindset already has made a difference. In 2016, when flooding again threatened the area, she and her neighbors took it more seriously and acted quickly. They placed sandbags around their homes. They cleared out their basements. When possible, they moved things into storage facilities. Lisa and her son evacuated in advance.

“Everything was totally different in 2016,” Lisa says, “because we’d all been through it before.”

The flooding at Nina Wallis’ home in Kingston, Oklahoma, in May 2015 could not have come at a worse time.

Her husband had been living in their other home in Texas but planned to soon retire and join his wife at their residence overlooking Lake Texoma. His death less than three months before the flooding left Nina, then 65, in shock. It also left her in bad shape financially.

When the flood came, waters topped the Lake Texoma spillway for the fourth time in 58 years and poured into her community. At her home, it almost reached her windowsill. A few weeks later, a storm caused her house to flood again and broke windows and patio doors.

Fortunately, many organizations and people came to her aid:

  • The American Red Cross visited several times, providing cleanup kits and water.
  • Neighbors supplied other equipment she could use for the cleanup.
  • Baptist church volunteers gutted the damaged part of the house and supplied her with new doors.
  • The county supplied dumpsters and hauled away the debris and other discarded items.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) arrived to talk to residents about their eligibility for financial assistance. Nina later received $22,000 in FEMA disaster relief aid (well above the FEMA average).

Nina also hired a carpenter who had done work for her before to cut drywall, pull up carpet, and take other steps to prevent mold from forming. Nina considered avoiding mold the most important thing, since it would have posed a risk to her health.

With the FEMA money, and about $30,000 of her own, she restored her home. She still cherishes the location and view, although she is more aware now of the risk. She’s also thankful for the way that organizations and people responded.

“I certainly appreciate every bit of help I got,” Nina says. “So many cared in some way. Outside resources were a lifesaver.”

Use our website to find organizations and resources that could help you.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, resident Lisa Gavin always took care of things on her own.

“I’ve never been in a position where I had to ask people for help,” says Lisa, an Iowa native who purchased her Cedar Rapids home in 2001.

Then came the June 2008 flooding in Cedar Rapids. It damaged more than 5,000 homes in the area, including the one occupied by Lisa and her 7-year-old son. That is when she discovered that support from her community would be crucial to their recovery.

The first thing they needed was emotional support. Lisa and her neighbors cried on each other’s shoulders and offered encouragement. Later, after some time had passed, they confided in each other about the anxiety they felt whenever the area experienced heavy rain.

Neighbors also provided help in other ways. People in homes with power let neighbors run extension cords to use the electricity. Lisa borrowed a neighbor’s generator to run equipment that removed water from her house. Another neighbor shared hot water with everyone who needed it.

Lisa, in turn, let neighbors use her washer and dryer once power was restored in her home and she had replaced the appliances.

Getting back to a normal life also required a lot of cash.

Lisa’s to-do list included repairing or replacing walls, doors, basement stairs, ductwork, a furnace, a water heater, the washer and dryer, and the porch. Repairs alone would cost her about $25,000. She would need to spend at least $13,000 more for changes she wanted to make to help prevent future flooding.

Lisa had homeowners insurance. But the flooding invalidated any coverage for damage to her home and its contents. She would have needed flood insurance to cover that damage.

Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief aid covered some of the costs. It was not nearly enough, however, to pay for all of the repairs.

Fortunately for Lisa, the state created a housing program called Jumpstart for those affected by the flood. Lisa was one of more than 1,600 people who applied. The program reimbursed her for her basement flood prevention improvements.

Lisa also borrowed from her parents. She realizes that this is an option many people do not have. For them, having other resources to fall back on is even more critical. Heartland Disaster Help is one way to find local sources of support.

Lisa says the 2008 flood taught her that she is more resilient than she thought. She also was inspired by the help and support she received. Today, her work as an attorney focuses on helping other people who experience natural disasters.

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