Iowa journalists deserve a lot of credit and time to catch their breath. They have been covering, almost nonstop, the tragic weather we’ve been having since the monster F5 tornado swept through Parkersburg, New Hartford, and Dunkerton on May 25.
Then came the floods. This has been a bad several weeks for sleep if you are an Eastern Iowa TV meteorologist, but I salute them for their stamina and sharp analysis. (In fact, as KWWL’s Mark Schnackenberg wisely reminded viewers, the flooding had its roots in our extra-snowy winter, which set the conditions for oversaturated ground in the spring.)
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier continued to chronicle our daily challenges, despite the flooding that required its newsroom to temporarily move to Hawkeye Community College and the Cedar Rapids Gazette to print its newspapers in the interim (even as Cedar Rapids began to flood).
KWWL got knocked off the air twice, but came back up with generators, and Waterloo radio stations made similar recoveries. Tara Thomas worked nonstop eight-hour newscasts, once as the sole anchor at KWWL while Ron Steele reported live from Cedar Rapids as more thunderstorms dumped on the city and the river was about to crest.
Thomas, who is visibly pregnant on air and expecting a baby around July 31 said that she received many emails from viewers who thought her long hours were “cruel and unusual punishment.”
She said that doing eight hours of wall-to-wall coverage is “mentally taxing,” but she assured me that she survived the long hours in good health. But, one of the most difficult things for Thomas and others at KWWL? After their basement backed up with sewage, they were without indoor plumbing for about a week. Everyone at Channel 7 resorted to the porta-potties out back.
KCRG’s downtown Cedar Rapids studios were surrounded by water, and maintained power only with a generator, but they worked nonstop newscasts, too, with excellent updates of the conditions as floodwaters consumed the city. I actually feared for the life of a KGAN reporter who continued to report live during a Cedar Rapids thunderstorm as other stations took a break. (Reminder: You don’t really wanted to be standing in floodwaters and holding a mike, in the proximity of the very tall metal transmitter pole of your news truck as lighting flashes nearby.) But he did an excellent job of showing how quickly the waters were rising in Cedar Rapids.
Downtown Cedar Falls may have been saved by sandbaggers, but the Times was temporarily forced out of its offices when downtown was evacuated. The affiliated Waverly Newspapers team lost everything in its office in the flood. Anelia Dimitrova’s Cedar Falls home became the temporary office for the newspaper group.
Across all of the Eastern Iowa news media, there have been extraordinary, award-winning efforts on the print and broadcast sides. There has been a true sense of mission in their journalism as the tornados and floods made immediately clear what the public interest is.
Reporters couldn’t be everywhere. KCRG anchors Bruce Aune and Beth Malicki apologized on air for not being able to get a reporter to the small town of Palo, which was completely under water. Jon Ericson, the Courier’s Cedar Falls beat reporter, wrote an honest editorial piece about how the story of flooded North Cedar could have been covered better, but it was difficult to get access to that side of the river. A Register reporter even got arrested trying to get into a flooded Des Moines neighborhood.
The local journalists covered this with much more dedication and range than the national journalists who tend to pop in, cover our weather disasters for a few days, then leave. I am reminded that Ron Steele had to follow up an NBC report by reminding viewers that the national guy slipped up in his map reading: the Des Moines River, not the Cedar, runs through Des Moines.
I am also reminded that when Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, died suddenly on June 13, the national TV networks dropped Iowa as the top story just as the 500-year flood crested in Cedar Rapids, flooding 400 city blocks and displacing 25,000 people. No disrespect to the Russert family, but a 500-year flood happens only every…well, you get the point. Again, the national news media are easily distracted by stories that happen literally down the hall from them.
After big floods in 1993, 1999, and 2008, there will be important stories to follow up, and these are questions that regional journalists can best ask: Do we draw new lines and redefine what a “100-year” and “500-year” flood is? How should cities in Eastern Iowa rebuild themselves? How can the region restore more wetlands to hold rain waters and relieve pressure on levies and floodwalls?
Farmers can tile their fields so they drain quickly, and cities can build higher and higher dikes. But there are times it rains and rains, and the water needs to go somewhere. It would be nice to begin the long-term planning to decide where the water can easily flow, rather than deal with troubled waters once again.
We all need to talk about this, and journalists can keep this on our agenda.