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Iowa's hardest hit communities are combing through flood damage

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right, let's go next to northwest Iowa, where there's been so much rain in this week's Midwest storms that the flood-control systems have failed. President Joe Biden has approved a federal disaster declaration. As the flood threat now moves downstream, one of the hardest-hit communities is digging through the damage. Iowa Public Radio's Sheila Brummer reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY EQUIPMENT RUNNING)

SHEILA BRUMMER, BYLINE: Mud and memories line the streets in Rock Valley, Iowa, a community of 4,000 people. As far as you can see, there's debris, especially on the north side of town. Steve and Cheri Gacke have called this neighborhood home for 30 years, and now their home is likely no more.

STEVE GACKE: Yeah. So it's all gone - no insurance.

BRUMMER: And now, at nearly 70 years old, they stress about starting over.

CHERI GACKE: Put a bunch of money - redid the whole outside of the house, added onto the garage. He was going to retire because everything was paid for, finally.

BRUMMER: On their front lawn, waterlogged mattresses, soaked sofas, clothing, appliances, photos and more - all evidence of a surge from the Rock River early on Saturday.

S GACKE: Within 5 minutes, it was coming in the walls of the basement. We decided we had to get out.

BRUMMER: They escaped with just the clothing on their backs and another dry set in their hands. Others in town needed to be rescued by boat or National Guard helicopter. Now, the Gackes sit in chairs outside their front door, exhausted and stunned.

S GACKE: They built these dikes and everything, so we felt that we were safe enough to redo our basement. So we redid our whole basement, added onto our garage. And now it was worse than it was 10 years ago.

C GACKE: Way worse. Way worse.

BRUMMER: This time, the Rock River crested five feet higher than ever. Governor Kim Reynolds came to see the devastation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM REYNOLDS: This is unprecedented, historic flooding, where we're breaking all records, sadly, with what we've experienced over the last couple of days. And it's ongoing.

BRUMMER: Reynolds privately toured the damage by ATV and says 500 homes experienced some level of damage, from backed-up sewers to the unsalvageable. She also visited four other towns also reeling from the impact of up to 15 inches of rain in a few days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REYNOLDS: But, you know, a lot of long-term needs, between water, sewer, housing, schools - of course, a lot of businesses impacted as well.

BRUMMER: With the area deemed a federal disaster area, FEMA will assess the damage and then set up a center for assistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY EQUIPMENT RUNNING)

BRUMMER: This is a rural area of the country, so farmers bring in payloaders, tractors and other equipment to do the heavy lifting for now - a welcome sight to Rob Jansen. His mother lives across the street from the Gacke place.

ROB JANSEN: Getting rid of everything that came out of the main floor so far. And then we got the whole basement to go yet. Don't wish it on anybody, but it's sure nice to see all the volunteers and all the hard work today - lots getting done.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLINKING)

BRUMMER: Work continues inside the Gacke house, as people pack up cups and dishes found safe inside some tall cabinets. Their daughter, Jen Ahrendt, appreciates the help, especially because closed roads kept her away the first two days.

JEN AHRENDT: It's just - it's very heartbreaking. Everybody lost everything. Like, everything they worked for is now in a pile in the front yard. So it's really hard.

BRUMMER: Also, it is difficult to hear that her dad's prized vintage car was found heavily damaged in the garage - the one he took her mom on dates, their honeymoon, and Jen home from the hospital.

AHRENDT: (Crying) Everyone's rallying around, and we're going to keep it for him. We're going to get it - we're going to restore it.

BRUMMER: While others strive to restore their lives in Rock Valley, Steve and Cheri don't plan to stick around.

S GACKE: We're leaving. We're leaving town. (Crying) We're going to go to Oklahoma.

BRUMMER: But first, they need to figure out what's worth drying off and saving.

For NPR News, I'm Sheila Brummer, Rock Valley, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sheila Brummer