Feeling Lucky: Personal Tales from the Iowa Floods

The flood waters have yet to recede or the damage to be totaled, but Iowans are already exchanging tales of how they coped, and expressing gratitude for the help and support of their neighbors. Says one, whose business is still under water, "Iowa is such a great place to live." Newsweek's Jamie Reno spoke with five survivors. Excerpts:

The levee in North Des Moines that burst early Saturday morning is within eyeshot of the Des Moines Driving Range owned by Mark Egly, 52, a golf professional who purchased the facility six years ago. He says that when he bought the property, he was told that it would never flood the way it did back in 1993, when Iowa was hit by the most devastating flood of modern times --until this one.

"I was told by every agency you can think of that it wouldn't flood here again because of the levees, the new improvements at Saylorville Dam," Egly tells Newsweek. "The city of Des Moines put a pumping station next to me to supply Ankeny and Saylorville with water. They said I was in great shape; that this place would never flood. The building next to me is the Des Moines Waterworks. Their management, and Polk County Supervisors, all said it would never flood here again. The sad thing is they started developing in this area, within 600 yards of my place. I just saw a real estate sign halfway underwater. Why develop there? It's horrible to think that developers will continue to develop in harm's way. For the last five days, roads have been closed in and out of this area, and they will be closed another five days, I'm sure. The media can't even get in here, neither can the police. But I can because of my Hummer. Some of those people will not be able to send pics to FEMA, but I've been taking pictures of the entire area, I'm sort of the historian here.

"We were among the very first businesses to get hit. We first got hit at 8:30 on Tuesday, I was teaching golf classes when the sheriff's dept. person said that at 10:00 they will be letting water out of the dam and that I had to evacuate now. I was able in an hour to get a lot of stuff off the ground at my business, and get my employees out for their safety. We were building a new green, it's destroyed now. We moved a John Deere, but the other John Deere and other equipment are now floating around at the end of the range. I don't know yet if they are destroyed."

"I was able to drive on roads no one else could drive in. On Thursday, I went through the deep water and back into my driving range, there was water inside the building. I was able to sandbag around the building; having the Hummer, I could go in backwards so when it came time to leave, I could plow out. When that did happen, I had water coming over the Hummer's hood. I had to take a chance. But I was careful; it was an educated risk. I have a nice home and do well, but if I didn't save my business, financially it would have been devastating beyond all belief. I had another person in another truck watching me. Our parking lot was the deepest part -- I'm 6' 3" and the water was up to my waist -- that's when I decided to get Hummer back up to building. I did it five times with five loads of sand. I refused to let anyone else do that sandbagging, though, for safety reasons.

"I live two miles north of the driving range, in Ankeny, and we're safe and sound up here. My driving range is still underwater, Only thing I know for sure is that I have five target greens and two putting greens, they are built up, the tips of the greens are still above water for now. I still see some of the equipment sitting on green, that green is ruined, but the green saved my equipment.

"This state, well, it's been devastated. It's a disaster, with tornadoes and floods at the same time. It's like Armageddon, but Iowa FEMA is doing a good job here and our governor and the National Guard are saving lives. This is not a Katrina situation by any means. There is massive volunteerism going on, the friendliness of the people in this state, the way they will give anything, it makes you realize that we are the lucky ones. Why would a golf pro with high credentials stick around in a place where I can only really work for 7-8 months a year? Because I'm a single dad raising three kids here now, and there's not a better place in the country to raise a family. And this is a perfect example of why Iowa is such a great place to live. Disasters can and do happen anywhere. We've had snow or rain straight for almost six months. We've not had a break. This disaster is not the last week, it's been building up the whole year.

"As bad off as we are right now, and even though my business is underwater, I am the lucky one here. We are devastated, and a lot of people lost businesses and homes, but in Iowa there is a place to stay, people are doing things to make lives improve immediately. "It may look like Armageddon in Iowa right now, but you just can't believe what our Governor Culver, his staff, the National Guard (A couple young guards even stopped by to see that I was ok, many just getting back from overseas), area Mayors, Army Corp of Engineers are all doing. If Louisiana was run by Iowa people and volunteers it would have been a much more positive outcome."

Susan Davisson, who lives with her husband right on the Iowa River in Iowa City, was evacuated; their home suffered severe damage and may not be livable. "We have every intention of moving back even if we have to rebuild," she says. "We had a creeping evacuation over the last week and consider ourselves very lucky to have been able to get our things out. We started by just moving a few things up stairs then decided to get some pictures out of the house then moved everything upstairs then moved everything for the most part out. Then the boys took our delivery van and helped move all the animals out of the shelter on Thursday and Friday to the fair grounds. Friday afternoon we helped sandbag at a friend's business until one of the boys hurt his back.

"At this point we are at a loss as to what is going to happen to us. My husband and I are in our mid 50's, had five years to go on our mortgage and started a new business in February with our sons; [we were] hoping to work hard and be able to wind down by our 60's and having more free time. Fortunately we have flood insurance that will help. We are working harder now to maintain life than we ever have in 30-plus years of marriage. We constantly have to tell ourselves how lucky we are and remind ourselves how much worse it could be.

"We are currently staying with family and friends, considering volunteering at the fairgrounds at night to help the animal shelter and have a place to sleep. My closet is in my car so I can stay anywhere! Another issue is our three dogs and a cat named Val. They are not happy. Poor kids."

In Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, hundreds of homes and other structures have been damaged by flood waters from the Iowa River. The university has felt the brunt of the flood waters because so much of the university campus is along the riverfront. Taylor Brown, a senior at the University of Iowa, spent most of Saturday sandbagging the library and other buildings on campus. "A few of my friends and I went out Saturday to help sandbag the campus. The number of people that came out was really impressive, although it seemed difficult to effectively use all the manpower, we just kinda jumped into line and passed sandbags down in front of the library, which is right across the street from my apartment. The Army corps of engineers had us move because the levee was close to breaching and they didn't want to put any volunteers at risk. As far as it looks right now, my apartment should be okay but the whole city is pretty well covered in sandbags so who knows how this will end up. My friends in Cedar Rapids have a real difficult time getting from there to Iowa City, and getting around the city is tough with most of the bridges closed. Driving back to Des Moines, farms look like lakes and it feels like Iowa is a wetland."

"Unfortunately the waters are still rising," says Bob Saar, a writer and musician in Burlington, which is in the southeast corner of Iowa on the Mississippi River. "It's just starting here. I spent all day Saturday sandbagging with a lot of other people. And it isn't even close to what Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls are going through. We'll get all their flood crest sometime tomorrow. The levees north of us started breaching last night. I have some blisters from sandbagging. But I do not have the wear that many others have after several days of struggling to keep the river out of their businesses and homes."

PATTI IRELAND--HOME EVACUEE (Ireland, 56, lives on a peninsula in Lake MacBride State Park, between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.)

"On Thursday, when the reports came through that the levels had been underestimated, I left work at 11:30 AM to go try to move some furniture from the first floor to the second floor of my house. My friend Sara came to help me, and while we were moving furniture, the sheriff showed up to discuss a "voluntary evacuation". He said they expected the road to be flooded sometime in the next 3 days, and that once it did, we wouldn't have access to any emergency services for a while.

"I hadn't thought about leaving yet, just wanted to make sure some of my good furniture was protected in the event that the water did come high enough to reach the house. At that point, the water had risen over a foot on my dock in the space of an hour, and I decided it might be wise to leave that night, thinking we'd only be out for a few days. Sara and I continued to move furniture, and I was packing a bag with a few clothes when a friend who works for the Corps of Engineers stopped by to advise the road would probably be flooded by morning, and that I should think about leaving soon. At that time, we didn't think it would be for long, and determined the water was unlikely to reach the second or third floor, so thought it would be OK to leave the cats with a lot of food and water, plenty of clean litter, and we took off.

"By that night, the reality of the underestimation for the situation in Cedar Rapids became clear, and the predictions for the reservoir and Iowa City were getting more dire. At 7 AM on Friday I got a call from a neighbor who had not yet left, saying the road was going under, so I went back, and wrestled 5 cats into cages to haul them out as well. I have lived in that house on and off for over 40 years- my son was born there 35 years ago, and I really didn't get hit with the gravity of the situation until I had the cats loaded, grabbed a few extra pairs of jeans, and hit the main breaker to turn the power off. My friend Sara has a house on high ground about 3 miles from my house as the crow flies, but about 15 by road, because so many of the small roads are flooded.

"She has graciously taken me in, as well as my three cats, and I'm safe, well-fed, and dry. I've been going through the gamut of feelings one reads about in these situations, but trying to maintain my sense of humor. I had to turn off the TV as the 'gloom and doom' gets really wearing. I jokingly tell friends who call or email that it is a good thing I am an old hippie - it was practice for being homeless and living out of my car at the age of 56, relying on the kindness of friends.

"I have been driving over to the lake each day to chronicle the rising of the water, and today I snuck through the barriers at the field campus across the lake from my house and hiked in about a mile and a half to the now underwater boat ramp to try to get a few photos with a 300 mm lens and see if the water reached the house yet. I am lucky - it appears that my house may be dry - the water is at the top step to my dock (about 5 or 6 feet above the dock), and one of the railings on the stairway appears to be gone, but the house looks like it is OK. I took photos of as many of the houses as I could see from that point, and it appears a few may have taken on water, but most are high enough to be OK. It is nothing like the devastation in Cedar Rapids or parts of Iowa City. I feel blessed by that!

"We still do not know when we will be able to return, and it is simply a day-to-day experience, I have been inundated from calls and emails from friends all over the country, and offers of help, etc- it's amazing how people do come together in a disaster. I will return to work tomorrow, and knowing that my house is fine, will try to do what I can for those whose houses are not, and may never be. The real issues from this flood have not even begun to come clear --the cleanup is going to be incredible. But, as Iowans always do, we will pull together and come through."