In June 2008, a 500-year flood event struck most of Iowa’s eastern rivers and stretched as far as the Upper Mississippi River, causing the most severe flooding in history. The Cedar River, which flows through Cedar Rapids’ city center, experienced serious flooding that was 20 feet above flood stage and stretched 9.2 square miles throughout the city and surrounding rural neighborhoods. Today, the city is still in the stage of flood recovery – cleaning up what is left.
Over Spring Break, eight Hobart and William Smith students chose an “alternative” get-away to Cedar Rapids. With team leader Sarah Meyer, community outreach coordinator of the Finger Lakes Institute, the crew went to help clean up the river. This was the second annual Alternative Spring Break trip that the Finger Lakes Institute has collaborated on with Living Lands and Waters, a service organization working to clean up the major rivers of the United States. The organization’s founder, Chad Pregracke, spoke on campus in November 2007.
Within the flooded area, 1,300 city blocks, 4,000 homes, and 187 local businesses were flooded, totaling approximately $1.5 billion in damages. Of the 25,000 residents displaced by the floods a year ago, 9,000 still remain homeless, either living with family or friends.
The crew of volunteers worked full days on the river cleaning the shoreline, littered with everything imaginable – road signs, bowling balls, food wrappers, clothing, coffee makers, dog houses, toys, stuffed animals, office supplies, lumber, 55-gallon drums, furniture, tires, and more. Aluminum skiff boats transported small groups of volunteers from HWS, SUNY Geneseo, Purdue University, Bradley University, University of Iowa, and Kirkwood Community College, to a segment of shoreline that needed cleaning. The group filled bags of trash and formed huge piles of debris for removal. At base camp, they formed assembly lines to pass the waste from the boats to the appropriate sorted piles.
In addition to the river cleanup, the HWS group visited Coe College in Cedar Rapids, a fellow American College President’s Climate Commitment institution. HWS Campus Greens co-president Stacey Rice ’11 coordinated a meeting with members of Coe College’s student environmental club. The students exchanged stories of ‘greening’ their campuses and swapped new ideas and recommendations on how to troubleshoot shared challenges.
By the end of the week, the students had collected more than one ton of waste and played a significant role in flood recovery for Cedar Rapids.
“I’m hoping that the students got more out of their time on the river than they had expected,” says Meyer. “We served a community, restored pride in Cedar Rapids, lent a helping hand to Living Lands and Waters, built great friendships, made memories, and hopefully developed a commitment to environmental stewardship.”
Those interested in learning more about this Alternative Spring Break Trip can visit the trip blog at http://flialternativespringbreak.blogspot.com/. There is a slideshow of photos and links to a video clip where HWS students were featured and recognized for their volunteerism and stewardship on the local news.