by Leah Wilson
adapted from an article that appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Slovo
Water and books. It is a strange process to take a book that is covered with a muddy, offensive-smelling slurry, submerge it in a sink and wash it with a cloth and paint brush. As your hands hesitantly manipulate it, you can almost feel how the weakened spine of the book has caused the story inside to sag, how small tears have separated thoughts and ink smudges have blurred meaning.
It is indeed a sad chore to wash a book.
But after the flood, they were carefully retrieved from their muddy heaps, volume by saturated volume. Tediously prepared by scores of volunteers, manuscripts great and small were boxed and freeze-dried in the hopes that the carefully crafted messages that had been laid on page after page, could be conserved for the future. 6,000 volumes received this cryogenic treatment.
Only a week before TyVec suits, muck boots, face masks and rubber gloves became professional work attire, we museum employees were thinking grand thoughts of expansion. Our final community meeting, to present and discuss the final design for a facility that would triple our size and allow us room to better fulfill our mission, was scheduled for June 17. But instead, that was the day staff members came to view what lay in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.
A flood of epic proportions. It was the first week of June when the streams and rivers in Iowa began to swell. The Upper Mississippi River Basin had already soaked up the second wettest winter and spring since 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This, coupled with copious rainfall drenching the region during the first two weeks of June, began to push streams and rivers beyond capacity. During that month, 15 new all-time 24-hour precipitation records were broken across this region – 13 of them before June 9. By this time, the NCSML was aware of the potential threat and protective efforts were underway.
On the morning of Wednesday, June 11, staff and hundreds of volunteers began their third day of flood preparations. Even now, experts assured us that our risk was minimal – just inches, if any, flood water would jeopardize our museum campus.
The day was spent sandbagging, packing and relocating collection items. Work was constant and vigorous as artifacts, library materials and museum store items were prioritized for removal and loaded onto two semi-trucks. Many more items were moved to attic space within the museum and its collections facility. Toward afternoon, the deepening water tried to force its way through narrowing spaces under the 16th Avenue Bridge and water bubbled up from storm sewers. With nowhere else to go, it began filling in the low spots along ‘A’ street, now creeping toward the museum on three sides. By 3 p.m., the risk to human safety was deemed untenable, and the city ordered a mandatory evacuation of Czech Village. The semi-trucks rolled out to a secure location on high ground, staff members gathered briefly to review the next steps of the disaster plan and finished critical tasks before heading home.
The hours passed with excruciating slowness as our situation deteriorated. Coverage of “the Flood of 2008,” as it was now being called, streamed constantly, narrating the unfolding crisis of power outages, road closings and evacuations. Many people were helpless to save more than they could carry -- feeble when matched against the unmitigated torrent that swallowed their homes and businesses. As the river finally crested at an astonishing 19.12 feet above flood stage on Friday, June 13, it was clear that Cedar Rapids had been inundated by the worst flood on record, an unmerciful disaster unlike any we had ever faced.
The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library lay directly in the path of that disaster and over ten feet of water engulfed it, moving so swiftly that boats could not get near. On the day of the crest, The Gazette snapped an aerial photograph that became the iconic photo of the flood – our cheerful, red-roofed museum and the surrounding neighborhood overtaken by a menacing tide.
On that day, museum staff gathered around President/CEO Gail Naughton’s dining room table to speak plainly about the likelihood of catastrophic damage and to begin planning for immediate recovery. Despite unfathomable circumstances, the team quickly established an emergency communication system, secured supplies, professional disaster recovery services and recruited a force of volunteers who were ready to help with clean-up.
The aftermath. Although the flood waters had receded by June 15, the National Guard and city officials erected checkpoints around Czech Village and no one was allowed to enter. It was Tuesday, June 17, when we were granted a few hours of access to the museum campus. As staff approached ground zero, the once familiar cityscape slipped from memory and was supplanted by a scene that defied imagination. “I was stunned,” recalls Janet Stoffer, director of operations and education. “I just couldn’t believe the magnitude of the devastation. It looked like a war zone.”
A heavy layer of silty sediment covered the ground and the air rising up from it produced an acrid, almost corrosive odor, resulting from a toxic swill of innumerable organic and inorganic substances. To this day, flood survivors talk about the unforgivable and unforgettable stench that stung the eyes, nose and throat.
As we approached the museum, we saw our previously manicured grounds littered with an assortment of well-traveled debris. Plastic bottles, broken glass, beer cans and odd, wooden furniture parts were all mixed with mounds of dirty sand. Water filled the spaces in between the glass panes in the front doors so that one half expected to find tiny fish swimming inside. To the right of those doors, one of the large entry windows had been shattered by a solid wood kiosk that had been uplifted by the churning water and tossed violently against it. Peering through the jagged frame, one could see our chandelier -- all 401 pounds and 600 Bohemian crystals -- miraculously intact. It was the only thing of beauty remaining in an otherwise defiled landscape and it provided us a moment of relief amidst overwhelming loss.
As we walked inside, the flood water had stained every wall to a staggering height of eight feet. Wreckage lay in every direction. In the library, thousands of books had been plucked from their shelves leaving every page bloated with water and coated with a gooey film. Not long before, library director Dave Muhlena had posed for a photo celebrating the 10,000th item that was added to the library’s online catalog. Our entire collection of over 30,000 items, amassed with great care and persistence over 34 years, had been dealt a sickening blow.
The exhibits were demolished. By assessing the aftermath, one could visualize how cases rose with the water and dashed each other like mad little boats. Temporary walls built inside the exhibition to separate one section from another had capsized. The artifacts that staff could not remove before the flood had succumbed.
In the Petrik Gallery, where our award-winning exhibit, 1968: Twelve Volatile Months that Changed the World, was housed, Curator Stefanie Kohn stood taking pictures, tears streaming down her face. “It looks like a tornado went through here,” she said, shaking her head.
What was left after the melee was a mud-soaked mountain of hard work. Staff retrieved what items they could carry as the scale of the disaster and the immensity of the impending clean-up effort pressed down on them.
Mucking out. Two days later, on Thursday, June 19, full-scale recovery efforts commenced. A team of volunteers joined museum staff to remove undamaged artifacts and arrange them for clean storage. Flood-damaged artifacts and library items were cleaned, sorted and prepared for conservation. A professional clean up crew was also at work removing debris from the interior of the building and preparing for sanitization.
By Friday, hundreds of items had been cleaned and sorted. The Chicago Conservation
Center team was on-site managing flood damaged textiles. Wash tubs, drying racks and clotheslines filled the parking lot and muddy linens began to reveal their original colors, thanks to painstaking efforts. University of Iowa library conservation professionals assisted with assessment and triage of library items.
As work continued that day, we reached a turning point where bright spots of optimism began proliferating despite dark circumstances. In the Homelands exhibit, much of the glassware and Royal Dux porcelain were found intact in their upended cases, safely cushioned by water. Library Director, Dave Muhlena recovered an original letter written by Reverend Francis Kun, an ordained minister from Bohemia who became the first Protestant preacher in Ely, Iowa. He held it up with a triumphant smile and said, “It’s soaked but salvageable.” Slowly, the inventory of safe and reclaimable items grew. We determined that about 80% of our collections had been spared by the flood. The other 20% were now beginning the process of conservation and we were hopeful that many items would be successfully treated.
The recovery work was grueling, and museum board members provided staff and volunteers with hearty lunches to keep energy levels up. “It’s hard to be glum when you find something brown that you can eat,” joked Director of Operations and Education, Janet Stoffer, referring to the “mud brownies” provided for dessert. Spirits lightened as smiles and laughter rose above the muck.
By Monday, June 23, progress toward flood recovery was manifesting itself as enormous heaps of trash, and they sprawled from one end of our building to the other. Dump trucks hauling ten tons of debris per load were constantly on the move, delivering the waste to the local landfill. It would take over 30 trips to remove it all. Put in perspective, the City of Cedar Rapids estimated that city-wide, the flood created one-year’s worth of trash—about 400,000 tons.
A flood of concern. Since that fateful day in June of 2008, the museum has had hundreds of concerned visitors. Among them were soon-to-be president Barack Obama, Ambassador from the Czech Republic, Petr Kolař, Iowa Governor Chet Culver, Senator Tom Harkin, Senator Chuck Grassley, Congressman David Loebsack, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Czech Republic, Jaroslav Kurfurst and Consul General of the Czech Republic in Chicago, Marek Skolil. They, in addition to many other state legislators and officials, have toured the museum and Czech Village to view the flood destruction firsthand.
Local, national and international news coverage was also abundant, and the story of our flooded museum has been told by The Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, USA Today, National Public Radio, Radio Prague, the Slovak Spectator and at least a dozen other major news outlets.
To some extent, we anticipated that our story would captivate peoples’ attention. We knew our pool of friends was broad and deep. But every day, the phone calls, the letters, the email and the visitors kept coming. The news of the flood was a resounding shock to those for whom our museum had become familiar. And as the worry, the grief and the concerned questions poured forth, we often struggled to provide satisfying answers. And that is simply because, there were but few. What we knew was simple; we had to shore ourselves up and keep at it. And with some thoughtful elaboration on that general idea, that is what we are still doing.
Along with concern, came a wave of encouragement that propelled us forward day by day. We felt the warmth and optimism of our friends lifting us, the sparkle of opportunities beckoning us forward. Lack of sleep and regular meals notwithstanding, President/CEO Gail Naughton was solid as ever, channeling the very best from all of us and guiding our eyes to the horizon. “We’re going to come back better than ever,” she’d repeat. The days ahead would continue to test our resolve.
Ongoing challenges. An imposing hill promises two things: A rigorous climb and a fresh perspective. Every day since the flood has brought some of both.
In October of 2008, we opened an interim location at Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids to house the museum store and an original exhibit, Pack Your Bags: Journey to America. Opening this space physically reconnected us with the community and provided a place for us to continue to serve our mission. It also helped us to partially regain one of three sources of earned revenue that were lost – retail sales, while we work to restore income from admissions and facility rentals.
Flood-affected library and collection items are still in the process of being conserved. In late 2008, Library Director David Muhlena took possession of the nearly 600 boxes of flood-damaged books that had been washed and freeze-dried. Approximately 6,000 volumes! One thousand sixty-seven flood-damaged artifacts, mostly textiles, were assessed by the Chicago Conservation Center, completing the first phase of conservation. It has become clear that it will take years to reorganize, inventory and restore or replace lost or damaged library and artifact collections.
Hundreds of friends have shared deep concern for our iconic red-roofed building. It has become a physical expression of the Czech and Slovak spirit and an important cultural cornerstone in Cedar Rapids. The renovation of our beloved building is complex and the museum board and staff are continuing to work with local, state and federal officials, architects and engineers to determine the future use of the building. As is the case for many other property owners, getting to answers and to action is frustratingly slow. The process cannot be rushed; we must be circumspect and thorough.
The Flood of 2008 resulted in over $8 million in damages to five museum-owned buildings, permanent and temporary exhibitions, collections, infrastructure, technology, office furniture and store inventory.
Our members and friends responded to this financial challenge with an immediate outpouring of outstanding support. Thousands of gifts totaling over $1 million were received to help with flood recovery. A special gift of $405,380 was presented by the Czech Republic. We have been so grateful for the generosity of our friends during this critical time.
Financial support continues as plans are made for full recovery. It will take an estimated $25 million to rebuild a national museum and library that will accommodate the needs of our organization, which had outgrown its previous space. This is a sobering figure, but it is not impossible to achieve.
The work of renewal.
Writer, play-write and dissident-turned-president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel once asked, “Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties?”
When the walking path is washed away, when all that could have been is trumped by the reality of what is, when we stand on the precipice of history -- we are baffled. And yet, a new path is forged with every step. The reality of difficult circumstances is dwarfed by possibility. And the precipice of history becomes a bridge to the future.
The uncertainty created by the flood has also delivered an unequivocal truth: The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library has never been more needed than it is now. In light of that, we are certain that we will continue to fulfill our mission of preserving and interpreting Czech and Slovak history and culture in innovative ways. We have never been more committed to this mission, and that is what carries us forward.