Posts Tagged ‘Cedar Rapids flood’

I was the keynote speaker last night for the Future of Student Media Summit hosted by the Post, the student print and digital news operation at Ohio University.

Below is the blog version of the prepared part of my session, interspersed with tweets from the participants and hyperlinked. It’s not exactly what I said because I wasn’t reading a script. At the end of the post, I’ll explain how I prepared the speech and post and why they’re not identical. (more…)


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This will be my column for Monday’s Gazette.

The Fifth Season Is Progress” proclaims a billboard as you approach the Cedar River on Interstate 380.

Almost a year ago, the I-380 bridge was the only way to cross the river in downtown, as the river surged for blocks beyond its banks in both directions, swallowing bridges and buildings in its path.

As you may recall, I moved to town that week. As Mimi and I we drove toward Cedar Rapids on Monday of that week, we noted how high the Iowa River was south of town and wondered if it might close I-380 soon (it did, later that week). 

By Thursday, the city was inundated. You remember the rest of the story. If you weren’t here to experience it, you can read and watch our anniversary coverage in the coming week.

As a newcomer, I was puzzled by the “City of Five Seasons” nickname. I remembered from my time in Des Moines people mocking Cedar Rapids as the “City of Five Smells.” I could remember why the reference to smells (and got quick reminders, if I forgot), but could not recall why it was called the “City of Five Seasons” and what the fifth one was.

Before moving here, I began asking people I met around the country what they knew about Cedar Rapids. No one knew about the alleged five seasons and if I asked, they showed no recognition. So I could see that if the nickname was intended to promote the city to outsiders, it wasn’t working.

People had enough trouble remembering our real name. I had people congratulate me on moving to Cedar Springs and Cedar Bluffs (and once since moving here, a colleague wrote about me being from Grand Rapids).

So I asked locals after I moved here, thinking maybe the nickname had some value in helping define the city to its residents. No, most people I asked couldn’t identify the fifth season and if they could (“Time to Enjoy”) they explained it sheepishly.

So a couple months after the flood, I suggested we needed a new nickname, something reflecting the fact that enjoyment had been curtailed during a struggle for recovery. While a few people who had invested time in promoting the Five Seasons nickname criticized me, most of the response I received was support (or derision for the whole notion of city slogans and nicknames).

Still, I had to admit that the city had more pressing needs than launching a new branding campaign, so I let it drop. But I still shook my head frequently when I saw signs and logos promoting the outdated Five Seasons theme.

So I’ll have to give qualified support to “The Fifth Season Is Progress.”

It answers the question that the original nickname raised. It doesn’t need a new campaign to launch or promote it (or change all the city signs and logos, perhaps the best reason I heard for not changing the slogan). It addresses the disaster that has come to define our city to most people who know who we are. And it says we’re coming back.

The Gazette’s editorial board met last week with Mayor Kay Halloran, City Manager Jim Prosser, City Council member Brian Fagan and other city officials. They gave us a four-page brochure touting progress since the flood and you have to agree that much has been done. They explained the need to take the time to make the right decisions for the long term, even if that means we have to wait a while for action, and again, you have to agree with the principle, even if you want a faster recovery pace.

I’ve enjoyed every bit of the progress — playing basketball at the downtown YMCA and eating dinner at the Chrome Horse and Blend, lunch at Maid-Rite and Victor’s and kolaches from Sykora.

I wonder, though, why “Progress” is a temporary slogan. The need for progress will linger (and they promise the progress will continue) long beyond the 30-day run planned for this slogan.

Here’s why I qualify my support: We’ve made a lot of progress, but not enough. 

Drive down 3rd Street SE in the New Bohemia area, then cross the river and drive 19th Avenue SW, just a few blocks south of the reviving Czech Village businesses. Wander the streets of Time Check that aren’t blocked off. You might want to erect — or possibly spray-paint — a sign saying, “The Fifth Season Is Plywood.”

If it’s a boast, “The Fifth Season Is Progress” falls short. As a challenge, as encouragement, as a promise that we’re just getting started, it works. 

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I savor every uplifting story about journalism in these difficult times.

My last post dealt, as most of my work and writing today does, with the difficult times in the news industry and in our search for solutions. Sometimes we need stories of great journalism, to fuel our fight for a prosperous future.

I read two such stories this week in the New York TimesLens photojournalism blog.

First Lens recounted the stories of the four photographers who captured the moment 20 years ago when the “tank man” stopped a line of tanks attempting to quell student protests in Tiananmen Square. Their stories are filled with fascinating details about saving film from Chineese authorities, personal risk and protection and transmitting photos in the pre-Internet age.

Even more fascinating, to me, was the Lens story of Terril Jones and the photo he shot moments before the tank confrontation. The other photographs were shot from the balconies of a hotel. Jones was on the ground, fearing for his safety as the tanks approached, firing their guns. In the last shot he fired before fleeing to safety, you see a young man dashing toward the camera, his head ducked in fear. And in the distance, calm amid the uproar, you see a man with a white shirt and two bags, awaiting the oncoming tanks. It’s a compelling story, a compelling moment of premeditation and courage.

Context matters, even 20 years later.

I love hearing the stories behind great photos and these two stories remind me of some other uplifting stories about great photos or videos:

  • My April post, The heart: one of journalism’s best tools, about Allan Thompson’s story in the Toronto Star, identifying the father and daughter in Nick Hughes’ horrifying video of genocide in Rwanda.
  • I remember the evening Gazette photographers spent at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, explaining the stories behind some of the photos in the Year of the River exhibit of Gazette flood photography.
  • National Geographic’s A Life Revealed story about the successful attempt to find the Afghan girl with the haunting green eyes, photographed by Steve McCurry in 1985, who came to symbolize the hard life of Afghan refugees. 
  • One of the best stories of my career was the story of Buddy Bunker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo The Homecoming, told first in 1997 at the Omaha World-Herald and then again as a multimedia story for GazetteOnline after a home movie surfaced 65 years after the homecoming. 
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I hope you’ll pardon some boasting as I note that The Gazette today won the 2008 Sigma Delta Chi Award.

Our coverage of the floods of 2008 won the deadline reporting award for newspapers under 100,000 circulation.

This continues a terrific run of recognition for our outstanding staff, which has previously won awards for our flood coverage from the Inland Press Association, National Press Photographers Association, Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Associated Press Managing Editors (and maybe something that I forgot).

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If you want to follow or help chronicle the progress of flood recovery in Czech Village, spend some time with “It Takes a Village.”

This multimedia project by Gazette staff members Cindy Hadish, David Miessler-Kubanek and Greg Schmidt shows pictures and reports the status of businesses in the  historic Czech Village area of Cedar Rapids.

Click on the Bohemian Cafe and Pub or the Red Frog and you’ll see when they reopened (I need to choose one of them for dinner this weekend). Click Zindrick’s and you’ll see that it should be reopening in May. Eight businesses show that they will not be returning and 12 are still undecided. But an encouraging 17 are  either open or planning to reopen.

While our staff has prepared the basic information, we invite you to help tell the story. If one of these is your business, or if you were a loyal customer, each entry has a place where you can add a comment.

“It Takes a Village” is part of our continuing effort to tell stories, especially the complex and continuing stories of flood recovery using interactive tools such as multimedia and databases.

If you haven’t already spent some time clicking through (or adding your information to) IowaFloodStories, I encourage you to spend some time checking property by property for information throughout Cedar Rapids’ flood zone.

Or check out our projects on the collapse, cleanup and reconstruction of the CRANDIC bridge across the Cedar River; the “Year of the River” series we did last fall, with journalists Orlan Love and Jim Slosiarek canoeing the river; our “Unstoppable Epic Surge” video; or our directory of flood coverage.

We’ve written a lot of stories and shot a lot of photographs relating to the flood and the recovery. But our staff is demonstrating that we have many other storytelling tools as well.

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Leaders at all levels are failing Cedar Rapids.

We need to get tough. We need to get mean. And we need to do it now.

I remember after last June’s floods, I got tired of all the e-mails I would receive, both from Iowans and from people outside the state, who found some sort of virtue in comparisons between gritty Iowans who weren’t begging for federal handouts and the pathetic people from New Orleans who did.

That was balderdash then and it’s way past balderdash now. The federal government and the state government have an obligation to help in disasters. Iowa leaders at the local, state and federal level need to be loud and insistent about meeting that obligation faster and stronger than anyone has so far.

This is no handout we need. No community can absorb a disaster without help. Iowans’ tax dollars have supported federal relief for disasters ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes to terrorist attacks. We shouldn’t be begging for a handout, but insisting on justice.

B.J. Smith of Cedar Rapids runs a pleasant blog called “Iowa Nice,” celebrating how nice this state is. That’s an admirable trait to our culture, but let’s not forget that Meredith Willson also described us in “The Music Man” as “Iowa stubborn.” We need to put Iowa Nice on the shelf for a while and turn Iowa Stubborn loose on Washington and Des Moines. Along with Iowa Furious and Iowa Indignant.

At the local level, we are leaderless. From the day the waters hit, people have been asking where Mayor Kay Halloran was. Some council members have been more prominent than she has in responding to the challenges of the flood. City Manager Jim Prosser is an administrator, but the city has no strong leader.  

The change in city government is no excuse. Leadership is not a function of structure but of the ability of the leaders and how they respond to challenges.

County supervisors are not in as strong a position as city officials to lead in this disaster response, but they certainly have enough power that someone could fill this vacuum.

Gov. Chet Culver and state legislative leaders sounded downright timid in their explanations about why the Legislature did not meet in special session last year to address this problem. They feared that making state money available would mess up our chances for federal aid. Or maybe a swift state response, accompanied by strong leadership demanding a swift federal response, would have underscored the urgency of the problem.

Instead, nearly eight months after the floods, the Legislature last week approved less than 1 percent of the need.

Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley have more than a half-century of experience combined in the U.S. Senate. What good is that experience if they can’t deliver better federal aid more swiftly than they have following the worst natural disaster in their state’s history?

President Barack Obama (and for that matter, President George W. Bush before him) got his launch to the White House from Iowa. Both of them visited flood zones and flood victims. Was that a photo opportunity rather than a call to action?

Editors normally don’t like it when their bosses get involved in community affairs. It makes us uneasy because people might think that involvement will skew our coverage. The Gazette Company CEO Chuck Peters joined a trip to lobby Department of Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington last month and Publisher Dave Storey will be in Washington this month to lobby with other Chamber of Commerce members.

That doesn’t bother me right now. I can deal with any conflicts and perceptions their involvement might create. Mostly I hope they get something accomplished. This leadership shouldn’t have to come from the business community. But it’s about time it came from somewhere.

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My Sunday column:

As a young adult, I had this misguided notion that someday I would move from learning to knowing.

Haven’t reached that day yet.

As the calendar turns from one year to the next, many of us savor the year past and wonder what the year ahead might hold. As I look back on 2008 and ahead to 2009, I am pleased with what I have learned and excited by what I still need to learn.

In my sixth decade of life, I learned more in 2008 than I can remember learning in a single year since my youth. (more…)

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One thing that hasn’t changed in the newspaper business is that we get annoyed when broadcast media, as they frequently do, rip off our stories without credit.

My friend Daniel P. Finney of the Des Moines Register, night cops reporter and author of one of the best beat-reporting Twitter feeds, DM_in_the_PM, expressed this annoyance Saturday, noting in a tweet that KCCI had ripped off a Register story.

Newspaper ethics tend to do better about direct ripping off the competition. Plagiarism is a career capital offense, so if we can’t advance a story or find the same sources to duplicate it, we reluctantly attribute. (more…)

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A draft of my Sunday column:

Many of the stories, photos and videos at iowafloodstories.com will already be familiar to you. We want you to add your own stories, photos and videos to make this a complete record of the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood.

What is new about iowafloodstories.com is the presentation. You can use a map or search window to look for specific properties and click to read the stories and look at the photos and videos of hundreds of individual homes and businesses.

The map already leads to stories, photos and videos shot by staff members of The Gazette and GazetteOnline as well as photos posted on Flickr and videos from YouTube. We hope eventually it will include even more stories, photos and videos submitted by the residents and business owners who experienced the flood.

Before I came to The Gazette, I was studying the use of databases by newspaper companies. They are great tools for answering questions about a community in much greater detail than a news story can. I wrote a report on databases for the American Press Institute as one of my last chores before coming to The Gazette.

When I came here, I was pleased that Zack Kucharski already was doing outstanding work with databases, which I like to call answerbases because most people who use them don’t really think of themselves as looking for data. We want answers to our questions. Kucharski was already providing answers to questions about Hawkeye football history, state salaries, crime and other topics.

On June 11, my second day on the job, I told him we were going to do lots of interesting things with databases to provide answers to our community’s questions. Though we knew at the time that the Cedar River was rising, expected to crest at record levels in Cedar Rapids in a couple of days, we couldn’t realize yet how many questions the flood would present and how many ways we would use databases to provide answers.

In the months since the flood, Kucharski has posted databases answering questions about such topics as reopened businesses, missing pets and buyouts. We’re still working on getting records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For much of that time, Kucharski and other colleagues were also working on iowafloodstories.com.

We should credit our colleagues at the Des Moines Register for inspiring some of the format for iowafloodstories. They developed an outstanding map that told the story of each property in Parkersburg, with photos before and after the May 25 tornado and with stories, photos and videos from the Register’s coverage attached to the appropriate properties. We liked the idea, but had far more properties (more than 7,000) to chronicle in Cedar Rapids.

The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, Coe College and Mount Mercy College collaborated in this project, helping us collect people’s stories.

Dozens of Gazette and GazetteOnline staff members contributed stories, photos and videos to the archive. Librarian John McGlothlen and Production Coordinator Diana Pesek assisted in loading stories from the Gazette archives into the database. Matthew Manuel and Matt Thiessen did the web development. Kucharski contributed in more ways than I could understand or detail here.

The result is an archive of this flood that will grow as you and we add more stories, photos and videos. We have some more work to do on it this week, so we encourage you to take a look today and to come back again and again.

Mostly we encourage you to add your own stories and photos. If you lived or worked in the flood zone, tell us about your home or business – what it was like before the flood, how badly it was damaged, about the cleanup and rebuilding.

Send us photos and videos – if they weren’t ruined – of your home before the flood. We have the static photos from the county assessor’s office, but we want to see children playing in the yard, family celebrations in the home. We want your photos and videos of the damage, cleanup and rebuilding. If you have questions, need help or have printed materials to be digitized contact Kucharski  at (319) 398-8219 or zack.kucharski@gazcomm.com.

My last note reflects a bit of vanity, but we want your help in preparing our public service entry for the Pulitzer Prizes. In emails and in person, many of you have suggested we have a shot at a Pulitzer for our flood coverage. Of course, every journalist dreams of winning the big prize someday, but my sincere answer was always that the highest honor in journalism is not the Pulitzer Prize but the respect of your community. So I am more honored that you think we should win than I will be if we do.

Of course we are going to enter. We are selecting our best photos and stories for the various categories where we think we have a chance. But I liked a suggestion from our financial editor, George C. Ford. When we were discussing what to submit in the public service category, he suggested asking the public.

What did we do in print or online that most helped you during the disaster itself or as the community has been rebuilding? What stories, columns, editorials, text alerts, photos, videos, databases, graphics or other information from The Gazette, GazetteOnline and GazetteToGo most served the public in 2008?

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Here’s a draft of my column for the Sunday Gazette:

Pardon my skepticism, Governor.

I had to laugh when I saw the quote from Gov. Chet Culver in large type on the front page of Saturday’s Gazette: “I want to get businesses up and running as quickly as possible.” I didn’t laugh because it was funny. This was the laughter of sarcasm.

Culver also said in the taping for “Iowa Press,” airing today on Iowa Public Television, “My focus is to get these families back on their feet, to get them into their old houses that need to be repaired, to get them in new houses if their homes were destroyed.”

I thought back immediately to Culver’s meeting in September with The Gazette’s editorial board, when he gave us lame, buck-passing reasons for his refusal to call the Legislature into special session to provide emergency aid to flood victims.

Annoyed when I noted that the situation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other eastern Iowa communities was too urgent to wait for January, Culver turned to me, his face flushing and his voice rising, and asked, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” The reaction was heated enough and animated enough that colleagues parroted it back to me at comical moments for the next week or so.

But there is nothing comical about Culver’s weak and slow response to the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. I’m glad you’ll be visiting Cedar Rapids this week, Governor. Let me know if you find a single person who thinks you have done anything “as quickly as possible.” See if anyone credits the state with getting them “back on their feet.”

You will see that hundreds of businesses reopened mostly through their own investment and hard work because waiting for sufficient state aid would have put them out of business.

When Culver met with our editorial board, he was proud that he had cobbled together $100 million without the Legislature’s help to provide state aid to disaster victims in a program called Jumpstart. Thanks, but the need in Cedar Rapids alone is more than $5 billion.

This summer’s catastrophe demanded a swift session of the Legislature to consider a range of responses beyond the power of the governor. At the very least, we should have been dipping into the state’s emergency reserve fund. It’s called a “rainy day” fund and Iowa hasn’t seen rainier days than we saw this June.

Lawmakers also could have considered diverting money from other state projects to flood relief. They could have considered a bond issue to spread disaster relief over several years. They could have considered an increase in the gasoline tax to repair the roads and bridges damaged and destroyed in the flood. They could have considered giving local governments more options to raise local money for rebuilding.

You can make a good case against some of those measures. All of them wouldn’t have been enough, but any of them would have helped more than the trickle of aid from Barelystart. While Culver has dithered away seven months since the flood with no legislative action, the national recession has forced severe cuts in state spending, making it that much harder to provide money for rebuilding.

Would the state response have been this slow if 5,000 homes and 1,000 businesses plus hundreds of government buildings and non-profit organizations had been flooded in Des Moines?


Culver’s goal is to get displaced families into new homes by December 2009, which is as long as they can stay in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. No point in trying to get them out of there before the deadline, I guess. 

Culver’s excuse for the inexcusable delay in legislative consideration of the state’s disaster response was that he didn’t want to jeopardize our chance at federal money by committing state money too early. The fact is that the maximum the state could commit would not come close to filling the need. State and federal money combined will leave us far short. But the swifter we get any aid, the faster businesses and families can get on with life.

Here’s hoping that the governor’s stocking Thursday morning includes a replica of Harry Truman’s famous desk plaque reminding that chief executive: “The buck stops here.”

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