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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 But I still shook my head frequently when I saw signs and logos promoting the outdated Five Seasons theme.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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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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