The Reckoning

After the Flood

Iowans will help decide the country's future, but this town is unsure of its own

In the days that followed the flood, life in Hamburg, Iowa, was measured by what was not: No city hall, no church, no electricity, not a single business open. Ten days without running water, the mayor counted. Twenty. One hundred and twenty.

It began last year in the middle of March, in the middle of America, in a town of about 1,000 tucked an hour south of Omaha at Iowa’s southwestern-most edge. “The Cornerstone” of the state, is how Hamburg’s welcome sign puts it. Home to some of the most fertile farmland in the nation, the area owed the unprecedented richness of its soil to the fact that it was situated in the flood plain of the country’s longest river, the Missouri.

Suddenly, though, the very source of its survival was also posing its most dire threat, after the river surged beyond all previously recorded levels and threatened to wipe Hamburg off the map along with dozens of other small towns, beginning at the South Dakota and Nebraska border and stretching further downstream.

Missouri River level near Hamburg

Source: National Weather Service

The floods came after a particularly furious “bomb cyclone” — “a monster,” one meteorologist told the Omaha World-Herald at the time. It’s a type of extreme storm that has always existed, but that scientists say is only growing more intense and more devastating because of the climate crisis. For months, Hamburg would remain underwater. Only after half a year did the flood waters finally begin to leave, revealing signs that a kind of normalcy might be within reach.

The school’s gym had been emptied of donations. City Hall was open again. The town’s ATM was back in operation; you could finally order a beer again at the Blue Moon or pick up donuts and pizza at Casey’s General Store.

A few people had packed up and left, but the majority of the town appeared determined to try and overcome the devastation. And behind the scenes, their volunteer mayor, who had been working on less than four hours of sleep a night for months, was searching, along with her staff, for solutions that would make staying possible. Nearly half the homes in town had taken on water, but in her office sat a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency saying the majority of the families that had sought assistance “had not suffered enough damage” to receive help.

Floodwaters surround homes and a grain elevator in Hamburg, March 2019.
Floodwaters surround homes and a grain elevator in Hamburg, March 2019. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hamburg’s recovery has coincided with the start of the 2020 presidential campaign. While the country puzzles through anxieties surrounding the direction of our democracy, as candidates board buses and hold town halls and speak to the big issues, everyone is asking a variation of the same question: In what vision shall we make ourselves? In Hamburg, it’s been nearly impossible for residents to go a single day without being forced to formulate their own personal answers.

This very profound grassroots remaking of a community has felt a largely private process, one the town seems to be navigating in relative isolation, far from what’s happening in the larger political world. There was a flush of attention at first, at the height of the immediate crisis. National media outlets came to town. Members of Congress — both Republican and Democratic — held meetings and field hearings where they said nothing like this should ever happen to towns like Hamburg again. But as the waters receded, so did the attention, even as candidates and their supporters have fanned out across what can seem like every inch of Iowa’s 99 counties.

A lone political sign in residential Hamburg, January 2020.
A lone political sign in residential Hamburg, January 2020. Rachel Mummey for CNN

In Hamburg, Iowa’s imminent presidential caucus has been all but invisible. There are conspicuously few campaign signs, save for those related to a recent local election. A recent drive up and down every one of the city’s residential streets revealed exactly three lawn signs: two for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and one for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the Democratic caucus for surrounding Fremont County in 2016. “People love Bernie around here,” the town’s volunteer mayor, Cathy Crain, told me.

2016 Democratic caucus results by county

Bernie Sanders finished first in Fremont County, where Hamburg is located, while Hillary Clinton received more Iowa delegates overall.

Donald Trump carried the county in the 2016 general election, but people aren’t talking about him or his impeachment trial, either. It’s not that they are disinterested. It’s that just trying to see if the town can survive the flood has turned attention inward. “This is the size of our world right now — the 700 acres that comprise this town,” Crain said. “That’s where all our focus is at. I could not tell you what is happening outside our borders right now.”

Hamburg presidential election results

Source: Iowa Secretary of State

Crain says national politicians don’t usually make their way down to Hamburg for one reason — “We’re small and we’re poor.” The President didn’t come when it flooded, though Vice President Mike Pence did tour the remnants of Pacific Junction, about 33 miles away. And despite the vast field of Democratic presidential candidates investing so much time in Iowa, Hamburg never became a major destination.

Only two have visited — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — and they both came immediately after the flood. The first to arrive was Inslee, whose short-lived campaign was focused on the threat posed by the climate crisis. He came in April, about a month after the flood, and used it as an opportunity to talk about global warming. And while some folks in town were grateful for the attention, others weren’t sure what to do with it. It wasn’t as if they were ignorant of the idea — they were the ones with whole sections of their town still sitting under more than 10 feet of water, and besides, some argued, farmers know better than most the slightest changes in weather over time.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose short-lived presidential campaign was focused on climate change, visited Hamburg in April 2019.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose short-lived presidential campaign was focused on climate change, visited Hamburg in April 2019. Charlie Neibergall/AP

It just struck some people as maybe a little too soon, campaigning at a time of sorrow. While there were people still reeling that they’d lost their homes of 40 years. Or that young family who’d cashed in all their savings to buy their dream home, so they wouldn’t be locked into a mortgage, and had only taken possession days before the flood destroyed it.

At the Blue Moon Bar and Grill on a Thursday night in late January, patrons joked about knowing which tables would be caucusing with the Republicans and which would be caucusing with the Democrats — but that only got you so far in understanding what people believed. The normal, simplified language of politics didn’t encompass the complexities and contradictions that the townsfolk were used to working through together, even more so now since the flood had shown them what it could be like to be unified around a common purpose, regardless of whether they agreed with each other or not.

The young pastor of the local Methodist church, Luke Fillmore, told me that he had witnessed “a willingness to sit inside conflict and uncertainty, to exhibit a certain patience with each other, so that you can move beyond surface disagreements.” He has watched people realize, he said, “that some things are so good and so holy and so right, there are differences worth putting down.”

A flood-ravaged house sits waiting to be bulldozed.
A flood-ravaged house sits waiting to be bulldozed. Rachel Mummey for CNN

Other people I spoke to echoed that theme. They talked about how living through the flood was without a doubt one of the most traumatic experiences they had ever known, but again and again people told me that they also felt an overwhelming sense of wonder during those days too — when all the normal rules were suspended and everyone just did whatever needed to be done, whatever was right for each other.

Like the school superintendent keeping the school open for relief efforts, even when it was suggested by someone from the state that it was illegal to operate the school without working sprinklers — when the town was without water. The superintendent said, fine, have someone come shut us down, but until then, the doors stay open. That same school is set to play host to the Republican caucuses in town, while the Democrats are expected to meet in Sidney, 15 miles away.

As terrible as the flood was, it had shown them the best version of what their town could be, and had made them all the more committed to its survival. But the flood had also revealed how vulnerable they truly were, exposed a new tenuousness to their situation. For all they’d lost, they now stood to lose even more — not just their property and their surroundings, but this newfound sense of community.

Which is why, while the rest of the country has started 2020 focused on headlines about war and impeachment and disease outbreaks, the big news in Hamburg was a January announcement from Col. John Hudson, the Omaha District commander for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the levees along the Missouri River. “We have been working nonstop since last spring to restore the levee system,” he said. “To date, we have closed the majority of the inlet breaches and we will be working throughout the winter months to close the remaining breaches.” But then he added: “Even with the tremendous strides in restoring over 350 miles of levees, an elevated risk still remains.”

The flooding drowned fields and pastures, leaving land unfarmable.
The flooding drowned fields and pastures, leaving land unfarmable. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

As residents of the low-lying region of southwest Iowa affectionately known as “The River Bottom,” or “The Bottom” for short, Hamburg’s citizens had always accepted that their tenancy came with the peril of possible inundation. Bracketed between two rivers and encircled by an intricate system of levees, they had long understood floods to be the price they paid to live on some of the richest farmland in the state.

And with residency came the adoption of a particular skill set: daily study of the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service homepage, reading the lines on its graphs of river levels for signs of any creeping threat.

Hamburg, in the southwest corner of Iowa, is situated between the Missouri and Nishnabotna Rivers.

A system of levees surrounding the town regulates the water levels of the nearby rivers.

In March 2019, the combination of an extreme weather event, elevated snowpack and a torrent of water released from a dam hundreds of miles upriver left most of Hamburg underwater.

Residents took shelter in the town's school, the only public building that remained on dry land.

People counted the years by the number of floods they’d lived through, their own watery epochs, and they’d even developed their own internal threat warning system: the old flagpole that stood like a roundabout in the middle of Main Street. On one side, dry ground. On the other, certain water. Even during the town’s worst flood on record — back in 1952 — the water had only managed to lap at the flagpole’s edge.

The flagpole in the middle of town has long served as an communal measuring stick for floods.
The flagpole in the middle of town has long served as an communal measuring stick for floods. Rachel Mummey for CNN

So when the residents of Hamburg awoke one morning last March and registered a sudden, unanticipated spiking of the river level lines on the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service’s daily graph, those in the lowest part of town began their stacking, mentally preparing for the inevitable cleanup to follow. Everyone else trusted the words of the old-timers who had lived through several floods, like the man who told anyone who would listen: “I’m telling you, it won’t go beyond the flagpole. And if it does, I’ll drink every damn drop.”

Typically, the river that had always threatened the town was the Nishnabotna, a smaller tributary that ran to the community’s east. This time, though, the danger would come from what had once seemed an unthinkable source, the Missouri River, more than seven miles to the west. A freak spring storm — the “bomb cyclone” — unleashed a hard rain onto land further north already covered in record snowfall.

The combined runoff sent an unprecedented volume of water surging into the Missouri’s tributaries, rivers frozen solid after fierce cold. Ice broke away in blocks, coursed forward like battering rams. And everything raced into the Missouri, ultimately collecting at the reservoir behind the Gavin’s Point Dam at the border between South Dakota and Nebraska. That particular reservoir was not designed to hold that much water, according to the Corps.


Fearing greater catastrophe if that dam was lost, the Corps, which is charged with the management of the 2,341-mile-long length of river that runs from Montana to Missouri, ordered the dam’s spillways opened — unleashing a torrent of criticism over their priorities as to who is spared and who suffers. Because when the spillways opened, 10,000 cubic feet of water per second began to bear down on dozens of river basin communities stretching from South Dakota to Missouri, including Hamburg.

The water broke through the levees in 50 places, by the Corps’ count, surging over the levees’ tops and then washing them out from underneath. As the water traveled toward Hamburg, it “took on tremendous velocity,” says Crain. “Think of a rollercoaster.”

The town realized it was facing something unprecedented. A crew of 75 volunteers, began to shovel sand as fast as they could, erecting an eight-block-long emergency barrier not far from the flagpole using materials people were more accustomed to seeing in the context of fortified military outposts. But it wasn’t long before the water had forced its way through this last resort and rushed up Main Street.

Just a few blocks from the flagpole, at the senior housing complex, affectionately known by everyone in town as “Wrinkle City,” residents woke just before dawn with volunteer fire crews banging at their doors. They had only 15 minutes to grab whatever they could. Most were carried out in their nightclothes. They left behind prescriptions, billfolds, family photos, hearing aids.

The river swallowed two-thirds of the city. In the low-lying part of town, its water lapped at rooflines. Propane tanks, refrigerators, bales of cornstalks weighing more than a ton bobbed past. One man reported seeing a convenience-store cooler full of beer.

A local farmer, surveying the immediate devastation by helicopter, spotted a small berm of land jutting up from the middle of what now could be mistaken for tidelands, the helicopter’s blades churning the deep water into whitecaps. On the tiny island stood both deer and coyote. And everyone made their way to the school — the only public building on dry land.

James W. Nenneman

Even before the disaster, Hamburg’s superintendent, Mike Wells, had been trying to radically re-imagine the town’s combined K-8 school. In the five years since he was hired to take over the district, Wells had secured grants to install professional woodworking equipment, a screen-printing machine, an embroidery machine, a 3-D printer, industrial sewing machines, welding equipment, a laser cutter and a hydroponic greenhouse. Every Friday, all the students, even the kindergartners, spend the day learning a specific trade.

“Our goal is to teach our students how to be doers,” Wells told me. “If you are a doer, you will always be successful, whatever path you choose in life. No one cares in the end whether you can study in such a way as to get a perfect score on a standardized test. They care that you know how to solve life’s problems, how to get things done.”

Elementary students learn to build a house during class

One of his first efforts as superintendent was to introduce a working farm at the school — sheep and pigs and chickens and geese and goats graze in a pasture situated between the school playground and one of the town’s main arterial roads. The students are responsible for all aspects of the animals’ lives. They deliver eggs from the chickens to homebound seniors; they butcher the pigs, donating the meat to the local food bank.

As we spoke, a group ranging from fourth to eighth graders were shingling roofs. “Be careful with those knives,” Wells called out. “I suppose we can always put your fingers on ice, but I’d rather not get to that point.” Another group was trying to repair a spot in the fence where one of the most prolific escape artists among the goats had tried to test for weakness and accidentally gotten its head stuck. Occasionally, Wells interrupted with a quick demonstration — “notch the shingle like this” — but otherwise left them alone.

“We don’t baby them,” he told me. “They don’t need babying. We show them how to do it, but we don’t fix it for them.” The picket fence that encircles the farm, in fact, took the students close to three months of trial and error to build before they realized how to account for variations in elevation.

It made sense then, in the spirit of nurturing a school full of doers, that Wells would throw open the school’s doors during the flood, and that he would also make the students a key part of the town’s recovery.

Classes continued as normal, even as their gym turned into a donation center, as classrooms became headquarters for city officials. The mayor worked out of the home economics room, while the students cooked meals around her and comforted the seniors from Wrinkle City who spent their first few days after the flood on cots in the gym.

As the town continued to go without water, Wells sent students door to door to collect laundry, then to a church in a nearby town to run loads through the industrial washer and dryer, which the kids returned to their owners in pressed and folded bundles.

The school gym turned into a donation center in the weeks after the flood.
The school gym turned into a donation center in the weeks after the flood. Courtesy Cathy Crain

Wells himself had grown up “among mostly poor folks” in Alabama and Mississippi; his mother worked as a maid. So when the flood came, he personally hunted down donated trailers for displaced families, then offered his own yard to those who did not have anywhere to park. But the numbers were stark: All told, 100 acres had been wiped off the town’s map — deemed uninhabitable. The river waters swept through more than 73 houses that would have to be condemned and destroyed 40 apartment units.

Students picked up on the fact that finding the money, let alone land, to build new houses was going to take a frustratingly long time. With all the building skills they’d learned, could they help build a house for someone who lost theirs, they wanted to know? Wells said they could, and he would help them make it happen. He found someone across from the school willing to donate land, as well as local contractors who agreed to take care of the foundation, the plumbing, electricity and drywall. He and the kids would do the rest. The house would essentially be a gift, its price and repayment terms set at a level that someone on a modest income could afford. He imagined the students ultimately developing a small subdivision, both learning laboratory and rural development project.

Superintendent Mike Wells challenges his students to learn by implementing real-world educational opportunities.
Superintendent Mike Wells challenges his students to learn by implementing real-world educational opportunities. Rachel Mummey for CNN

Wells’ construction project is still just a dream. So is his plan to bring a high school back to Hamburg, with a curriculum that would offer trade certification. Yet the idea of planning for growth in a town recovering from a flood wasn’t crazy, even though many of the smaller railroad towns along the freeway north of Hamburg had already given up, their exits blocked, homes abandoned, muddy toys left scattered in boggy yards.

Unlike so many other rural areas that have been shedding residents for years, Hamburg’s population before the flood had been holding surprisingly steady. The richness of the surrounding agricultural area ensured an unusual number of good-paying jobs, with a popcorn plant, a grain elevator operation, an Australian-owned oats-milling company and a big John Deere dealership — all within Hamburg’s city limits.

The town of Hamburg continues to rebuild after unprecedented flooding.
The town of Hamburg continues to rebuild after unprecedented flooding. Rachel Mummey for CNN

There’s also a good hospital in town — increasingly rare in rural communities across the country — that employs more than 100 people. And Wells’ experiment in a hands-on, skills-based education — the rural equivalent of private Waldorf schools that many elite urban parents endure waitlists and spend thousands of dollars for their children to attend — has drawn families to the town.

But the sheer scale of the flood — and the very real concern it could happen again — threatens all that. Iowa’s school funding is based on enrollment, and Wells’ efforts depend on keeping students — and will fail if families leave. The fall enrollment report showed 27 students had left — a 12% drop. “If we don’t bring in new students, or if we can’t get the housing to hold on to those who were already here,” Wells told me in October, “I’m really scared all this will be over. Without those things in place, I just don’t see how it’s sustainable.”

For days, no one left the town. There was one working road that could carry them away, if they’d chosen to take it, let it deliver them to any of the nearby towns where there was running water and electricity, showers and toilets and grocery stores and laundromats. But no one wanted to go. “No one wanted to leave each other,” the mayor told me. “The river was still so high. There was a feeling of what else could happen, and we wanted to be there to help one other.”

Julian Quinones/CNN

She wouldn’t set foot outside the city limits for nearly a month, by her own estimation. Before the flood, she had already decided: she would not seek reelection. She had served in the volunteer position for the past 12 years, and she was tired, ready for someone else to take over, even as the town kept returning her to the mayor’s seat. “The first time I was elected, I ran,” Crain told me. “The rest of the time I’ve been a write-in.”

A Hamburg native who left after her high school graduation, Crain returned home in 1999 at age 50 after a successful career at the Chicago marketing and communications firm Frankel & Co, where she’d been a senior vice president and oversaw some of the firm’s most important accounts, including McDonald’s.

Crain tends to downplay that part of her history whenever someone brings it up. “I sure don’t miss wearing panty hose,” she’ll say, and laugh, but if you catch her in a more reflective moment, she puts it this way: “What those years taught me was that it was useless to worry about doing things simply to earn people’s praise, as if one big accomplishment was enough. They’d say, great, you gave us the Happy Meal, OK fine, but what have you got for us today? It was all about the work, always the work, doing the best possible job, every time, trusting the purity of that process.”

Volunteer Mayor Cathy Crain works from City Hall on a snow day. Mayor Crain comes to work every day with her dogs Tess and Sophie.
Volunteer Mayor Cathy Crain works from City Hall on a snow day. Mayor Crain comes to work every day with her dogs Tess and Sophie. Rachel Mummey for CNN

But in the wake of the flood, watching the people of her town trickle into the school, Crain realized she couldn’t step down. There was Bill Lamb, the former chief of the fire department and town barber, who had cut the hair of generations of residents and lost not only his shop on Main Street, but also the home he shared for 37 years with his wife, Barb. There were Kate and Daniel Stockstell, whose wedding Crain had just attended a few weeks before, who had not even had time to unbox many of their gifts when they were forced to flee their ranch house on the other side of the town square. And there was Patsy Kamman who with her husband ran the local service station, now underwater, along with their home, and who, when asked how she would cope, said simply, “I can make do.”

Crain knew everyone’s stories, everyone’s needs, could document each of their losses. “Sometimes I think the difference between life in a city and life in a small town like this is the difference between wide and deep,” she told me. “In cities, it’s all about experiencing as much as you can, going wide. Here, it’s about knowing one small place as deeply as you can.”

And because her knowledge of the town’s suffering was so intimate, so personal, it also intensified her anger over what she says was a preventable disaster. “None of this,” Crain says, motioning to the devastation surrounding her. “None of it had to happen.”

Back in 2011, when the town had been threatened once before by potential flooding from the Missouri, Hamburg sought emergency permission from the Corps to quickly add eight feet to the existing levee that protected their town. Working for eight straight days, and assisted by local farmers under their hire, the Corps managed to throw up an effective barrier just in time. In the end, it held back the waters of the Missouri for 120 days and kept the town dry.

Hamburg's farmers helped rebuild the dirt levees around the town.
Hamburg's farmers helped rebuild the dirt levees around the town. Rachel Mummey for CNN

Afterward, everyone wanted to see the additional height on the levee remain. But, says Matt Krajewski, the readiness branch chief for the Corps’ Omaha District, “it was always meant to be temporary.” The Corps didn’t want people depending on construction that was thrown up in less than ideal circumstances and did not meet their regulations. By law, after an emergency is over, all makeshift measures have to come down. To leave the temporary levee up would risk the town’s status under Federal Levee Protection. “And we wanted to stay in. When you are in big trouble they are the only ones to save you,” says Crain.

There is another way: If a local entity wants to raise a levee beyond its approved height, it can assume all the costs for the addition to be built, according to the Corps’ approved specifications. But that meant the town would have to take down all the dirt they had thrown on the levee, and then they would need to find their own funding source — to the tune of several million dollars — if they wanted to raise it beyond its existing height as insurance for the future.

What Crain — and many of the townspeople — heard: “This is what it looks like to be living inside a Catch-22.” Hadn’t the temporary levee held for 120 days? Wasn’t that a sign of the soundness of its construction? Wasn’t there some way to make an exception? Crain says she called politicians and that officials from the Omaha branch of the Corps even pleaded Hamburg’s case to Washington. But they couldn’t get an exception, and no one offered funding. The town tried to attract money to raise the height of the levee on its own, including releasing a YouTube video where townspeople sang and danced in the hope that it might bring attention to their fight. But all their fundraising efforts fell short, and they were left to live with the lowered levee and all the unease and frustration that brought.

In 2011, they’d had eight days to prepare. “We really thought if it happened again, we’d have time to get the Corps to raise the levee again,” says Crain. But when the Missouri came again in 2019, they had less than 48 hours. There wasn’t even time to request temporary emergency additions to the levee.

This is the mayor's plan to save Hamburg

In the hours immediately following the 2019 flood, as soon as she was reassured that, beyond their very real psychological trauma, everyone was physically safe, Crain and the city clerk, Sheryl Owen, began to make a checklist of what would need to be done not only to help the town recover in the short term, but to secure its foreseeable future. Most important in Crain’s mind was that she could look everyone in town in the eye and swear to them that the levee would be raised so that they would not be afraid to keep their business in town, to keep their families here. If people did not feel immediately reassured, she knew people would leave in panic and the town would be finished.

“I make a distinction between a flood and a disaster. This was a disaster. People here know how to rebuild after floods. But another disaster like this last one would truly mean end of us,” Crain told me. “People could not go through this again.”

There was reason to be fearful: The Corps reported in January that the snowpack in Montana and the Dakotas was already greater than it had been a year earlier — and for the towns along the Missouri, which would absorb the potential runoff, this mattered more than the local weather patterns. People didn’t make conversation about Hamburg’s weather anymore. They talked to each other about the forecasts in Montana.

Cathy Crain has mapped out a recovery plan that is still being created and implemented.
Cathy Crain has mapped out a recovery plan that is still being created and implemented. Rachel Mummey for CNN

And it’s possible that future years could be even worse. According to the National Climate Assessment, released in 2018, the Missouri River Basin — an area already prone to extremes in both droughts and floods — could see the frequency of two-day heavy rain events increase 50% by 2050. Some have suggested that, given the prospect of increasing volatility in the weather and the potential for subsequent disasters, maybe it’s time for those in flood prone-communities, like Hamburg, to move. “Move to higher ground” is even a policy plank for one candidate, Andrew Yang.

Evidence of that prescription is plain along the path of the flood. Pacific Junction, where Pence visited, is nearly a ghost town, the majority of its houses still empty. But Crain was determined not to see that happen to Hamburg. After the flood, she had stopped sleeping and could barely keep her eyes open for all the crying she had been doing in the mornings on her way to work where no one could see — just her two dogs riding shotgun in the gold SUV that had been dubbed “The Flood Car.”

“People who don’t know me might underestimate me because they think I’m just this little fat old lady from a town nobody’s heard of,” she says now. “But when I worked for Frankel, I always had a bag packed. If there was a client anywhere who was angry, they’d put me on a plane to deal with it. Basically, I was the prize-fighter that they could throw in the ring to absorb the punches. Then you’d give me a few squirts of water, and I’d go in and take some more. Eventually, they tired out, I left, and by the time we came back to them, they were happy with us again.”

Volunteer Mayor Cathy Crain points out the proposed new levee to be built around Hamburg.
Volunteer Mayor Cathy Crain points out the proposed new levee to be built around Hamburg. Rachel Mummey for CNN

She took her case to the governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, a Republican. Crain came back with $6.3 million in state funds that the town could use to raise the levee itself, and another $940,000 the town could use to help subsidize buyouts. “That surprised me,” Crain said. “That it would be the state of Iowa that would save us. We’re a relatively small and poor state. I always thought with disasters, it was the federal government that offered all the relief. Turns out we saved ourselves.”

Seven months after the flood there were handouts resting on a table in the community room of the Hamburg United Methodist Church. They were titled Community Reactions: Phases of Disaster. After one has felt the initial impact of the event, the handout says, there will be what is called the heroic phase — “there is altruism” — followed by a period of intense community bonding — “optimism exists… numerous opportunities are available… to establish and build rapport… and build relationships.”

It was one of the most profound takeaways that many of the flood’s survivors spoke of, weeks later. As terrifying and overwhelming as the initial days had been, there was also a sense of elation and wonder at how everyone simply did what was needed, helped each other without question and took all obstacles out of each other's way.

It was as if the normal rules of the world — those that placed barriers between people, that caused rifts and frustrations — had been suspended, and people could act purely according to what was right. “The ultimate expression of how to be there for each other as people,” was how the pastor of the church described it.

Just shy of 30, still trying to finish seminary, with a pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter, Luke Fillmore had only been serving as pastor for nine months when the flood came. And yet, because of recent deaths and reassignments at the other churches, he was also, by default, one of the most senior religious figures in town.

Recognizing that he was someone the town was looking to for guidance, Fillmore threw himself into providing stability and leadership. Early on, he and his congregation decided that they would make it their mission to help anyone in town who needed it, no questions asked. For months, they kept a running list of what people needed and each weekend, assisted by Fillmore’s contacts from other congregations, they have worked their way through every request: six men to drywall a house; three people to power wash an apartment’s basement bathrooms of the mud that daubs every surface; six people to help load debris for the dump. No one in need is turned away.

Pastor Luke Fillmore continues trying to provide support for community members in Hamburg and the surrounding areas.
Pastor Luke Fillmore continues trying to provide support for community members in Hamburg and the surrounding areas. Rachel Mummey for CNN

In many ways, Fillmore said, he believes that the flood allowed the community to see how it might remake itself to be there for every one of its members. Several times, he paused to collect himself as we spoke, saying he had never seen anything like it — “the good and the grace” as he put it, that people had shown each other — and he did not think he had articulated to his congregation enough how tenderly and how fiercely they cared for each other. And how much that taught him. “It is my understanding,” he told me, “that this is all the grace of God.”

Last fall, on All Saints Day, he spoke to his congregation about how they were inside a moment where “time and space get a little wonky” as their thoughts turned to all those who had come before them. “As we think of all the sacrifices they have made for us, it’s not that hard to imagine sacrificing for others, is it,” he said. He did not reference the flood directly, but everyone knew he was speaking of it as he reminded them that to think of all those who come before us is also to think of the legacy we leave to all those who come after us.

“We have seen, to share that light, that grace with each other — there’s nothing on Earth we can’t do,” said Fillmore, who studied linguistics as an undergraduate and once imagined that he would become a translator, before he had his calling.

“You have been fathers and mothers to each other, all of you. Friends, you have done well. Maybe no one has said that to you over all these weeks. But I am saying it now: You have done well. And now I’ll have you turn to person next to you. Please look them in the eye and tell them they have done well. Tell them: Good job.”

As people mumbled the words to each other, there were tears.

And in that moment they felt again what it was like to see each other purely in relation to one another, and it was all still close and vivid enough that it might inspire not just a restoration of what was, but, as the pastor hoped, radical solutions “for what could be.”

But how long could it last? According to the handout on the table in the church: After community cohesion comes disillusionment.

As fall turned to winter, the water finally retreated enough to reveal the fields that had been hidden underneath, leaving thick deposits of sand that called to mind desolate moonscapes. Much of that land, held in families for generations, would likely be unfarmable now, the cost of trying to remove all that sand too prohibitive. On other acreages, willows and weeds grew thick in place of corn.

The river had carved deep channels in the earth and traced the fissures in the community. Marriages spoiling under all that water. Those who turned to drink. Another taken to his bed. Calls to the hotline specifically for farmers contemplating suicide.

To stay busy and make money, to stay sane and keep their employees on payroll, many of the farmers whose fields were flooded went to work for the Corps, using their equipment and even some of the sand and clay excavated from their now-fallow land to help rebuild the levee system around the Missouri.

It was a near constant procession of farm equipment, rolling well into the night as they hurried to finish the work before the worst of the ice and snow hit.

There were other things that rankled, emerging frustrations as it felt more and more like the experiment in communal democracy forged in the days of flood was bogged down by the old, familiar institutional structures that they had temporarily delighted in suspending.

The plan for the house built by the school students had hit a snag, and its foundation remained unpoured. Despite loving the idea, the city planning commission had been unable to approve the submitted building plans because the house would be too close to its neighbor. As the chief architect of the school’s philosophy to empower do-ers, it was hard for Wells to accept any delays.

They were doing this for all the right reasons. Didn’t the city desperately need more housing? This was a win-win. Couldn’t they issue a variance? The answer: No. And then Wells came up with one last idea: visit the owner of the neighboring lot to see if maybe after Wells explained the students’ vision, the homeowner might donate some of his land to create the needed buffer. There was no guarantee it would work, but he also couldn’t let it go until he was certain he’d exhausted every option.

Meanwhile, Crain and Owen had managed to secure state money that would allow the city to purchase abandoned homes in the flood plain, raze them, and resell the lots. Through the state, she also connected residents to a program that made new modular homes affordable to qualified buyers. The first house purchased under the program was bought by Kate and Daniel Stockstell, the newlyweds, and it arrived at the beginning of December.

It said something about how much the town was desperate to see something finally added rather than taken away, neighbors lined dozens deep along the block surrounding the lot to watch the crane release the two-bedroom, two-bathroom home onto its foundation — not before accidentally grazing it against one of the trees on the property.

Crain tapped state funds to help businesses in the parts of the Main Street that could be rebuilt and she learned that the city would be eligible for a portion of a $96 million pot of federal economic development funds that would be distributed between several flood ravaged counties in Iowa. She hoped some of that money could be used toward a subdivision. The city had also been in talks with a developer who was interested in building a hotel and a bar and grill on Main Street, next to City Hall.

But after the initial intensity that defined those early days of the flood, the tireless work toward helping each other that was visible, measurable — in sandbags filled, in animals rescued, in emergency housing secured, in the way the donations in the gymnasium piled up on tables and shelves, filling every corner — some people had not yet adjusted to this phase, where so much remained abstract, bureaucratic, largely invisible. Every day, Crain and Owen searched for new grants, working Crain’s Rolodex, which had gotten quite thick over her 12 years in office. All the while, for all these efforts, they still faced the biggest unresolved issue that could topple it all: The river itself.

The town had found the money that would let them raise the levee to the Corps specifications, as well as to buy land and dirt from a farmer. But the weather was still not cooperating, and water still sat on either side of the levee where the work needed to be done. Even more urgent was the fact that construction couldn’t move ahead under freezing conditions, raising the possibility that it wouldn’t get done before spring brings the chance of floods all over again.

That looms over everything. At the Blue Moon, a contractor named Brad Yost approached Crain and joked that people were still “sleeping in their waders at night until that levee goes up.” He and his wife Roxie had just put the finishing touches on their own dream home when the water came last year, and they’d decided to start over. Now they were close to replacing what had been destroyed.

“You’re not afraid, are you?” Roxie Yost asked Crain. It was 304 days out from the flood, with two months to go before the spring melt.

“I am,” Crain replied.

“Don’t say that,” Roxie responded. “Now you’re making me scared.”

Dirt pushed up to add to the rebuild of the Ditch 6 Levees outside of Hamburg.
Dirt pushed up to add to the rebuild of the Ditch 6 Levees outside of Hamburg. Rachel Mummey for CNN

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, the residents of Hamburg are trying to go on with the rhythms of normal life. One December weekend began with a funeral, the slow cortege winding its way to the town graveyard, at the top of a steep hillside, where there is no water, only sky. But the next day there would two weddings — both young local couples in their twenties who have chosen to make their lives in the town where they are from, where their families are from. One ceremony was at the United Trinity Church — and officiated by Crain’s brother — while the other was officiated at the Methodist church by Fillmore.

The two congregations were still worshipping together, as they had in the early days of the flood, as the members of the UTC slowly rebuilt their damaged church with their own hands. One Sunday in December, Fillmore addressed the combined congregations, and he chose to speak about debt.

He’d been reading about John Wesley. “And I kind of like this dude,” Fillmore said. Wesley made it his mission, Fillmore said, to pay the debts of those in his day trapped in debtors’ prison. Imagine what that would look like today, Fillmore challenged them. What if people trapped in medical debt suddenly got a call from their local church? Or someone with student loans? Maybe it’s not even financial debt specifically, Fillmore went on. “What if we started building houses? What if we started bringing back people who left because of the flood? What if we gave people places to live?”

'What if we give people places to live?' pastor asks town

In January, a group of community members, inspired by Fillmore’s words, gathered at the Methodist Church to make real plans. Could they buy distressed properties and rehabilitate them? Or should they take on new construction for low-income buyers? How could they serve the neediest residents, especially those who needed rental properties, someone asked. Framed in the window behind them was the still-empty senior housing complex. What if they bought the property as a nonprofit, and brought it back as affordable housing?

Everyone agreed and they began to divide up tasks to prepare a pitch. In the coming days, some people assembled in this room would likely attend the Republican caucuses and others would attend the Democratic caucuses, but in this moment they were in perfect agreement on the solution.

Just a short drive up the road from the church, two lambs capered in the school farmyard. The students had been there for their birth. There was to have been a third lamb, but it died, stillborn. “Even that was a powerful lesson,” Wells said, as we watched the students break ice from the water buckets and shake food at the babies and compete to see who could take them in their arms. Behind us, in the woodshop, a group of students raised hammers to nails, framing the walls of the house that they hoped one day they could still build.


Editing: Allison Hoffman and Kaeti Hinck

Supervising video producer: Jacque Smith

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers

Digital design and development: Curt Merrill, Allie Schmitz and Ivory Sherman

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