Skip to content

The Midwest Floods—an Emergency Disaster Plan That Worked

“They told us to pack our medicines and other necessities,” said Karen Jensen, age 67.

Floodwaters had inundated Cedar Rapids, Iowa, alarming officials, anxious relatives and television viewers across the country. Inside one 12-story apartment building downtown, residents—many of them older people, some in wheelchairs—were given three hours’ notice to evacuate. The apartment house manager, reading police announcements over the intercom, “told us at about 2:30 in the afternoon that we had to be out by 6,” recalls Jensen, who lived in the building. “The halls and the elevators were congested, but everyone was calm, nobody panicked.”

Jensen and about other 24,000 residents were forced from their homes in Cedar Rapids during the torrential flooding, a frightening and traumatic experience. But, “as horrible as things were, virtually everyone was moved away from danger in an orderly fashion,” says Liz Selk, director of the Heritage Area Agency on Aging in Cedar Rapids.

“It was amazing, just amazing,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “They evacuated an entire hospital and a nursing home, and everything went smoothly.”

Little wonder. On its own, Iowa’s small, bucolic Linn County had developed a detailed disaster plan for its residents—including the older people and the disabled. And when the powerful rains and river waters began to sweep through its largest city, Cedar Rapids, in early June, the county’s plan withstood the test, officials say.

“People came around to help those who couldn’t do that on their own,” Jensen said. Some residents like Jensen were picked up by relatives who lived outside the danger area. “Buses came for anyone who needed transportation to a shelter. They had lift buses for the people in wheelchairs. Everybody got out safely, as far as I know.”

And now, as thousands of dazed residents struggle with everything from temporary housing to massive, muddy cleanups, additional aid workers are on the ground to help the most vulnerable. Whether this part of the relief effort goes as well as the evacuation remains to be seen. Of the 36,000 displaced Iowans, says John McCalley, director of the Iowa Department of Elder Affairs, more than 20 percent are age 60 and older, “which is huge.” The U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) yesterday announced a $50,000 award to the state to be used to assist older people during the recovery.

About 9,000 homebound older residents in Iowa rely on a network of social services, and federal officials say aid workers are trying to coordinate utility workers, emergency teams, volunteers and caregivers to preserve that safety net.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has teams in place. “But FEMA really specializes in getting material help and assessing damages,” McCalley says. “So other agencies have been assigned to help older people with FEMA paperwork, Medicare problems and health care questions.”

Aid workers from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, along with officials from federal and local AoA offices, are on the scene manning special tables set up inside the FEMA centers to help older and disabled residents navigate the bureaucracy.

“We have all tried to learn the lessons of Katrina,” says Selk, referring to the 2005 flood disaster in New Orleans, where hurricane storms whipped up river waters that breached the levees and flooded the city. There, local and federal relief efforts were woefully slow, disorganized and inadequate. Then, older and disabled men and women, especially those living on their own, suffered and even died in disproportionate numbers.

After the Katrina debacle, emergency planners across the country, at all levels, vowed to improve and refine disaster preparations—and to include special plans for their most vulnerable residents. The Linn County plan, with a strong focus on caring for residents with special needs, was cited as a model by the National Association of Counties and by federal emergency officials.


Now, in the aftermath of recent floods that raged through parts of seven Midwestern states leaving 24 dead, driving tens of thousands from their homes and ravaging billions of dollars worth of property and 5 million acres of farmland—officials are beginning to take stock of their plans and how they worked.

“If disaster was going to hit and seniors were going to be affected, this was a good place to be because the people there were ready and well organized,” says McCalley. State records that show 1,922 residents in half a dozen long-term care facilities were evacuated safely and without incident. “In Linn County,” McCalley says, “disaster teams moved an entire hospital, including intensive care patients, in just hours.”

Cedar Rapids, the second-largest city in Iowa, was one of the hardest-hit areas in the seven-state flood area. But officials say that only one person died—in a flood-related car accident—even though the Cedar River, which runs right through the town, crested at nearly 32 feet, flooding 1,300 city blocks, including 3,900 homes.

The county, officials say, had lists of older or disabled people who would need help evacuating their homes, and buses were there to help them escape the rising waters. Schools had been prepared to open as shelters, and there were special shelters for pets and even volunteers to pick up the animals if their owners were not able to transport them. People were instructed to tie white cloths to their doors when they evacuated their homes, so rescue workers did not waste time with empty houses.

“When the river started to rise,” says Selk, “people who rely on our Meals on Wheels service were given extra frozen dinners and food, so if volunteers couldn’t deliver the meals they would have something to eat.” Selk says that the two Meals on Wheels kitchens in Cedar Rapids were submerged in the floodwater, “but they set up in schools and we didn’t miss a day of service.”

Even many animals fared well in this disaster, says Selk, whose office is in the Kirkwood Community College, which set up one of the shelters for pets.

“An older man came in yesterday to claim his dog,” she says smiling. “They brought the dog out, and he said, ‘That’s not my dog.’ He kept saying that. But it turned out that it was his dog—he didn’t recognize it right away because volunteers had washed the dog and groomed it, and it looked so much better!”