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Rising water, rising anxiety

October 1, 2008
by Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
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A Cedar Rapids agency helps the community rebuild emotionally after a devastating flood
Photo of cindy kaestner by mike haeder, hall's photo
Photo of Cindy Kaestner by Mike Haeder, Hall's Photo

When Cindy Kaestner, LISW, learned that county officials were closing her community mental health center's main building because of the threat of rising floodwaters, she was understandably skeptical. After all, she was at her agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during the historic flooding of 1993, and the water had come no where near the building, which is more than a mile from the Cedar River. Yet this past June water was within two feet of the agency's doors and kayakers paddled down the street.

“All the worst factors at one time converged,” says Kaestner, executive director of the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health. She explains that a snowy and icy winter, along with torrential spring and early summer rains in Cedar Rapids and the region, had caused the Cedar River to crest at more than 30 feet.

While the Abbe Center's main building was spared, the downtown office of its parent organization, which handles HR, community relations, and accounting functions for the center and its sister agencies, was inundated. Although located in the city block next to the river, the two-story building was not flooded in 1993. This time around, it had 10 feet of water—soaking the first floor's ceiling tiles. “It was a massive amount of water that nobody could have anticipated,” says Kaestner, who has lived in the Cedar Rapids area her whole life. Computer equipment and other important items had been moved to the second floor, but the first floor had to be completely gutted, cleaned, and sanitized (an expense covered by flood insurance). The agency has not decided how it will use the too-be-reconstructed space going forward. According to a report from the Linn County Nonprofit Resource Center, 30 human service organizations reported that the flood had a combined direct impact of $13.4 million for relocating, replacing equipment and materials, and repairing buildings.

The Abbe Center has a targeted case management office farther inland, and that is where management regrouped during the flood. As the agency worked to locate and reach out to its displaced clients, the local emergency operations center requested the Abbe Center's help in providing around-the-clock mental health assistance at two emergency shelters. It was a rather interesting challenge for the Abbe Center in already difficult circumstances as “up until this point, we really had not been included in very much of the community's disaster planning,” notes Kaestner. The community had been reviewing its disaster preparedness plan, but it had yet to consider the role of mental health providers. “I think some people assumed that with public health at the table, that somehow included mental health,” she says.

For a slide show of the flooding in Cedar Rapids, visit http://behavioral.net/cedarflooding1008.

Nonetheless, the Abbe Center's staff answered the call. “We didn't have a whole lot of trouble getting a hold of our staff, and we didn't have anybody hesitate,” Kaestner points out with pride. Because most of the bridges spanning the Cedar River were under water, staff had to leave for the shelters two hours in advance to arrive for their shifts. At the time there was no discussion as to whether staff would be paid for their time. Yet the state already had been working on a federal crisis counseling grant to cover services for those affected by the Parkersburg, Iowa, tornado just a few weeks earlier, and the state “added on county, after county, after county as the flooding went down south through the state,” says Kaestner. The grant allowed the Abbe Center to compensate staff members for time beyond their normal work hours.

Kayakers paddle in the street in front of the abbe center in june
Kayakers paddle in the street in front of the Abbe Center in June. Photo by Katie Moon of the Abbe Center

Cedar Rapids residents' initial response was to seek a listening ear during the flood. Although the water quickly receded, stress continues to rise as residents—some now homeless and jobless—face a lack of information, slow government decision making, and dwindling financial resources. People displaced from their homes are living with relatives (if they themselves haven't been forced to move, as many areas of the Hawkeye State experienced natural disasters this year), which Kaestner notes can lead to rising family tensions in cramped quarters. Some residents have been living in campgrounds, with anxiety levels rising as colder weather nears. “And there wasn't enough affordable housing in town before the flood,” she says. Six of the Abbe Center's staff members suffered significant flooding in their homes.

Local mental health providers are trying to plan for the community's needs, but predicting how many people will seek services isn't easy. “It's not like being able to say, ‘In this neighborhood we need 10 new roofs and 25 water heaters by a certain date,’” Kaestner explains. “We are not going to be able to predict, ‘By next Thursday, we're going to have 27 calls.’”