The Hot Beat


The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him:

Off for a week

I’ll be off work from May 30 through June 7, and I don’t expect to be blogging.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Hot Property #7: Commonwealth Apartments

The Commonwealth Apartment at 1400 Second Ave. SE rank seventh among residential properties that police were called to most often in 2008.

Police were called there 93 times. Considering the seven-story brick building has 110 apartments in it, that’s not an astonishing number of police calls. Rent (which is by the week) at the place is in the $600/month range.

The building is owned by WDJ Investments, and the manager is Jeff Frese.

I don’t see anything terribly shocking about the building in the archives, but the building does have an interesting history.

It was built in 1925, and at one point (hard to imagine now) there was a baseball park near it. It was supposed to be really fancy, with a 20-foot ceiling in the lobby. The art deco building was considered the height of luxury. The six stories were a self-contained community with its own dining room and laundry service.

Writer John Goulet lived there as a boy in the 1950s. Katherine Morrison, a resident there in the 1940s, was the first Eastern Iowa woman accepted by
the WAVES, the women’s division of the United States Navy.

In 1998, Bill and Donna Frese, then the new owners of the building, hoped to restore some of the building’s Jazz Age opulence.

Filed under: Public Safety, , , , , , ,

2008: Sandbaggers take initiative

More memories from the flood:

My mother and I, along with some friends responded to the call. We initially head to Edgewood Road, to assist with the well, but were turned away. We were told to go to Mercy Hospital and got there as soon as we could. We parked on the Northern Side of the hospital and walked around to the intersection of 8th Avenue and 10th Street SE. We quickly realized that no one in particular was in charge, but instead, it was find someone who at least knew what to do. After a while, they said that they were moving to another location. My mother got on the back of a pickup and took off. I assumed that I would get on the next one, and go to the same location. It didn’t pan out that way. Instead she went down near the Qwest building and I ended up back on the Northern side of the hospital. We got a pile of sand there and began filling sandbags and sending them down an assembly line into the bottom of the hospital. At some point, people came out of the bottom of the hospital, and some others (including myself) went in. I remember standing in the bottom floors of the hospital in about 1/2 inch of water and getting handed sandbags and sending them down the line.

I think the part that sticks out to me, was how the community rose up against everything, to help save itself. Also, how we didn’t wait for anyone to tell us what to do. Instead, we learned from each other and then passed that on to the next person who needed it.

Mark Fuller
Cedar Rapids, IA

Filed under: Flood, , , , , ,

2008: Close shave for SanDee Skelton

6 a.m. Thurs., June 12 —- SanDee Skelton woke up at her daughter’s home, and drove to her house to gather a few more things before the water closed in.

“When I got to a block from my house, there was like an inch of water on the street,” Skelton said. But the water was rising rapidly, she said, and when she tried to turn her car around, it stalled. She called 911.

“The current was so hard, and I could feel the car rocking back and forth,” she said.

She managed to get to the passenger window while water flowed onto her feet. The dispatcher told her firefighters were on their way.

“I just went into a total relax mode,” said Skelton. “I said, ‘OK, I’m in God’s hands.’”

She called her niece and told her to tell everyone she loved them. Her niece told her to try to get out of the car.

“Put the cellphone in your bra, and give me a play-by-play as you try to get out,” Skelton remembers her saying.

Sklelton slid over to the passenger seat, and tried to climb out the window.

“My leg kept floating back, because the current was so hard,” Skelton said.

That’s when the she heard the sirens. Firefighters brought a raft down to her, and took her up to dry land. When she looked back, she said, her car was nearly submerged.

“I could just see the beige colored top, like it was a sidewalk or something,” she said.

Filed under: Flood, , , , , , ,

2008: The Sunday after, strike teams in Time Check

7 a.m., Sun., June 15 —- The Iowa River crested at 31.5 feet in Iowa City that day, and UI President Sally Mason announced the Hancher Auditorium was likely flooded up to the concert stage.

Strike teams assembled in Cedar Rapids, where the water was already back down to 25 feet, to go through the flooded neighborhoods and determine which homes were safe to return to, which were not.

Cedar Rapids firefighter Corey Archer was assigned to the Time Check neighborhood. “They called it Alpha sector,” he said.

The sun shone through the shade of the trees onto a neighborhood that was heavy with dampness and smeared with muck.

Hustling house to house, breaking through doors into wrecked living rooms and kitchens, it struck Archer as ironic that the only things inhabiting the streets were the occasional cat – and thousands of dead nightcrawlers.

“Those were beautiful summer days, and nobody’s around,” Archer said.

He saw boats wedged onto front porches, Yardy carts hanging on stop signs, garages relocated down streets.

“We would literally find logs three feet in diameter shoved in windows,” he said.

What he’ll never forget, what all of Cedar Rapids may not forget for decades, was the smell. The smell of dead worms, broken refrigerators, wet pet food and especially the who-knows-what of the muck that cooked on the ground as a warm spell followed the previous week’s torrential rain into Eastern Iowa.

Many of those on the strike teams simply threw away their clothes afterward.

Archer said one scene caused him and his colleagues to stop and watch. It was a pile of fish, some living, some dead, fighting for water in a small pool above a storm drain partially blocked by a sheet of plywood.

Three days before, the water had been ten feet deep. Now it was a diminishing puddle at the end of J Avenue NW. Bigger fish were jockeying for space and smaller fish were piled up dead around the perimeter.

“All these fish are in there, swimming and fighting and rotting,” he said.

Eventually someone pulled up the plywood, and the remaining water and fish dropped into the storm drain.
The survivors, Archer assumes, swam back to the river.

Filed under: Flood, , , , ,

2008: I Am Legend on Sixth Street

I’ll be posting people’s memories of the flood over the next couple weeks. If you remember specific scenes or feelings from the flood, e-mail me:

Memories of that Thursday are somewhat sketchy. In my mind, all 3 days really blend together. Memories of the news coverage, sights of the orange cones that kept moving out over the course of the day, Bruce Aune loosening his tie, Ashley Hinson admitting to her lack of shower by putting her hair up in a headband. Driving through flooded neighborhoods is an everyday thing. We see the aftermath. It’s EVERY DAY! What’s not are the little memories such as those that I mentioned. I remember timing my sump pump just right so that we could actually flush the toilet. I remember taking my wife and daughter over the river for the first time just so they could see the reality of the events with their own eyes rather than through the lens of a camera. I remember the 1st Ave. Dairy Queen sign and the small drive through sign below that showed the true severity of the situation.

One of my most vivid memories, though, is that Wednesday. I was on my way down 6th SW street toward first avenue. During lunch that day, I had been to the venue that my youth outreach group (Central Corridor Gamers) calls home, Trinity United Methodist Church. There was an army of people moving things from the basement of the fellowship hall to the upper level. I really had no idea why they were making such drastic moves. We figured a little water on the carpet. I decided to come back again after work to move some of the stuff that our group uses during our regular meetings (which were supposed to happen that evening). All along 6th street, people who had just evacuated their homes were strolling. It was just like a scene from War of the Worlds, or I Am Legend. People lining both sides of the street with pet carriers, children in their arms, depressed and concerned looks on their faces, all moving in the same direction—away from the water. This was the first time that reality set into my mind. It was clear that CCG would not be meeting that night. It was clear that things were bad.

I hope you don’t mind me side-stepping the “I-380 that Thursday” instruction. I was just thinking about my memories this weekend with some family and these were the things that came to my mind.

Dan Alpers
Founder and President
Central Corridor Gamers

Filed under: Flood, , , , ,

2008: the woman in the bus

The city bus idled just off First Avenue West, 10 blocks from the Cedar River, less than a block from the edge of the water.

Mary Lou Conlan was the lone passenger. She sat with her hands folded. Sunlight streamed into the dark bus through the window behind her and the air conditioner hummed as voices called back and forth outside.

Moments earlier, Conlan had been rescued from her house at 420 Sixth St. SW, where she’d been marooned upstairs for 24 hours. A red boat had floated up to her home. She stepped in, the boat floated the eight blocks back to dry land, and firefighters carried her to the pavement. But she was not frantic, or desperate looking. She was neatly dressed. She carried a purse, and she awaited the arrival of her daughter, who remained at the house until firefighters could return for her.

Stretched out before Conlan was a stunning scene. First Avenue, the lifeline of urban Cedar Rapids, was covered in water from 10th Street SW to Fourth Street SE. Firefighters and Coast Guard officers chugged down the avenue on rescue boats in a continuous cycle. Their boats kicked south in the brisk currents shooting down Sixth and Fifth Streets, and they wouldn’t go much closer to the river than that. It was as if the heart of the city were a lake, strangely populated with buildings. Interstate 380 ribboned over the astonishing panorama, conveying a slow cargo of traffic in the bright, sunny distance.

Conlan looked down at her hands.

“It makes me sick,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “Here I am, retired. I lost everything.”

Filed under: Flood, , , ,

Looking back at June 2008: the scene at Mercy

Volunteers carry sanbags to protect Mercy Medical Center just after midnight on June 13, 2008. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Volunteers carry sanbags to protect Mercy Medical Center just after midnight on June 13, 2008.

The one-year anniversary of the flood is about three weeks away, and I’m working on a story that will give a blow-by-blow account of some of the key events of the flood. One of those is the evacuation of Mercy Medical Center. Hopefully I’ll post a few more of these before I have to turn this story in, which is Tuesday.

Here’s what I’ve got on Mercy so far. Thanks to Karen Vander Sanden, Chad Ware and Bob Olberding for talking to me. As usual, would appreciate your ideas/criticisms:

1300 hours, Thurs., June 12 —- Doctors and administrators at Mercy Medical Center were planning for an influx of patients. They figured the swollen Cedar River would force officials to shut down the Virginia Gay Hospital in Vinton, and that some nursing homes along the river would have to be evacuated.

But as Thursday dragged on, water crept up Eighth Avenue and started pooling under the canopy outside the hospital’s emergency room.

“A lot of the water started coming up through storm drains around the building as it was coming up Eighth Avenue,” said Chad Ware, a former program coordinator who was promoted to emergency management coordinator after the flood. “Mid-afternoon, water started coming out of the toilets.”

That’s when workers started laying sandbags around the glass wall of the hospital’s entrance and running from bathroom to bathroom, ripping toilets and sinks out and plugging the holes with towels, sandbags, inflatable rubber bladders.

The staff at Mercy fell into the work with a cool-headedness and seriousness that still impresses Ware. The man in charge of stopping the water was Bob Olberding, the hospital’s director of plant operations. He’s worked at the hospital for 37 years and sometimes refers to it as “my hospital.”

He didn’t leave the hospital for four days during the flood, and fought his hardest to preserve the building’s electrical switch gear in the basement.

“We were running around like chickens down there,” he said. “Emotionally, it was a pretty difficult situation.”

Some 25 pumps were running, including eight in the basement, but Olberding didn’t trust the glass wall at the hospital’s entrance, and water was getting closer to the concrete pads where the electrical gear rested.

About 9 p.m., the evacuation was ordered. The hospital was already on backup power, but if water reached the switchgear, patients would have been stranded on the upper floors of the hospital in the dark.

About 2 a.m., Tim Charles, the CEO of Mercy, walked up to Ware, who was helping coordinate the evacuation.

“Chad, we have a problem,” Ware remembers Charles saying. “We may lose the elevators within the hour.”
The evacuation had begun on the ninth floor, where the most serious patients were staying. The first priority became moving everyone to the ground floor before the elevators went down.

Patients were lined up near an east entrance to the hospital. Ambulances, humvees and city buses waited outside for them. Patients in good health were rolled to buses in wheelchairs, some carrying vases of flowers.

“I walked outside and I remember seeing the line of ambulances…and the lake of water, and it just hit me,” Ware said. “It was scary. It really was.”

The army of volunteers that had saved the pumphouse on Edgewood Road (and thus the city’s water supply) rushed over to Mercy in a throng, and bolstered the sandbag walls around the glass walls. Even when firefighters told them to get out of the water, they stood their ground.

“To see people doing that stuff, it was absolutely incredible,” Olberding said.

By 8 a.m. Friday, 183 patients, including very sick newborns, had been transferred to St. Luke’s Hospital and other medical facilities around Iowa — as far away as Des Moines or Guttenberg.

After a short meeting, most of the staff was sent home. Ware, who lives in Walker, headed out.

“I remember getting in the car and driving home, and by the time you get to Blairs Ferry Road, it was very surreal. It was business as usual,” he said. “You felt like you went from one world to another.”

That evening, his friends called him to play softball in the men’s league that plays at the field below the town’s grain elevator. It was a lovely night.

“Well, all right,” he said.

Olberding, who lives in Dyersville, didn’t go home for ten days.

Photo by Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette.

Filed under: Flood, , , , ,

More on bonding, county buildings

Feeling the need to post something, so here’s a draft of a story that will go in tomorrow’s paper, about the county Administrative Office Building and the potential for bonding without voter approval:

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Supervisors delayed a vote Wednesday to form a committee that would look into purchasing Steve & Barry’s, the current home of county offices.

When the question does come up for a vote, perhaps next week, likely its only supporter will be Supervisor Brent Oleson, who argues that if bonding to help pay for an $11.7 million renovation and addition to the Administrative Office Building fails with voters, the supervisors will need a second option.

Three of five supervisors say they will consider borrowing money for the project without voter approval. Recent state legislation allows bonding for major building repairs in disaster-affected counties, and the building falls within an urban renewal district, which also opens the possibility for bonding without voter approval.

Bypassing voters to issue bonds might be necessary, Supervisors Linda Langston, Jim Houser and Lu Barron say, because Linn County, Cedar Rapids and the Cedar Rapids School District need funding for several projects, and sending all those projects to the ballot would be inefficient.

“We could be looking at ten bond issues,” Langston said.

She said that trying to get voter approval for a bond issue in the November election will be difficult, as citizens go to the polls to elect a new city council.

“I can just about guarantee what will happen with that vote,” she said. “I really don’t want to be on that November ballot.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has promised $2.2 million to repair the flood-damaged lower level of the Administrative Office Building at 930 First St. SE. But supervisors believe it’s important to add onto the building, reconfigure it and mitigate it against future flooding.

Not only do county plans call for a new top floor, but the Information Technology and Recorder’s Offices must be moved up from the basement that flooded in June. The building’s mechanical components must also be moved from the basement to the roof.

The supervisors are in a tough spot. They believe these improvements are crucial, but they worry voters won’t agree.

“I am in favor of putting this up for a vote,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said. “(But) if it doesn’t pass the 60 percent threshold, we will have to go back to a building that’s too small for us, that does not suit all our needs.”

Oleson won’t commit to voting against bonding past the voters, but he opposed the legislation that would allow it and he opposed the plans for the building that the board approved Monday.

“I would be inclined to have voter approval for any project that goes substantively beyond what it was,” he said. “If it’s such a great idea, the voters will probably approve it.”

Filed under: County Government, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hot Property #6, 300 31st St. NE

And we’re back! Back on the tail of Cedar Rapids landlords who own properties that can’t stop attracting the police. Sorry for the delay. We’ve still got a map, and we’re up to property number six.

It’s the Flagstone Apartments at 300 31st St. NE.

Police were called there 99 times in 2008. There are 16 apartments at that address.

Most of what I see in the archives looks like minor stuff.

Gordon Duncombe, the owner, has an office in St. Michael, Minn. The name of his company is Can-West Management.

“We have a lot of people that the county put in there,” Duncombe said. “They get stupid and they call the cops on each other.”

Filed under: Public Safety, , , , , , , , , ,

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