The flood of 2008 is so truly monumental for my adopted home town of Cedar Rapids that this city will be forever remembered by those who lived through it as a before and after image. It is so overwhelming that for now all I can do is provide a brief overview interwoven with my own small part in it. Also know that the past three weeks have become a blur, so some things to follow may not be exact.
On 6/12/08 I went to work at my hospital at 1:00 PM. It was raining, hard. The news was that the Cedar River was expected to crest at 25 feet, above flood stage but within the limits the levees were able to handle. But it kept raining and raining some more. Then came news that the gauge measuring the river level had been disabled by the increasingly swift current. By around 4:30 the ambulance garage next to the emergency room was flooded. Looking out the windows of my unit where we were doing patient care as usual I could see about 50 people vainly trying to hold the flood waters at bay with sand bags. At that point things ground to a halt.
We still cared for our patients, but there was a sense that things were not going well. About 5:30 an administrator came to our floor and told us to get everything together we needed to care for our patients during an evacuation whether it be medications, IV fluids, bandages, or things too numerous to name. That took about an hour. Then came a long wait. During that time I was asked to run a list of all our patients down to the evacuation command center. After doing that I took a moment to peek out our main entrance where the windows are two stories tall. I was greeted by this sight. Hundreds of people, young and old, were standing in waist deep water outside piling sand bags against the windows while many more were stacking sand bags inside to protect against the onrushing flood. I felt the urge to go help them, but I had things that needed to be done on my unit so I returned. By that time the elevators had flooded, so I climbed the 80 stairs back home.
Then came an even longer wait. While still doing patient care and taking care of things at the nurses' station, it wasn't until about midnight that we were told to get ready to evacuate our patients: prioritizing which ones should be evacuated first, placing wheel chairs outside the rooms of patients who would need them, and most importantly, calmly telling the patients that we might have to evacuate.
Finally at around 3:30 AM came the call that there was a fear that a levee would break and that the flood would overwhelm the emergency generator. We were told to evacuate all our patients immediately. By that time, they had managed to get one elevator out of nine working so immediately became an agonizingly slow process. We lined the patients up in the hallway, the majority in wheel chairs but the most critical still in bed. It took an hour to get them all on the elevators and down to the first floor and another hour to get them half way to the exit, where buses, Humvee ambulances, and regular ambulances from as far away as Illinois were waiting. By that time I had been there well over 16 hours, a double shift. I would have tripled if they let me, but legally they couldn't of course. I protested that I was tired but okay, but after 16 hours I was running on adrenaline as anyone would be. I had to go home.
It's a matter of personal pride that as I left, I heard a chorus of thank you's which started with my nurse manager and continued down the line of my coworkers. But truly, I want to and have thanked not only the people on my unit but my colleagues throughout the hospital. Just as one example, a friend's house was flooded up to the rafters. She evacuated but came to work anyway. When I asked her why she said she had to come. She would rather be helping people than sitting at her in-law's obsessing about her house. Just as importantly, it would have been easy to panic in this crisis, but nobody did. Everyone stayed calm and in the process helped our patients stay calm as well. I am so proud of the way my hospital and everyone who was there that night responded to this disaster. I've always been somewhat cynical about advertising, but in this case it truly was the "Mercy touch."
Writing this is both therapeutic and exhausting. There's much more to tell, but at this point exhaustion has taken over. For now, good night.
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