July 2010

After the Flood, Union Members Help
Re-energize Cedar Rapids
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The damage caused by massive floodwaters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, two years ago destroyed hundreds of homes, crippled businesses and dealt a blow to a state already stung by the recession.

In the aftermath, more than 1,200 IBEW members rose to the challenge of helping get the area back on firm ground—a task that is finally yielding tangible results.

"It’s been a long time coming, but we’re seeing signs of recovery," Local 405 Business Manager Bill Hanes said. "Businesses are returning. In some areas, things are nearly back to the way they were before the flooding. In other places, we’ve still got a long way to go."

On June 13, 2008, the Cedar River—which runs through the center of the city—swelled to a historic high, swallowing levees and submerging 10 square miles of the city. Eighteen thousand residents were displaced and hundreds of businesses and government buildings were inundated. As rainfall fed the raging Mississippi River less than 100 miles to the east, devastation mounted throughout the state as more flooding enveloped riverside areas. By the end of the nine-day ordeal, hundreds would watch their homes and livelihoods wash away, at least temporarily, with the flood.

Mobilizing After ‘Iowa’s Katrina’

Recovery efforts following "Iowa’s Katrina," as many refer to it, could have lagged if not for the IBEW’s involvement in rebuilding the city, Hanes said.

"There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve been a big part of the solution," Hanes said. "Nonunion contractors couldn’t have summoned the kind of skilled work force we did."

Hundreds of local members were joined by 800 travelers to resurrect Cedar Rapids’ industrial plants—including Quaker Oats and agriculture giant Cargill—and re-energize the city’s only salvageable 225-megawatt power plant. It was dirty, dangerous work. Floodwaters were rife with chemicals and bacteria, and underground wire in nearly all buildings had been exposed to water and needed replacing.

The massive scope of the damage often required seven 16-hour days per week from members, some of whom came from as far as California, Florida and Washington.

Power and Problems

At Alliant Energy’s Prairie Creek powerhouse in the heart of the city, hundreds of members logged nearly half a million man-hours bringing the facility back online. All control systems had been damaged beyond repair and massive turbines needed to be rebuilt. The town’s only other powerhouse was completely wiped out.

Local 405 member Glen Henry of Acme Electrical Co. led the reconstruction and wiring effort at Prairie Creek. "We had about 300 electricians working with us over the span of a year and a half," he said. "Most of them were travelers, so housing was an issue. We had guys sleeping on our shop floor for a while, and the local college offered them a place to stay, too." Other entities outside of town that were relatively immune from the flood offered additional accommodations.

Inside wiremen’s efforts to jolt Prairie Creek back to life couldn’t have succeeded without the work of hundreds of Cedar Rapids Local 204 members. The members—many of whom live in more remote areas of the state—converged on the water-logged city to restring high voltage lines, restore underground distribution lines and help residents facing widespread power outages.

But while striving to help rebuild the city, Local 204 received a punch below the belt.

"We were right in the thick of things and lost our office in the flood," said Business Manager Dave George. Higher-than-expected floodwaters soaked computers, paper records and other equipment throughout the building located next to the river, forcing George and his crew to relocate to office space on the edge of the city. "Through it all, though, everybody kept a cool head and we didn’t have a single major safety issue. You’d think it would maybe be the opposite—but in a high state of emergency, our members are even more cognizant of safety due to the nature and urgency of the task at hand."

Back on the Clock

Across town, Local 405 members from Acme and signatory contractor the ESCO Group resurrected the Quaker Oats plant—the company’s largest in the country and one of Cedar Rapids’ largest employers. Nearly 1,300 members of the machinists union are now back at work at the plant.

"Between Prairie Creek and Quaker, this was uncharted territory for all of us," Henry said. "None of us had ever seen anything close to the scope of devastation here. We were making critical decisions on an hourly basis to get power back and ultimately make it so folks could get back to their jobs."

One of the hardest-hit sites in the city was the Cargill plant, which called on nearly 300 members to reconstruct and rewire the facility. Of all major industry sites in Cedar Rapids, the Cargill building has taken the longest to rehabilitate.

"The manpower brought in was critical to the rebuilding process," said Local 405 member Doug Yates of the ESCO Group, who supervised electricians at Cargill. "It was definitely a testament to the IBEW’s organizational skills that they could ramp up a job from 40 people to hundreds in just a few weeks. It was very hard for some of these members to be away from their families, especially for weeks at a time." Cargill provided break tents, catered meals and an emphasis on a safe work environment.

IBEW members completed nearly all of the electrical work at businesses in the downtown Cedar Rapids area, Hanes said. All of the city’s manufacturing plants are now up and running, and more than 80 percent of businesses are back and serving customers. "Getting the industrial base back has allowed a large number of residents to return to work in the city," Hanes said.

Hitting Home

Local retirees also stepped up to volunteer their expertise for homeowners who suffered flood damage. Cedar Rapids’ local labor management cooperation committee put up $100,000 for experienced hands to rewire about 200 homes—mostly for residents lacking sufficient insurance coverage to combat the damage.

But even though most Local 405 members live on the outskirts of town away from the river, many are staring down troubles of their own. Nineteen of the local’s 850 members had severe flood damage to their homes that only allowed them to salvage what they could and move out. A handful of others were able to refurbish and remodel their houses and are starting to return to some semblance of normal life.

"It’s not perfect yet—there are still some very large challenges looming," Hanes said. "But the Brotherhood has stood strong for this community, and we’ll continue to as we work to rebuild our city."

A Cargill employee pumps water out of a high voltage switchgear at the Cargill corn processing plant following massive flooding in 2008. More than 250 IBEW members worked to revive the plant.