The Forgotten Iowa

01/04/2011 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the last night of my holiday trip to my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I asked my parents to take the long way to our dinner. I wanted to see first-hand those parts of the city still devastated by the historic flood of June 2008. In Washington, DC, where I now live, talk about Iowa revolves around the churning machinery for the GOP presidential nomination and the Iowa caucuses that kick off that national process. A list of 50 influential Iowa Republicans recently generated a fair amount of chatter; a Sarah Palin book tour stop on the Western side of the state generated another round of "will she run?" prognosticating; road-weary reporters and campaign operatives dissect new restaurants in the Des Moines area. That is the Iowa of the national political conversation. But it is not the Iowa I saw.

Our car ride was extra dark, because many residential streets no longer have street lights. Along low-lying Ellis Boulevard, parallel to the Cedar River, a string of homes had single blue porch lights illuminated on the front porches, that neighborhood's unofficial way to signify a dwelling is occupied and to celebrate recovery efforts. In the same area, thousands of homes have been demolished, making for an eerie hopscotch pattern of blue lights. Looters have ransacked many of the abandoned homes, removing copper pipe and other salable materials. Some abandoned properties sat empty and dark. Others assaulted the senses: windows blown out, exteriors blackened by rot, debris strewn across lawns. The scene screamed "New Orleans," but without the accompanying charitable service projects and celebrity commitments.

We passed an abandoned A&W hot dog stand, more empty homes and vacant lots, and Ellis Park, where a City Garden has yet to be fully restored. We wove through the Czech Village - a once-proud cultural landmark - and its surrounding streets. The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is being lifted from its foundation and moved to higher ground, the saved artifacts temporarily transferred to a nearby storefront. The rest of the Czech Village activity that night was limited to two small neighborhood bars. As we turned onto yet another un-illuminated side street of wide, empty lots, I too-easily imagined a scene from "The Walking Dead" and mused that the Iowa Film Office could capitalize on these locations as revenue generators for television and films: "Iowa welcomes productions seeking desolate, flood-ravaged areas to serve as zombie zones and meth-head havens."

The most notable development downtown is a new federal courthouse: a two-block-wide, 300,000 square-foot structure under construction on the banks of the Cedar River; its $160 million budget part of a Congressional disaster-relief appropriation a few months after the flood. Within its shadow, more than 30 months post-flood, the main branch of the Cedar Rapids Public Library remains closed, its salvaged holdings housed in a mostly empty shopping mall. The Greyhound bus terminal remains dark. The City Hall remains unusable; the Mayor and other officials are scattered around in leased office space. Much of the grand, six-story, century-old Paramount Theatre -- home to the symphony I grew up attending -- was destroyed and irreplaceable. The art museum where I got married is a few blocks away, and untouched, but the restaurants our out-of-town guests visited that weekend are all gone. The city is banking on a controversial plan to build a Mayo Clinic-style medical mall downtown, despite any accompanying retail development for visitors.

My parents and their friends share the folklore: families whose safe deposit box valuables, long housed in bank basements, are still in a Texas facility being dried out; the bus of local jail inmates that got swept up in cresting waters and smashed into the display windows of the city's largest furniture store. And how Nancy Pelosi stood on the steps of one family's ruined home, learned of that family's struggle, and cried.

Meanwhile, snow had been falling in New York City. Its tabloids were in full snowpocalyptic mode, Paul Krugman was declaring it Mayor Bloomberg's "Katrina moment" -- that political kiss of death. Cedar Rapids had its usual foot and a half of fresh Christmas snow, its residents barely noticing, the pace of life never slowing. That's one reason the flood effects are so jarring. This city has always rolled with the meteorological punches. As a schoolchild, I remember well the tornado sirens, the heat waves, the icy blizzards and the rarest of rare snow days. But this flood has proven to be something different, something insurmountable -- which makes Cedar Rapids every presidential candidate's Katrina.

Presidential hopefuls are repeatedly told that they must "pay attention to Iowa." And they do. (My mother has her own Washington-style brag wall featuring Democratic presidential candidates from recent cycles. My favorite photo is of John Kerry, hair soaked from a rainstorm, in the middle of the once-vibrant Czech Village.) For 2012, Iowa Democrats and Independents should cross party lines and force the GOP hopefuls to see Cedar Rapids as it is today. Any viable presidential candidate must substantively answer questions about the plight of the state's second largest city; the federal funding dilemmas and buck-passing; employment and housing struggles; too many hungry children; the importance of arts and culture to a community. And all of this must happen in addition to discussion of the familiar macro struggles of economic recovery, lost manufacturing jobs, declining educational systems, and the state's brain drain.

A new indie comedy is coming out this spring, entitled simply, "Cedar Rapids." The Cedar Rapids media hasn't really covered the film (probably because most of it was filmed in the non-devastated Ann Arbor), and at a holiday party, people looked at me quizzically when I mentioned it. It's a shame that I get the same reaction when I mention Cedar Rapids in Washington. It would be a tragedy for this city to be in the middle of a national political conversation over the next two years while its still-suffering people remain unseen.