11/06/2012 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What a Flood Taught Me About Home

Four and a half years ago, I stood in my office, waist-deep in noxious water, holding a painting over my head.

"Don't drop it!" The man behind me said through clenched teeth. "Don't move too fast and splash on it."

That man was my boss and the painting I held was his family keepsake. My knees locked. Something wet and soft bumped into my leg. Was that a diaper?

In June of 2008, the flood waters of the Cedar River crested to historic levels. Over 5,000 homes and 940 businesses were filled with the ruinous sludge and forceful pressure of the river water coming up through drains and sewers, roads and levees. The Iowa flooding of 2008 was one of the most expensive natural disasters in the United States since Hurricane Katrina. We lost homes. Our theater. Our library. That one place where I could get a seafood enchilada, my favorite coffee shop and -- eventually -- my job. The total cost of damages for the state is estimated to be at least $64 billion.

Currently, officials estimate that the damage caused by Sandy could hit between $50-60 billion. But as we know, the cost can't truly be counted.

My city is finally starting to make a recovery. As I write this, I sit in my new favorite coffee shop, looking out at our new city market. We still don't have our library back, but we just reopened our theater. I don't have my job back and I never will work as a copywriter again, but I do have a new career and a daughter named Ellis. A name she shares with the park in town most decimated by the flood. That namesake was an accident (Ellis was also the pen name of my favorite author Emily Bronte), but I don't believe in coincidence. And as I watch her grow in this town, I think of her as my little Iowan -- blonde, blue-eyed, an eternal optimist. And while I hope for her sake that she never has to experience a natural disaster like the Iowa flooding of 2008 or Hurricane Sandy, I do hope that I can share some of the lessons of the flood with her.

Before the flood, I didn't consider myself an Iowan or attach much value to the idea of "roots." I had grown up moving around -- California, Texas, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, where my parents left me in college and moved on to Florida, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. When people asked me, "Where are you from?" I'd stumble through a confusing answer. But the truth was, "Nowhere, really."

When my husband and I moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2005, I cried. It was a dumpy little town, heavy with industry and the smells that came along with it. While Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in the state, it felt small. I struggled to find a job and friends and mango chutney. "I hate it here," I told my husband as we tried to pick from a depressing lineup of chain restaurants for dinner.

I eventually found a job and friends I loved. We moved into an old house and I started experimenting with different recipes for corn. My husband called me an Iowan, but I still cringed at the association.

Then in 2008, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Iowans, hefting sandbags and crying as we watched the inevitable rise of the water destroy the things we loved. When I went out to Boston that year for graduate school, I told everyone I met that I was an Iowan. But the Celtics had won the NBA championship and no one had really heard about the apocalypse that had destroyed the small town that I'd made. Beyond jokes about meth and corn, no one really cared where I was from except me. And for the first time in my rootless life, I felt like I had a place.

Before the flood, I would have told my child that place doesn't matter. That you are you and the place you stand is just a changing backdrop, irrelevant to what you become. But now, every time, I run through downtown Cedar Rapids, drive over the river (so tame this year because of the drought), I know that is not true. I know that place leaves an imprint. Being from somewhere gives you a place to stand on, and run from or back to as much as you need. Home is the physical manifestation of what our hearts need.

So, I hope my daughter -- with hair the color of corn and eyes the color of a big blue prairie sky -- grows up loving this dumpy, beautiful little town that we call our home and knows that place always has purpose, even when that place is gone.


Lyz Lenz writes about floods and babies over on her site