Friday, June 13, 2008


It’s Not The River, It’s The Creek

(June 12, Hills, IA) In a matter of hours the threat to this small town south of Iowa City had changed. It had changed dramatically. This unremarkable residential community, probably no larger in area than 3 square New York City blocks, was in peril. The 700 or so residents of this enclave found themselves in the line of fire - the line of water - actually. Hills had not flooded in 1993. However, as a comforting point of reference, that was of no use. The water is going to come. Perhaps it will not be tonight or tomorrow but, surely, it will arrive.

With the Iowa River approximately one quarter of a mile from the center of this burg without a traffic light, municipal water or anything that would give it an identity beyond it’s designated exit off US Highway 218, the river was not the imminent threat. The threat was from the north and west; a creek, a waterway that some of the locals refer to as “the old riverbed”, “a tributary” or simply “the creek”, that was going to be the path of least resistance for the unprecedented waters rapidly moving south. Cedar Rapids, north by 20 miles or so was taking a beating, the water was rising and there was no end in sight. It, “The Flood of 2008” was coming this way.

Despite it’s name, there is not a hill in Hills Iowa. Some points are higher than others, but, relatively speaking, given the present circumstances, that does not amount to much. A stranger arriving in this insulated town is as noticeable as a skinhead in Harlem. Blending in is simply not possible. Everyone here knows everyone else as well as their second and third cousins. Many of the residents are related by blood, marriage or taboo. This is a tight community and, by gosh, they are not going to wash away in the torrents without a fight.

The media does not often, if ever, come to Hills. Usually, if a local affiliate or newspaper dispatches a reporter here, it is not good news. The last time Hills saw a “media blitz’ was when perchlorate was discovered as a contaminant in their drinking water. The EPA set up shop, drilled a bunch of holes and came to an ambiguous conclusion. Most residents place the blame for the groundwater contaminant on the doorstep of Stutsman, Inc. Stutsman, Inc is a large agribusiness with a long history in this town. Folks here either love them or hate them: most seem to hate them.

In any event, approaching the ‘Hills City Garage’ or City Hall or whatever they call it, the dozens of people milling around in front of the 3 bay, gray sided, pole building, are idle. They say they have run out of sand. Sand, to fill bags, certainly is a premium commodity presently throughout Iowa and the Midwest. They have already accomplished a great deal. Their plan is to construct a plastic and sandbag dike along the northern and eastern border of town. Somebody, apparently, has specifications for this dike from some local, state or federal agency.

Once up on the sandbag line, the rain increases from a mere drizzle to a downpour. Clusters of people mill around, those groups that still have sandbags on hand continue to build what they hope will be , a protective structure.

It is hot and humid. The rain feels hot. Some folks appear as if they have been at this arduous, somewhat desperate task for many hours. Others seem to have just showed up to watch and ‘visit’. If any of those present experience a sense of futility in their efforts, they don’t reveal it. Especially not to an outsider.

Young and old take part in the effort. The mood is oddly serene. The only individuals who appear to be excited, if not actually enjoying themselves, are the members of the Hills Volunteer Fire Department. Apparently, and according to some of the more vocal sandbaggers, these guys live for this crap. They thrive on other folks misery. Indeed, local First Responders across the nation play a pivotal, a vital role in their communities. But, in a place like Hills all they do is meet, train, drill, drink beer and wait...oh how they will wait...for some mission. The bulk of these volunteers are solid citizens truly committed to serving their community. A small group of them, some, grossly obese and boisterous, have found a void-filling activity. These are the guys strutting around in HFD t-shirts; driving around rapidly in HFD vehicles. They have assumed some measure of authority by virtue of their membership; they have found a way to be a bit “above’ the average Hills-ite. Despite the fact that the potential for massive destruction here is real, they are having a blast.

As the darkness deepens from heavy, moisture laden low clouds to actual night time, the thunderstorms roll in. The rainfall is impressive as is the electrical display provided by malicious lightning. The sandbaggers, bag fillers, observers, tractor drivers and all the rest head for home. The morning will either valid or mock their efforts.

Farley Marsden writing a subjective, observation-based commentary from Hills, Iowa for TBC
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