Jason Hathaway had enough time to grab a few essentials, his pets and personal mementos before flood water overtook his single-story ranch home in Hamburg, climbing so high the gutters disappeared.
Hathaway only lived in the house about six months before the Missouri River breached a levee on March 18, 2019, inundating two-thirds of the tiny Southwest Iowa town with flood water.
“It’s kind of like a ghost town now,” Hathaway said. “The flag pole was their measuring stick for how bad the flood is. In , the water was three feet from the flag pole. That was bad. Well, this time it went, I think, five or six blocks north of the flag pole. So the  flood the old veterans talk about, that was just a puddle. It (2019 flood) took out the retirement home, every business in town had water in it. It went right up Main Street.”
One year later and heading into another flood season, Hathaway still owns his uninhabitable home and a property across the street despite being approved for FEMA’s buyout program, a federal resource for homeowners affected by natural disasters.
With the help of a loan from the Small Business Administration, Hathaway was able to move into a new home “on a hill away from water” on the east end of Council Bluffs.
“I think had the buyout come through sooner like it should have, there may have been more people stay in Hamburg,” Hathaway said. “But if they have no choice but to find a new home somewhere else while they wait, rent or something like that, why move back?”
That’s where Congresswoman Cindy Axne and her team stepped in. Axne represents Central and Southwest Iowa where much of the flooding occurred last spring. She was only about two months into her first year in office when the Missouri River swelled to unprecedented heights and flooded counties up and down Western Iowa.
The 3rd District congresswoman responded to the flood recovery not only with constituent outreach, but by moving legislation through the U.S. House of Representatives, legislation that ultimately made it to the president’s desk.
She secured $3 billion in the House disaster relief bill, not including the $1 billion in amendments to the legislation aimed at flood recovery in the Midwest and tornadoes in the South.
In December, Axne’s office launched the Iowa Flood Funding Tracker so constituents could stay up-to-date on how disaster relief funding is spent in the state. As of Feb. 28, at least $545.9 million has been spent in the state, with 457 grants and loans made available to Iowans affected by the flooding. According to the tracker, 481 grant and loan applications still are pending.
Late in February, Axne announced a new $30.3 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief Program for the Iowa Department of Transportation to put toward repairs to local and state roadways, including Interstate 29, Highway 34 and Iowa Highway 2.
The new funding comes on top of a $500 million increase for FHP grants secured by Axne last May through an amendment to the federal disaster bill.
“I saw the damage to our roads firsthand, and it’s why I fought last year to increase FHP emergency grants by $500 million,” Axne said, in a statement. “With these resources, we give local repair efforts the time and resources they need to finish repairs and reinforce our infrastructure against future floods.”
Lyle and Alice Hodde saw the impact of Axne’s intervention firsthand as millions of dollars was funneled to the Army Corps of Engineers so it could begin rebuilding the broken levee that left Hamburg, and hundreds of acres of the Hodde’s farmland, underwater.
“She got the ball rolling with the Corps of Engineers and the state,” Lyle Hodde, a corn and soybean farmer, said. “They got on it right away because time is so important when you’re rebuilding those levees.”
The Hoddes lost their home in rural Hamburg during the 2011 flood and have since moved to Sidney, but they still own hundreds of acres of farmland there that they rely on for their livelihood.
Last spring, Lyle took Congresswoman Axne to a bluff overlooking Hamburg so she could see the extent of the damage. At the suggestion of Axne and with the help of other community members, Alice organized a letter-writing campaign to Sens. Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds to express their frustration with how the Corps of Engineers has mismanaged flood mitigation on the Missouri River. Eight hundred letters were sent, Alice said.
Ernst and Grassley recently introduced a bill with five fellow Midwestern senators to “overhaul” how the Army Corps manages water resource projects along the lower Missouri River system in order to help prevent future flooding.
“Cindy’s not afraid to work across the aisle, and that’s what we needed for this district,” Alice said. “Cindy has been, I would say, the leader in this.”
High suicide rates among farmers and a lack of mental health services also are concerns Alice shared with Axne. As a couple in their 70s, the Hodde’s retirement was “ruined” by two devastating floods less than 10 years apart.
“She’s compassionate, and that’s we needed,” Alice said. “We needed that. And it wasn’t partisan … ”
“And she figures out a way to solve the problem,” Lyle added. “She goes after it. She doesn’t waste time.”
Like Hathaway, Fran Parr also has moved to the Council Bluffs area to try and avoid losing another home to flood damage.
Parr’s old farm house in Pacific Junction succumbed to historic flooding in mid-March. The family of four initially moved into a rental before purchasing a “brick house on a hill” just before Thanksgiving.
“Like many others, we were not insured for flood insurance down there,” Parr said. “We were very diligent on homeowners and everything around that, but flood insurance, honestly, I think I know two people who had flood insurance there.”
At the time of the initial flood event and throughout the spring and summer, Democrats were campaigning across Iowa ahead of the caucuses, and the Parr’s home became a popular place to visit and discuss the unprecedented damage wrought in Southwest Iowa.
Vice President Mike Pence also visited the region, touring the damage by helicopter and meeting with displaced people in Omaha.
But to help cut through the red tape and make sense of the bureaucracy set up to deal with natural disasters, Axne was an invaluable resource.
“I think she really established some street cred with residents, with people impacted, with the (Army) Corps, with everybody,” Parr said. “Once she became involved, she became very involved.”
Parr also has faced hurdles with the purchase of her uninhabitable property. According to Parr, Mills County approved only half of the property for a buyout because previous owners built the home on one tax parcel and the garage on a separate tax parcel.
“From just a pure residential standpoint, she’s been very helpful in that regard, and her office,” Parr said. “If I call … they personally get involved in individual concerns that need help.”
Despite the best efforts of Axne and others, Iowans like Parr and Hathaway still are struggling to cut ties with their old properties a year later.
“No one’s been able to explain why we’re still waiting, why we’re coming up on another flood season and still own these properties that are completely destroyed,” Hathaway said.
The National Weather Service has said flooding “is guaranteed” along the Missouri River and its tributaries this year, and Northwest Iowa should expect “major flooding” on the Little Sioux and Big Sioux rivers.
In the aftermath of the ’19 flood, Hathaway said he bought a boat to access his home. Without it, the closest he could get was “four or five blocks” away. The possessions he left behind were floating in water for weeks.
“Cindy’s team is working on it now trying to get some answers,” Hathaway said, of the delay in the buyout process. “But every time I call, it gets pushed back. Last I heard was summer, and the guy was making it sound like that was when they were going to start talking about when to expect checks, so it may not even happen in the summer.
“It would be nice if they’d get these people taken care of,” Hathaway said, referencing others he knows who have struggled with bureaucratic hang-ups. “These are American citizens that didn’t flood their homes. That’s what I told Cindy, and I said, I didn’t flip a switch to flood the house. There’s just no reason why I and many other Iowans should be suffering through this anymore. It should be long since done.”
By Elizabeth Meyer