As the Cedar River overflowed its banks Thursday, sending thousands of residents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, scurrying to higher ground, those in Iowa City to the south began to grasp the full implications of what meteorologists are terming a hundred-year flood.

According to Rabbi Avrohom Blesofsky, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Iowa City and its Chabad House serving the University of Iowa, as of mid-week the town was already “very hard hit” from days of unrelenting rain. Although his home is “not in danger at all,” he joined the hundreds of other residents who fanned out across the Midwestern city to shore up neighborhoods against the rising waters of the Iowa River.

“They told us that on one day alone, they ordered 11 million sandbags,” said Blesofsky, who moved to Iowa in 2002, nine years after the great flood of 1993 left swaths of land up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries in ruins. “We spent hours filling them and loading them into trucks. The rest of the time, we built a six-foot wall near the new commerce center.”

The rabbi said that he knew of at least one Jewish community member’s home in danger of the flooding. He said that the man, a local restaurateur, called everyone to come and help save his home.

“His house is a block away from the river,” said Blesofsky. “A lot of us joined in trying to help out.”

Evacuations on both sides of the Iowa River began in earnest before dawn on Friday as a levy breach sent floodwaters surging through the streets of Coralville, just across the river from Iowa City, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported. At a news conference, Iowa City officials predicted the situation would worsen.

“This event is far from over,” said City Manager Michael Lombardo.

Residents of Iowa City, Iowa, scurry to fill sandbags in the battle against the rising Iowa River.
Residents of Iowa City, Iowa, scurry to fill sandbags in the battle against the rising Iowa River.

The catastrophe in Cedar Rapids served to frame his remarks. There, according to the Chicago Tribune, some 3,000 families were homeless as the downtown district succumbed to rising water and looting.

“Boxcars laden with rocks and sand,” wrote correspondent E.A. Torriero, “tumbled like toy trains into the rising Cedar River when a railroad bridge gave way.”

In Iowa City, Adina Hemley, the student life coordinator at the Hillel serving the University of Iowa, said that she had been forced from her apartment earlier in the week, and was staying with friends.

“The water is preventing me from getting home,” said Hemley. “And now they think the water will rise higher.”

She said that she would be sandbagging on Sunday to help protect a synagogue that sits next to a creek.

Thankfully, said Blesofsky, most of the university’s students have gone home for the summer. The campus itself, however, will likely suffer some of the worst damage, officials predicted.

The rabbi noted that a sense of unity now pervades the town in the face of impending disaster.

“There’s a helpful camaraderie among everyone,” said Blesofsky. “People from all different walks of life are coming to give an extra hand.”