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Hurricanes slow flood recovery in Butler County

ALLISON — The trio of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — wreaked havoc across Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. They also have had impacts far beyond their immediate paths.

That includes in Northeast Iowa, where residents of Butler County are still recovering from the fall floods of 2016.

“I think they kind of feel forgotten. Especially with the hurricanes and everything, that we’ve been forgotten,” said Clarksville Mayor Val Swinton. “Because we’re a small town, we kind of feel like we’re not important. That’s a little frustrating.”

“That’s a lot frustrating,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, responded.

Ernst, a first-term senator, received an update Monday on Clarksville, Greene and Shell Rock a year after they suffered their second “flood to end all floods” in eight years.

Ernst assured residents funds set aside for home buyouts would not be rerouted to hurricane recovery. But she could offer little else than her shared frustration that 13 months later no homeowner had finished the buyout process. Ernst promised to follow up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to see why the process has been so slow.

Frustration was the theme throughout the hour-long meeting.

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About 270 homes were damaged when the Shell Rock River flooded after Butler County received 12 inches of rain in a short period of time in late September 2016. Many areas in Greene, Clarksville and Shell Rock saw worse flooding than in 2008, said Mitch Nordmeyer, Butler County emergency management coordinator.

About 20 homes qualified for buyouts. More than a year later, none of those homeowners has received an offer. It could take another three to four months.

“Every disaster starts and ends locally. That may be the case, but we need the federal help in the middle,” Nordmeyer said.

Nordmeyer and Brian Schoon, of Iowa Northland Regional Council of Governments, told Ernst it’s not just the wait that is frustrating. Rules changed since the last major flood eight years ago. And they have to work with new officials every few weeks.

Since the hurricanes, frustration grew. FEMA Region 7 officials were sent to work on recovery in the southeast.

Ernst said after the meeting it’s important for FEMA to have uniform rules. But she heard from local officials Monday FEMA employees don’t always interpret rules the same way. She said she will ask FEMA about that as well.

“We saw widespread devastation throughout the Southeast, and I do understand that, but again, we have ongoing recovery efforts right here in Region 7 of FEMA, and we have to make sure these families are getting what was told to them they would get,” Ernst said. “It’s important that they close these actions out before they are jumping into other situations.”

Culture of inclusiveness: Waterloo law firm rules in favor of diversity

Seventh in a series of articles from our fall Inclusion magazine, highlighting diversity in the area.

WATERLOO — It is one of the biggest emerging businesses along Waterloo’s East Fourth Street north of Walnut Street.

And it’s becoming a leader in diversity.

Sayer Law Firm, located in a former Iowa Job Service office at 925 E. Fourth St., boasts a growing workforce.

It is an offshoot of Klatt law firm, of which attorney Brian Sayer was a part.

The location employs between 60 and 70 people, with satellite locations in multiple cities and states.

“We decided pretty early on when we got over here that we wanted an inclusive atmosphere,” said Janelle Ewing. “First of all, because it’s the right thing to do. And second, because our clients understand it’s the right thing to do and they push for it.”

The firm had a large number of female employees and wanted to expand its inclusiveness. Stacey Belk worked with The Inclusion Connection, a Waverly-based nonprofit helping adults of diverse abilities find work opportunities. Through that contact the firm hired three autistic workers. They “all do very well in the roles that they’re in,” Belk said.

“We have a culture here of inclusion,” Ewing said. “We just have a lot of people raised to be inclusive and accepting. We just have a really good crew of people here that understands everybody gets to be themselves.”

That’s because of the backgrounds they bring to the firm.

“I am a former high school band director,” said Ewing, a 1995 West High School graduate who previously taught in Sugar Land, Texas. “And we have another lawyer who is a former orchestra director — both in the public education. We have a lot of parents here who have children with special needs. We have a lot of people working with us as legal assistants who have backgrounds in the arts, theater and music – probably have a lot exposure to different world views and different types of people.

“When we all realized we all felt this way, it was really easy to move forward and start acting on that — making sure the culture is one of inclusion, non-bullying and development.

“I still get to teach a lot here,” Ewing said, “because the people that get these jobs, many have never been in a office setting before. Many, it’s their first job out of high school or college. They don’t know anything about law or legal assistancy or real estate or the mortgage industry. They have to be taught from the ground up.”

The management team has been working for more than a year developing educational materials for new hires.

The firm is hiring, filling positions being vacated by workers returning to school.

The basic qualities the firm looks for are “attitude, openness and fitting into the culture,” Ewing said. Responsibility, timeliness and some computer training also are important. “I’d rather have a low- to medium-talented person with a good work ethic than a lazy talented person.”

That commitment to inclusion earned an award from the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber earlier this year. In applying for that award, the firm highlighted the diversity of its workforce.

“We discovered that we had people from all over the world,” Ewing said. “We counted a significant number of languages. We do have a couple of multi-linguals on staff now. We counted all the major religions; all kinds of backgrounds,” she said.

The firm anticipates being at its present location well into the future.

“We’ll always have our base in Waterloo. We will always be hiring in Waterloo,” Ewing said. “I grew up here, and I do not subscribe to the incorrect myth that Waterloo is a bad place to be. I’ve been all around the country, I’ve seen all kinds of cities, and I’m really proud of my town.”

Fallen firefighter named firefighter of the year

WATERLOO – When Greg Freshwater followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Waterloo Fire Rescue, fellow firefighter Scott Ernst was sure he wouldn’t like his young, chipper new colleague.

“When I found out he was offered a position with Waterloo, I hoped he wouldn’t be on my shift, and when I found it out he was on my shift, I figured it would be easy just to ignore him,” said Ernst, a fire department engineer.

He recalled how he first heard Freshwater’s “proud mouth and cocky voice” at the fire training center. But in less than a year, the upstart firefighter was starting to grow on the grumpy veteran.

Freshwater died in August when he was jogging south of town and was struck by a passing car.

On Monday, Freshwater posthumously received Waterloo Fire Rescue’s Firefighter of the Year award for 2017. It was Ernst who recommended him for the honor.

“You’ve got to prove yourself to me, and he did it really fast,” said Ernst, who spoke during the Exchange Club of Waterloo’s award luncheon. “I guarantee that some day Greg would have won this award. Unfortunately, Greg was taken from us far too soon, and since he could not receive it in the future, I think it’s only right that he gets it now.”

The lead paramedic who responded to the fatal accident, Ian Wass, was recognized as the department’s Paramedic of the Year for 2017.

Freshwater completed a fire science degree at Hawkeye Community College in 2016, and he worked for the Marshalltown Fire Department before he was hired in Waterloo in November 2016. He and three other Waterloo firefighters were taking on additional training to become paramedics.

“Waterloo Fire Rescue was lucky to hire Greg. The citizens of Waterloo were lucky to have him as one of our protectors, and every one of us that go close to him was lucky to have Greg as a brother,” Ernst said.

Paramedic-Firefighter Sam Hess, who nominated Wass for the paramedic honor, also worked the fatal accident.


Paramedic Ian Wass

“Let me tell you something — we were shook. That being said, everyone, and I mean everyone, on that call was at their best. Everyone was calm, efficient, professional and getting things done,” Hess said. “And I looked over at Ian and thought, thank God that he gave this city people like you. We had a whole ambulance full of them. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so proud of the people I work with.”

Wass, a Denver native, graduated from Wartburg College and worked construction and other jobs before joining the Waterloo fire department.

He was hired in February 2008 and became a paramedic in 2010.

“Ian is incredibly intelligent, compassionate and humble. He has a strong faith, loves his family and works hard at everything he does. … This guy is working all of the time to be better,” Hess said.

Greg Freshwater’s father, retired fire lieutenant Jeff Freshwater, his mother, Tina, and girlfriend, Brittany Lind, attended the ceremony.

A memorial fund is being established to help firefighters pay for paramedic training, a cost now borne by the firefighters themselves, Jeff Freshwater said.

“All four of these young firefighters dug in their pockets to come up with the 10 to 12 thousand dollars to provide for their own training to better serve all of us,” Jeff Freshwater said.

Benefit planned for Guard member diagnosed with rare cancer

WAVERLY — Tristin Laue was at the send-off ceremony last month for around 100 Iowa Army National Guard members now deployed to the Middle East.

It wasn’t how he planned it.

Laue was in the crowd watching the ceremony, not standing with his fellow soldiers, because he was diagnosed with a rare cancer late last year.

“That was a hard day. That was a weird day,” said Laue’s stepmother and caretaker Debbie Nichols. “That send-off was very emotional for him. For me, it was mixed.”

Nichols would have worried about Laue if he were deployed to a war zone. But his diagnosis of stage four fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma — a rare form of liver cancer — has caused a different kind of heartache.

Nichols said the Guard has been immensely helpful. Laue, 19, of Waverly, is still enlisted, though is expected to be discharged at the end of the year.

At the urging of Drill Sergeant Dan Wegner, the family decided to host a benefit to aid with Laue’s medical expenses. It started small, but has grown due to Laue’s father — Mitch Laue’s — connections to local bands.

The “Jam for the Fam” benefit will go from noon to midnight Saturday at The Centre Hall, 1211 Fourth St. S.W. in Waverly. Bands will play throughout the day. The response was so overwhelming some bands had to be turned away.

To register for the event, visit Those who cannot attend but wish to donate can visit

Rachelle Hahn, an organizer and good friend of Nichols, said Laue is expected to be discharged from the Guard soon and will lose his health coverage. The family also looking into alternative treatments.

October is liver cancer awareness month. Though the timing is coincidental, Nichols said part of the idea of the benefit is to raise awareness about this rare disease.

Nichols said Laue joined the Guard because he wanted a change in circumstance and enjoyed the camaraderie of a unit. He was on leave after advanced individual training, where he learned the ins and outs of helicopter maintenance, over the Christmas holiday when he thought he had come down with pneumonia.

Instead, it was discovered he had a pulmonary embolism, or blood clots in his lungs. He was airlifted to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he has been having weekly treatments ever since. That included a surgery in July to remove tumors throughout his body, though more have been found.

The family took him to the hospital Dec. 30. In February he was diagnosed, though he earlier learned he likely had cancer, just not the type.

“It was quite a blow, because their family was going through a lot,” Hahn said.

Laue’s diagnosis came after Nichols’ daughter was in a snowmobile accident and Nichols’ had back surgery.

“It was almost surreal to have all of that going on at the same time, let alone having the blow that it’s … cancer,” Hahn said. “When you have something like that in your family, you live for the moment; you live with what’s going on in your life. … It’s hard to think of the big picture.”

After the benefit, Laue will return to Mayo on Oct. 17 to check whether his chemotherapy is working.

“Everybody is always amazed at how polite and respectful he is,” Nichols said. “That’s what makes me mad. He’s just such a good kid. And, it’s like where does this come from?”


Janelle Ewing, left, and Stacey Balk at Sayer Law Firm on East Fourth Street.