First in a series of stories this week on the 2008 flood.
CHARLES CITY — “In this river life (is) always looking up.”
Those words run vertically down a twisted metal sculpture, constructed on nearly the same spot where Phyllis Meyer’s home once stood.
“It came out beautifully,” Meyer said, viewing the sculpture on a hot May day.
The sculpture, “Revival,” by artist David Williamson, is made from remnants of Charles City’s pedestrian bridge, which once also stood nearby, on Clark Street. A new pedestrian bridge now stands in its place.
But though the pedestrian bridge eventually was rebuilt after the devastating Cedar River flood of 2008, Meyer’s house wasn’t. There were several reasons for that, including the fact she would have to jump through several hoops to reconstruct her home after the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated her property as being in a flood plain.
So she had it demolished and turned the land over to the city, with one stipulation:
“We said the only thing we wanted was to be made into a park, and remain a park,” Meyer said. “And we asked for naming rights.”
Victory Park, complete with the centerpiece “Revival” sculpture (Meyer didn’t have anything to do with that, she said), now sits on the land. A bike trail that runs up to the new pedestrian bridge, signage and benches complete the green space.
But there’s a misconception in town about the name: Yes, Meyer’s husband, who died in 1996, was named Victor. But Meyer said there’s a truer explanation:
“When the bridge was completed, the mayor made a comment of ‘a victory over the flood,’” Meyer said. “Because this was kind of the start of the whole flood — from here to Cedar Rapids.”
Charles City may indeed have been the first major town impacted in a major way by the 500-year flood of 2008 along the Cedar River.
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Late May and early June rains that year led to the extremely high water, which displaced 40,000 Iowans and caused millions of dollars in damages statewide.
In Charles City, the Cedar River crested at a record 25.3 feet, according to the National Weather Service. That much water damaged around 250 homes in the city as well as a lift station and the fire station. Damage to public infrastructure reached $4.3 million, mostly due to the loss of the 102-year-old suspension footbridge, according to Courier articles from that time.
And Meyer missed the whole thing: At that time, she was touring a national park in Canada on vacation when she received a message from her son to call her daughter right away.
“She told me the flood was going through the house,” Meyer said. “I had no concept of that — it was strange.”
When she was finally able to return to Charles City a few days later, she got her first look at the water damage to the floors, walls and furniture of her 1970s French colonial home.
“My son watched the bridge go. It was lighted, and sparks flew,” Meyer said.
She and Victor had purchased their home in the 1980s, and the living room, kitchen and bedroom windows all looked out onto the Cedar, just steps away.
“I can remember, probably the first summer we moved in, I was standing out on the porch and something caught my eye in the river — and I have no idea how long I stood there and watched,” Meyer said. “The river is always changing. It’s never the same.”
She doesn’t allow herself to dwell on the loss, she says. Plenty of residents lost more, she said, and she was fortunate enough to be able to replace her belongings and buy another house “on the other side of town. And yes, I’m high,” she laughs.
But she stayed involved, helping to choose a design for the new bridge, which opened Oct. 25, 2010, and was dedicated along with the sculpture in 2017. And Meyer visits Victory Park quite often — she’s seen two weddings as well as prom and graduation pictures being taken in or nearby the land.
“I like the way it’s being used now,” Meyer said, pointing out a man sitting on a bench and a bicyclist riding by. “That’s why we said it will always remain a park.”