Americans don't have to know someone in the river valleys of the Midwest to feel the ripple effect of this flood. People viewing images from afar may feel as linked to water-weary folks there as the volunteers working sandbag brigades. Empathy – and economics – bring this disaster near.
Scenes of inundated Cedar Rapids in Iowa recall New Orleans in 2005 – a national unifier if ever there was one. Fortunately, the human toll is far less – about seven deaths – compared with more than 1,600 who perished from hurricane Katrina.
But the destruction and displacement run as wide as the Mississippi is long. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated and millions of acres of cropland have been damaged. Some experts judge this to be the kind of flood that occurs only once every 500 years – and it's not over yet as Missouri and Illinois deal with the deluge that's swept south from Iowa.
A tragedy of such scope usually swamps affected areas with volunteers, donations, and prayers. But the American Red Cross says its disaster relief fund is empty, drained by lesser disasters that haven't had the visibility to prompt giving. It's borrowing money in order to provide shelter and food in places affected by the flood.
Initial response to Cedar Rapids, though, shows generosity is flowing. In a city that last week had 1,300 blocks surrounded by foul water, the local Salvation Army says it needs a team of volunteers just to coordinate all the offers of help from near and far.
On the Cedar Rapids Gazette website, a former resident of "CR" wants everyone to know that "we're praying for you in western Canada." An Iowa transplant in Los Angeles says he's mobilizing friends for a fundraiser. A woman in Louisiana writes that "all of New Orleans is ready to come up and chip in" when they get the word. In the meantime, she offers this advice: Keep all receipts for FEMA.
One might be tempted to think these keyboard messages echo through cyberspace with little impact. Not according to Iowan Pheobe, responding to the entries on gazetteonline.com: "My fiancé and I have a couple staying with us whose home is flooded up to their roof. They read these posts, and words cannot express how much your words mean to them."
Meanwhile, economists forecast higher food prices because of the devastation to corn and soybean fields. Prices on the futures markets for both crops have hit record highs.
Iowa produces more corn than any other US state, and corn is in pretty much everything – in cereal, soft-drink sweetener, and corn-fed beef, pork, and chicken. Plus, it pours into gas tanks as ethanol. And not only Americans are tied to this basic crop. The US is the world's biggest corn producer.
On the banks of the Mississippi, the National Guard, inmates, students, and others are working together to shore up levees. It's a fitting metaphor for needed teamwork in times of great challenge – and for how, in one way or another, we're all connected to this flood.
If you'd like to donate:
The American Red Cross: at redcross.org or 800-RED-CROSS.
The Salvation Army: at salvationarmyusa.org or 800-SAL-ARMY.
2008flood.org: a website matching needs and help in Iowa.