Date: Thursday, June 19, 2008
By: Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,
The African-American Museum of Iowa sits on a hill above the Cedar River in Des Moines, but higher ground wasn’t enough to shield it from raging floods.
The executive director and staff haven’t been allowed inside the museum since water began sweeping through the facility and much of downtown Des Moines last week.
“We know we took a significant hit,” Executive Director Tom Moore told “We hope to get in by the end of this week just to take a look. We probably will be displaced at least six months while the facility is restored.”
Since the floods began in Iowa, other states along the Mississippi River have been hit as hard record rains cause waterways to swell and levees breach.
Storms and flooding across six states this month have killed 24 people, injured 148 and caused more than $1.5 billion in estimated damage in Iowa alone — a figure that’s likely to increase as river levels climb in Missouri and Illinois.
Federal officials predicted as many as 30 levees could overflow this week, leaving industrial and agricultural areas vulnerable but sparing major residential centers. So far this week, 20 levees have overflowed.
At least 10 levees have been topped in Illinois and Missouri in recent days, including two south of tiny Gulfport, Ill. that threatened to swamp 30,000 acres of farmland near the evacuated town of Meyer, Ill.
Robert G. Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineering expert, says the problems seen this month with levees is similar to what happened in 1993 and that those problems will occur again if more permanent repairs are not made to the country’s levee system.
“Our levees are like a patchwork quilt put together over many generations — some places are week, some are strong. When the waterways swell, the weak gives way,” Bea told Because America has not been focused on its infrastructure, the levees have not been maintained as they should, said Bea, who began work with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in 1954 laboring to build levees to drain the Florida Everglades.
When the levees are breached, the floodwaters destroy people, lives and property, he said.
In Iowa, the tools for sharing a rich African-American history are among the valuables damaged by the floods. That history dates back to 1834, when blacks first settled there, said Moore, the museum’s executive director. It also includes Underground Railroad stops in the free state and six companies in the all black military unit 60th U.S. C.T.
For five years, exhibits and collections on the state’s African-American history have been housed at the now-flooded museum. 
“We built the museum higher than the river has ever reached,” Moore said. “I guess it was not high enough.”
Record rains in Iowa last week caused rivers swell and levees to fail, sending water through the streets, buildings, homes and farms in several parts of the state. Residents and business owners still wait for water to recede so that they can begin assessing damage and preparing to rebuild.
With the exception of the museum, most institutions serving Iowa’s black community in the hard hit cities of Des Moines and Waterloo escaped heavy damage, community leaders said.
“Some churches had basements that were flooded, but most did not have severe damage,” said Abraham Funchess, division administrator of the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-American Affairs.  Funchess lives in Waterloo, but spends much of his time working in Des Moines.
“In Waterloo, most blacks live on the northeast side, and the water did not reach all of that area,” Funchess told But in areas close to downtown, there are some people who have had to get alternative housing because they had five feet of water in their homes, and the electricity was cut off, he said.
“Churches are working together to try to help people and fill in the gap for summer feeding programs that have been disrupted by the flooding,” Funchess said.
The Rev. Irv Lewis, head of the Des Moines Black Ministerial Alliance, said there are some churches in Cedar Rapids and in Waterloo that suffered some flooding, but most were spared.
“There is has been a good response to the flooding so far,” Lewis told “It has been nothing like what was experienced in Katrina,” he said, referring to the slow pace of government response to the thousands who were left homeless by floods in New Orleans.
Moore estimates it will cost $700,000 to restore and replace the damage to the 17,000 square foot building and the exhibits it holds. He is encouraging friends of the museum to continue supporting it during its transition and restoration.
“Please remember that a museum is more than a building. The museum has built an incredible community of friends throughout the state of Iowa, and we will continue to work to preserve and promote the African-American heritage of our state,” Moore said in a letter to friends of the museum. “If you would like to support our clean-up efforts — it is impossible at this time to know how much will be needed, but we know we will need tremendous support — please visit our website,, to make an online donation.”
While some parts of the state are beginning an effort to return to normal, other parts are bracing for the worst as problems loom on the Mississippi River.
The federal government predicts that 27 levees could potentially overflow along the Mississippi River if the weaver forecast is on the mark and a massive sandbagging effort fails to raise the level of the levees, according to a map obtained Monday by the Associated Press.
Brian Wiekand, 48, of Oakville, was sandbagging the levee Monday evening near a drainage pumping station south of Kingston on the Mississippi River.
He was concerned about more flooding as water began lapping to within a foot of the top of a sandbag wall.
“The Bible says the prayer of one man, God hears,” Wiekand said. “Here’s my prayer: I ask for the strength of God to fight this flood, and I ask for the grace to accept whatever happens.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.


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