After the flood

The Cedar River is an old, meandering soul that weaves its way through Iowa’s cornfields on its way to the Mississippi River.

By Bob Vavra, Editor October 15, 2008

The Cedar River is an old, meandering soul that weaves its way through Iowa’s cornfields on its way to the Mississippi River. Along its route is Cedar Rapids, the largest of many towns that popped up to take advantage of the river’s natural beauty and convenient geography.

“It’s a nice place to be,” said Mike Rizor, “most of the time.”

Staring on June 11, though, this river city had trouble — with a capital T. Gorged to overflowing by seemingly endless spring rains, the river finally exploded over its banks for two days, submerging Cedar Rapids and bringing this quaint river town of 120,000 to a halt.

The devastation was everywhere. There were 1,300 city blocks under water after the river crested 31 feet above flood stage on June 13. Many riverfront businesses and plants had water up into their second floors, and museums and historical districts in this 140-year-old city were washed away.

Mike Rizor was an eyewitness to the Cedar River’s fury that week. He is the manager for Cargill’s corn milling plant that sits right next to the river. When the river overflowed, Cargill was one of hundreds of businesses, homes and municipal centers swept along in its wake.

When the waters receded a couple of days later, Rizor donned his personal protective equipment and got his first look at what the flood had left behind in his plant. “It was pretty amazing,” he said. “There was a lot of sludge and mud. There were concerns about leaks, debris and water contamination.”

Add a town without power, phone service or one of the bridges that had spanned the river, and citizens looking to salvage their own homes after the flood, and the immediate future looked dark — for Cedar Rapids, for Cargill’s plant and for the 200 employees who work there.

Today, the river has returned to normal — or at least the new normal of Cedar Rapids after the flood. So has Cargill. The Cedar Rapids plant went back on line in late September. It’s not in full production yet — that will take more time and more patience and more work. The work done in just three months at Cargill is astounding because what was done after the flood was impossible — and they did it anyway.

Nature’s fury

When you can see disaster coming, you can plan for it. Cargill’s staff knew the Cedar River was going to wash over its banks into Cedar Rapids. All you had to do was watch the rains of March, April and May to see that the river was getting dangerously high. A final surge in early June put everyone along the river on flood watch.

“We had a chance to shut down in a controlled manner,” said Rizor. “We were able to build some dams and levees around equipment in the plant. But the river came up extremely quickly. It gave us time to shut down, but not enough time to save the equipment.”

When the flood hit, there was little to do but watch and wait and hope. That hope quickly dissipated as the river spilled over its banks. Rizor estimates there was between 12 and 15 feet of water in his plant at the height of the flood.

One of the big challenges was communicating with employees. Without power or cell phone service, getting in touch with workers was a problem. Giving them a sense that they had a job to come back to was another issue that needed to be addressed. One of the first moves by the company was to keep all employees on payroll.

For a couple of days after, there was little for employees to do at the plant. “The initial message to employees was to take care of their personal needs,” Rizor said. “We weren’t able to occupy the plant for a few days. We encouraged them to volunteer in other areas of the community.”

Once Rizor and his staff ventured inside the plant, they found problems everywhere. There was a danger of air contamination from the flood waters. There was old equipment and systems that would need to be replaced if they couldn’t be repaired, and there was the issue of whether trying to repair equipment that had been under a foot of water — especially electrical equipment — was a smart idea.

Safety and health continued to be a pivotal issue. Cargill worked with local emergency management personnel to assess air quality and structural issues inside the plant. PPE was in use from the start of the clean-up effort, including respirators. Even with the PPE, it was easy to see how much work was left to be done.

Help was on the way

Mike Smith is operations manager for Cargill’s North American corn milling business. He is based out of Minneapolis when one of his plants isn’t under water. For the past four months, he and two dozen of his colleagues have been in Cedar Rapids, helping supervise the recovery effort. The company had built many plants over the years. They hadn’t faced a challenge quite like this.

“Cargill treated this experience like it was the construction of a new plant,” said Smith. “We had senior folks from across the country — electricians, instrumentation experts, maintenance staff — assessing the damage.”

“I didn’t know what to think,” Smith recalled. “We don’t have a manual for something like this. We really went back to our roots. One of the things Cargill does very well is to lay out plans for projects like this.”

The damage at Cargill was so extensive that in many ways, putting the plant back on line was just like a new construction project. In one important way, it wasn’t. “If you look at how many years it takes to do a normal project, it’s usually three years,” Smith said. “This needed to be done in three months. What we needed to do was accept that and move on.”

When word of the flood’s devastation spread beyond Cedar Rapids, offers of help came from everywhere. Some of it was financial, but much of the help Cargill needed was from the skilled workers who came into the town to put that plant and other plants and businesses back on line as quickly as possible.

“The cooperation from the Teamsters was extraordinary,” said Rizor. “They pretty much told us they would do whatever it takes to help us get running again.”

Cargill called on its own workers from plants around the world to come in and put things back in order. Help also came from companies such as Shermco Industries, a Dallas-based electrical power distribution and testing company. Right after the flood subsided, Shermco executive vice president Ron Widup got word of the needed help from his network of industry leaders, and brought a team to Cargill to see what needed to be done.

“We’d done a similar project of flood relief the year before in Kansas,” said Widup. “We had two things in mind. We wanted to let them know our capabilities, and more importantly, go over our experiences.

“When we did our initial assessment, safety was a big piece. You have to modify some existing safety procedures,” he added. “Cargill is one of the safest companies I’ve ever worked with. It’s quite a testimony to what they were able to accomplish. We worked 45,000 man-hours, and didn’t even have a cut finger.”

The other big effort surrounding finding what equipment could and should be salvaged. “What was really critical was getting the plant back on line, but a lot of the decisions you make can have a long-term and lasting effect,” said Widup. The process involved repairing the plant’s electrical system and its electrical parts, recommissioning the system and slowly bringing the power back in and putting the equipment back on line.

It also meant Shermco shipping more than 1,000 items back to Dallas for repair, rebuilding and recommissioning. “We had trucks moving around the clock,” said Widup.

“We have a lot of great talent at Cargill, but we had a lot of great contractors here like Shermco, and a lot of others,” said Smith. “We had 900 folks on site at any time, and we had people sleeping in tents. It was really a world class effort.”

Getting back on line

The effort required meticulous attention to detail done at lightning speed. Those two ideas are as incompatible as electricity and water, but somehow, Cargill made it work. “We’ve had a phenomenal response from our staff,” said Rizor. “They’ve done a lot of things they’re not used to doing or that they were trained for. Our operators operate the equipment, but they’ve jumped into many other activities. And it’s not just our local team. We’ve had excellent support throughout the company, with everyone really pulling together. In my years at Cargill, I’ve never seen a better example of teamwork.”

The process of recommissioning equipment and readying the plant to resume full production continues. When it does, Cargill has demonstrated its commitment to the city by adding a new production line to the Cedar Rapids plant, according to a story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The company also has made numerous financial donations to the flood relief effort.

As Cargill officials assess the future, they also can look back and assess the lessons from this flood. “One of the big ones was that we needed better documentation of our systems,” said Smith. “This plant is 42 years old. There are multiple systems and numerous instruments around the plant, and we needed to better understand what the old ones were so that we could replace them with the right new ones.”

“Another lesson was that we were able to rely on our emergency procedures,” said Rizor. “It was never intended to handle this specifically, but they worked.” For example, plant officials needed to drain a tank containing propylene oxide, a highly flammable chemical used for starch modification. Had the tank been covered by water, it could have made a bad situation much worse.

There are numerous bureaucratic and practical challenges still facing Cedar Rapids months after the flood, but the spirit of the city has remained strong, according to Rizor. “The city is doing well,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of time. It will be a different normal when it’s normal again. A lot of major things are still getting addressed. We lost a bridge into the river. It’s going to take some time.”

Sandbags did what they could to protect Cargill equipment from damage, but more than 15 feet of water surged into the riverside plant in downtown Cedar Rapids.

A significant part of the recovery effort was to painstakingly catalog and examine each piece of equipment to determine what could be repaired and what needed to be replaced.

Perhaps the most critical issue was the repair and recommissioning of the Cargill electrical system.

Workers continue to wrestle with post-flood issues. The Cargill plant is back up and running, but company officials continue to take their time putting the plant back to full operations.