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The rushing water could change Des Moines' future.

The follying editorial appeared in the July 18, 1993 issue of the Des Moines Register and found its way to Nation's Cities Weekly last week. We think it bears repeating for our numbers' benefit. - The Editor

In the life of any city there come unexpected tests that can change it forever - for better or worse. Such a test began one week ago today for Des Moines, and the response leaves no doubt that this community win emerge stronger and better after its worst disaster.

The proof was in that unforgettable scene on Fleur Drive where an anthill army of volunteers filled and stacked sandbags day and night in the feverish effort to reclaim the Des Moines Water Works from the Raccoon River. As a backdrop for network newcasts and the site of a presidential drop-by, the scene became a national symbol of Des Moines, spirit.

Similar scenes have come from communities IU all over ravaged Iowa and all along the Upper Mississippi. Des Moines has no monopoly on people who gladly help their neighbors. But in one respect what happened in Des Moines is especially gratifying: in knowing where the volunteers came from.

They came from all neighborhoods of Des Moines, of course, but a surprising number also carne from the suburbs and outlying towns. Often they were from places like Bondurant, Carlisle, Altoona - towns that had ample water supplies of their own.

Earlier, the same thing had happened when West Des Moines was frantically sandbagging protect its water-treatment plant. The swarm of volunteers carne not just from West Des Moines but from everywhere in the metro area. All week long, all it took was an announcement on TV that volunteers were needed at a certain spot, and people from all over the metro area and beyond would show up.

Perhaps without even being aware of it, the people of Des Moines and its suburbs last week thought and acted as a single community. It may be the first time they did so on such a massive scale. And it was something to behold.

By the end of the week, Des Moines Mayor John "Pat" Dorrian was moved to tears of gratitude. "We've sat at that City Council table and talked a lot about Des Moines vs. the suburbs over the years. But go up there and look. Those people are from Urbandale, Clive, West Des Moines," he said. "No one is going to be able to deny it or convince me we're not a community."

Not only did the city-vs.-suburb mindset vanish last week, so did rivalries among suburbs. To the west, Urbandale and Waukee have been locked in an annexation fight, but Waukee willingly supplied water to Urbandale.. The same thing happened in the east, with Altoona providing water to Pleasant Hill.

The almost instinctive reaction of residents suggests that ordinary people are way ahead of the politicians in regarding the metropolitan area not as a patchwork of rival freedoms but as a single community. After all, on those spectacular serial views of the flood you couldn't tell where city ended and suburb began.

It was all one area in trouble. If the demonstrated ability of the metro area to pull together in an emergency can be parlayed into a more formal cohesion in the future, it will be one way in which fighting the flood of '93 will have made this a better place.

* * *

Just as the landscape of the rivers won't quite be the same again after the flood, it's possible that the force of the rushing water altered the course of Des Moines' future. At the least, it will require some re-evaluation.

It begins with a recognition of how much more severe the blow might have been. If local government response to the emergency had been fumbling, instead of competent and heroic.

If there had been an everyone - for - himself attitude, instead of of cooperation and an outpouring of volunteerism. If the TV cameras had found squabbles and bickering over water distribution, instead of humor and neighborliness.

If there had been widespread looting, instead of remarkable sharing.

If any one of those things had happened, people might right now be scratching Des Moines off the list of places where they might start a business or raise a family. The wrong response to the crisis could have been a staggering setback.

With pride, Des Moines might look forward to just the opposite. The metro community showed its best face to the nation. You can't buy the kind of favorable publicity those scenes on Fleur Drive provided.

The first lesson from the disaster is you can't overestimate the importance of the basics - of continuing to make the investments in people and neighborhoods that make this community a place of competence, civic spirit and sharing.

Next will come many tough questions about future planning and development. The flood proved that the floodplains are much larger than previously thought. Countless homes and businesses were built in areas thought to be safe from water, but they weren't.

Do floodplain building restrictions need to be expanded? Should development that was flooded be encouraged to move to higher ground? Should the creeks and rivers in the metro area gradually be turned into greenbelts? Or should the cost of occasional flooding be accepted?

Were too many eggs put in one basket by relying on one big Des Moines Water Works treatment plant to serve most of the metro area How important is it to begin budding backup plants? Should numerous plants throughout the region be linked, like an electrical grid?

Flooded roads caused major problems. Should alternative transportation systems be a bigger part of future planning.?

Perhaps most important, how can the metro area redesign local government to make the splendid cooperation seen during the crisis a permanent thing?

These and other questions must be addressed in the weeks and months ahead. For now, of course, the biggest task is to help those who were hit hardest. For most, the crisis has been little more than a major inconvenience. For others who lost a home, a life's work or a loved one. It has been devastating They will need the continued support of friends and strangers alike.

And then Des Moines - a Des Moines community much stronger for having passed the test - can get on with the future confidently.
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Title Annotation:editorial from the Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Aug 2, 1993
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