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As far as the eye can see…water

The floods that have devastated portions of Iowa arrived at the IJN’s dry doorstep on Friday, June 13.Voxman Music Building, University of iowa

 An e-mail sent by Jody Braverman, an Iowa City resident and former Denverite, began with a captivating question: “When does the meteor hit?”

“Three years ago,” the e-mail continued, “our home got hit by lightening, which fried many electrical components despite the whole-house surge protector. Two years ago, just as we finished the second seder meal with 23 friends and family, the tornado hit. Earlier this year, we awoke in the early morning darkness to the rumbles of the southern Illinois earthquake.

“And now we’re struggling with floodwaters.”

In 2003, Braverman and his wife Janie, formerly active members at Temple Sinai, moved to Iowa City with their combined family of four.

They had no idea that plagues of potentially Biblical proportions would follow.

On Friday the 13th, the situation for the college town’s 60,000 residents was a fluctuating swirl of rising water, flood bulletins, road closures, curfews, sandbagging and evacuations.

The 100-year flood plain — the geographical marker of the worst flood in a 100-year period — had already been surpassed, and officials feared the 500-year flood plain would soon be breached.

“At this point, it’s either an attitude of ‘we can handle it, let’s wait and see’ or ‘sandbag and evacuate,’” Braverman said Friday from his real estate development office as new bulletins poured in over local TV stations and the Internet.

Braverman shared the latest update from the Army Corps of Engineers, which stated: “The current water level of the Coralville Reservoir is 715.9 feet, 3.9 feet over the spillway.

“Possible maximum flow expected during this flood event in the Iowa City area is 44,000 cubic square feet, expected late Monday, June 16. This correlates to an additional 4 1/2 feet to 5 feet of water.

“The maximum flow experience [in the severe] flood of 1993 was 28,200 cubic square feet.”

“The question,” said Braverman, “is whether the water is going to go up two feet or five feet. Will it spread by feet, or city blocks?”

Braverman, a member of Agudas Achim, situated on the banks of the imperiled Ralston Creek, said volunteers placed barricades around the synagogue throughout the afternoon.

The nearly 200-family merged congregation was scheduled to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah at Shabbat services later that evening.

Asked whether he thought anyone would brave the road and highway closures that effectively cut Iowa City in half, Braverman grinned over the phone.

“Oh hell yeah!” he said. “But instead of bring your own tallis bag, it’s bring your own sandbag.”

By Monday, June 16, 5,000 residents had been evacuated from Iowa City.High water rendered 40-year-old businesses inoperable. Sixteen buildings on the University of Iowa campus flooded.

Fortunately, however, the Iowa River crested earlier and lower than expected. A sense of cautious relief returned to the city — with an emphasis on “cautious.”

Agudas Achim “is right by Ralston Creek,” Rabbi Jeff Portman told the IJN Monday.

“As the Iowa River starts going back to its banks, we still might get flooded. The water has to go somewhere.”

He estimated that two or three families belonging to Agudas Achim were forced to evacuate, while others moved in with friends or sought shelter at the Red Cross.

Portman, who has headed Agudas Achim for 34 years, said the current synagogue was damaged in the 1993 flood.

The Jewish congregation formed in Iowa City in the late 1890s.

Portman has been in touch with Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids, the city that suffered widespread flooding last week.

“I think they are fine, although I haven’t heard from them in a few days,” he said. “The temple is pretty far away from the major flood area.”

According to news reports, synagogues in Dubuque, Mason City and Waterloo sustained minimal damage.

Like the two Berlins before 1989, Iowa City is divided into east and west. The Iowa River created the original demarcation. Floodwater has established yet another boundary.

“There are all kinds of challenges getting from one place to another,” Portman said. “The cleanup effort will be huge.”

Last week, three dozen volunteers placed sandbags around Agudas Achim, which is in the eastern section of Iowa City. “People came from all over,” Portman said.

Members of Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster, a group based in the Twin Cities, also showed up to assist with the sandbagging. Hillel at the University of Iowa is preparing Jewish students to jump into action mode when they return to the campus in August.

“Some of our students have lost their homes,” wrote Executive Director Gerald Sorokin in a mass e-mail sent to Hillel members. “All of them have friends and professors whose lives have been affected by acts beyond anyone’s control.

“We will seize this opportunity to build new tzedek projects, teach students about community leadership and help our neighbors recover.”

This Friday, June 20, Agudas Achim will host another Bar Mitzvah at the synagogue along Ralston Creek.

“We plan to go ahead with it,” Rabbi Portman said. “Unless we’re totally flooded.”

The Reform rabbi believes natural disasters like the Iowa floods “are part of the fabric of life.

“Religion kicks in when we all help each other,” he said. “People helped us. We helped them. It brings out our community spirit — and the best in all of us.”

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IJN Senior Writer |

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