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The Quiet Disaster

Tracy Ullman documented the Cedar Rapids floods—and the city’s struggle to right itself long after most of the cameras had left.


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Tracy Ullman got a call in June 2008 from her best friend's mother, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "She said, 'It's raining horribly out here—you should come out and make a documentary,'" says Ullman, a Chicagoan and documentary film producer.

Ullman was hesitant. "Documentaries are time-consuming and expensive," she says. "It seemed like a lot, without any basis for a budget."

But Ullman's best friend, Audree Larson, a photographer who owns and operates a portrait studio in Cedar Rapids with her brother, hooked Ullman up with the president of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Chuck Peters, who put up $3,000 in seed money. Ullman and a camera operator got to town that same month to film the aftermath of one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history. "We were blown away," she says. "You could go for miles and see shells of houses . . . rail cars in the river where the Penford Railroad Bridge collapsed . . . They were still pumping water out of Mercy Hospital." Ullman's hour-long documentary about the Cedar Rapids flood, City Under Water, will be shown for the first time in Chicago at 6 PM this Sunday, October 4, on Channel 11 and five more times on the channel through October 12.

Cedar Rapids, an industrial city of 128,000 in east-central Iowa, 220 miles west of Chicago, bills itself as the "City of Five Seasons" (the fifth being the time people there supposedly set aside to savor the other four), but Ullman says that as a student at the University of Iowa, 20 miles south in Iowa City, she'd thought of Cedar Rapids more as "the city of five smells—Quaker, Cargill, Penford, Ralston Purina," chemical and food plants that line the Cedar River, "and shit from the livestock."

But her view of the city evolved during the eight months she was shooting City Under Water. "I admired how these people banded together and would never accept defeat," she says. "I have no idea what it's like to lose every possession you ever had in you life and still find strength in that kind of chaos."

Ullman, who's 40, grew up in Deerfield and started taking pictures in sixth grade with a camera her father had carried in Vietnam. In high school she'd photograph her "little punk friends" and downtown street scenes on trips into Chicago. She met Larson when they were both photography students at Iowa (Ullman later switched to broadcast); a mutual friend introduced them in a cafe. Larson remembers an overwhelming first impression of Ullman: "She was wearing black-and-white striped tights. I thought, 'What is this tornado on wheels?' She had this aura about her that knocked you over. I immediately knew she'd make an impact on my life."

What Ullman remembers is that she'd just finished a nude modeling session for a photo student: "He had me pose in these African masks with all these dead animals behind me. He had little furry animals in formaldehyde up against the wall with pins through their bodies. I had to leave the shoot early because the formaldehyde got to be too much."

Ullman and Larson went together to the City College of London for a semester their senior year, but after graduation, Larson moved back to Cedar Rapids—"much to Tracy's dismay," Larson says. "I didn't consider going anywhere else. I'm incredibly close with my family," which has been in Cedar Rapids for generations. "Tracy has been after me about it ever since. But I did the opposite—I brought her back for this project."

After college, Ullman worked alongside a boyfriend who was in Panama studying coral reefs. "When you're chasing tail, you wind up in the most precarious places," she says. When he got a position teaching biology at a university in Glasgow, she followed him there. They married, and after stints as a photo assistant and an insurance secretary, she landed a job as a researcher with the BBC, whose local studios were around the corner from their home. She worked on the BBC's Gaelic-language programming and helped produce a Web site for it. In 1997 she helped create a Nova program coproduced by the BBC about the race between Steve Fossett, Richard Branson, and others to be first to circle the globe in a hot-air balloon.

The BBC anthropology series Under the Sun sent Ullman back to Iowa for a show that was her idea, and her first as lead producer: "Rush," a study of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority at her alma mater. "The film posited that this was your first big job interview," she says, "your chance to join corporate America and establish a class system in the U.S., even though we say there is no class system."

After a divorce, Ullman moved back to Chicago in 1999. (Here she married Reader contributor Jeffrey Felshman; they have three children and live in Portage Park.) She produced a show for Channel 11 about the relocation of American Indians from reservations to Chicago and other big cities in the 1950s and another about a nudists' convention. Working for Chicago's Towers Productions, she produced episodes of Bill Kurtis's American Justice and a Bon Jovi biography for A&E and episodes of Gangland for the History Channel. Early last year she struck out on her own as an independent producer. She was already working on other projects when Larson's mom called to suggest she come to Cedar Rapids.

On June 13, 2008, the Cedar River crested there at 31 feet—11 feet higher than the 1993 record and 5 feet higher than the top of the levee. Nine square miles were flooded and 3,900 homes were damaged, about 1,000 of them suffering irreparable structural damage or irremediable mold or other contamination. The flood missed Larson's downtown photo studio by three blocks. "We were evacuated, but I'd sneak down and take important things upstairs," she says.

Cedar Rapids lost an estimated 7,000-8,000 jobs—some employers, such as Swiss Valley Farms, never reopened their flood-damaged facilities. The Mother Mosque of America, constructed in 1934 and possibly the first structure in the U.S. built to be a mosque, lost a number of artifacts when the basement flooded, as did the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. The main branch of the Cedar Rapids Public Library lost its entire adult collection. "Their water treatment plant was laid to waste and sewage mixed with farm chemicals from the flood made much of downtown Cedar Rapids toxic," Ullman says.

As measured by the amount of FEMA spending projected to repair the public infrastructure ($1.1 billion), the 2008 Iowa floods rank as the fifth largest "state disaster" in U.S. history. They trail only the 9/11 attacks and the 2005 hurricanes Katrina (in Louisiana and Mississippi) and Wilma (in Florida). City Under Water reports that Cedar Rapids needed about $6 billion in aid but obtained just $500 million. (Since the movie was completed it's received $200 million more.)

Focusing on a handful of victims who'd lost their homes, businesses, or jobs, Ullman traveled back and forth to Cedar Rapids through February to capture the traumatized city as it inched toward recovery. Larson attributes the relatively low levels of outside aid and media attention that Cedar Rapids got after the flood to "our good old midwestern mentality that we can do it ourselves." When the river returned to its banks, she says, "you'd hear hammering and sawing, people doing anything, even if it was sweeping a sidewalk in front of a house that was never going to be lived in again. It turned around and bit us. When we say we can do it on our own, the world says, 'Go ahead.' We don't make enough noise. We're too proud, I think."

Ullman did observe "a lot of bickering in the local government. They didn't know how to mobilize and get a cohesive voice to say 'We really need this money.'" And Mayor Kay Halloran, who announced last month that she wouldn't seek reelection, was beset by medical problems and famously nodded off during city council meetings. But City Under Water barely touches on Cedar Rapids's political problems. "I had ample ammunition to make it look like a melee," Ullman says. "But it's really about the universal message of how you survive a tragedy. I decided to focus entirely on the triumph of the human spirit."

About a year after the flood, Larson hosted a screening of City Under Water at her studio for the film's subjects and donors. "After the film it was silent, then there was this eruption of conversation," she says. "People were grateful to have that approval that they could share their stories with each other."

A few days later, on the flood's first anniversary, the film premiered on Cedar Rapids public television. Having more than covered her $41,000 budget with donations and underwriting, mostly from Cedar Rapids businesses, Ullman is giving the program away to public TV stations across the midwest.

She sees lessons for Chicago in the tragedy. "With weather pattern changes you could have floods anywhere. Lake Michigan is supposed to rise. What are people on the lakeshore going to do if that happens? To deal with something like this, you have to have an imagination for it," she says.

Two 2002 studies published in the journal Nature predicted that the incidence of so-called 100-year floods—ones of a severity experienced about once a century—would increase by a factor of three to six in this century due to global warming. And the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is studying the possible role of global warming not only in last year's record floods but also its unusually violent tornado season.

"We shouldn't take anything for granted," says Ullman. "Things are changing."   


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