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Trying to show foreigner 'normal Iowa' fails during flood—or does it?

(Note: This column was written in July 1993, the week after floods hit Des Moines, knocking out the city's water plant and leaving residents without running water for a couple of weeks. Susan and I were living in Indianola, just south of Des Moines, where I was working as a reporter for The Record-Herald and Indianola Tribune. At the time, our paper was hosting a foreign journalist from the Ukraine, who was living with us at the time.)

“This usually doesn’t happen like this.”

This past week, I’ve been saying this more and more. It keeps coming up in the commentary on American life I’ve been trying to provide to Katerina Koval, a journalist from Cherkassy, Ukraine. Katerina, or “Kate,” is spending a month at The Record-Herald and recently spent a week at home with Susan and me.

While Kate was with us, I learned a lot about the Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now coping with independence. But more importantly, I learned a lot about Americans.

What I learned was that in comparison to Ukrainians, who stand in various long lines for groceries, whose rights to free expression are still stifled and who must deal daily with mind-numbing inflation, America is an obscene and pampered place.

As Susan and I prepared for Kate’s visit, I suddenly called into question the way Americans live; the way I live. How would I be able to explain our spoiled cats? “No, they don’t eat table scraps. We just throw those away. The cats eat a special food and nothing else. … Now I’m scooping their poop out of the kitty litter. Our cats don’t go outside. No, not ever. Not even for that.”

How would I explain our constant use of the dishwasher? How would I explain our well-stocked grocery store? How would I explain our reliance and dependency on computers? Were these things luxuries or were they just symbolic of blind Americans far removed from simple realities and necessities of everyday life?

On Saturday, July 10, we made plans to go with Kate to Des Moines the next day to go to a home show to see a series of obscenely luxurious houses with master bathrooms and whirlpools. It would be a good lesson about materialistic Americans, I thought. We would meet another family in Des Moines hosting a Ukrainian journalist, one of Kate’s good friends.

At 8 a.m. on Sunday morning the phone rang, waking us up. It was the other host family. They apologized that they wouldn’t be able to go, saying something about having to leave home because they had no power or water; that no one in Des Moines had power or water because of The Flood. Stunned, we turned on the television to see live pictures of Des Moines under water, while reporters flexed new vocabulary muscles: “Inundate, rampage, deluge, recede,” they said.

The reporters were also explaining something I tried to explain to Kate: “This usually doesn’t happen like this here.” In fact, it had never happened.

Soon, I was called in to work because The Des Moines Register, without water or power, was going to try to put out its Monday, July 12, paper at The Record-Herald and they needed help.

“This never has never happened before,” I told Kate.

I tried to explain how strange it would be for The Register to put out a paper in our office. I tried to explain how exhilarating it was for me as someone who grew up reading the paper to help with one of the most important and unique editions in its history. And I didn’t even try to explain the moment when I went a little dizzy with disbelief as I pasted The Register’s nameplate onto the front page. Within 12 hours, that nameplate would be on papers on thousands of doorsteps. And many people would keep it for the rest of their lives (or until they lose it in a few years during the next 500-year flood). 

After the paper was finally to bed, Susan and I invited some Register employees who live in Des Moines to our house so they could shower and get some water to take home. It would be more than a week before they would have water even to flush a toilet.

The parade of waterless Des Moines refugees trailed through our bathroom and through hundreds of other Indianola bathrooms. On television that night, we watched people sandbagging and handing out water and food.

We had started out the day planning to see materialistic American dream homes, full of obscene luxuries for the rich and pampered. But we ended the day helping others secure one of life’s basic necessities — water.

I wanted to tell Kate, “What you’re seeing here and on television with people helping each other — this is very strange in America and hardly ever happens.”

But I didn’t say that. At that moment, I wanted to believe I was wrong.

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