The University of Iowa

The Flood of 2008 And A Community of Givers

July 31st, 2009

By Sarah Yu

For weeks, the flood’s devastation was sprawled across the headlines of countless newspapers, magazines, and television stations. People proudly displayed their “I survived the flood of ’08″ T-shirts to confirm their triumph over the natural disaster. However, as the news of the flood dies down and disappears from the headlines, the flood still continues to leave its mark on the lives of University of Iowa students, but more specifically, its international students.

Since international students are not eligible to receive aid from FEMA or other government programs, they had to turn to other resources for help. The UI initially gave students $500, while the Office of International Students & Scholars (ISSS) gave additional assistance based on need. The Red Cross and the Crisis Center also provided help to those international students who applied. Leanne Seedorf, an advisor at ISSS, was one of the people who made assistance for international students more accessible: “It was my task to organize a flood resource list geared specifically toward international students and scholars. Our office provided a listing of resources they would qualify for and information on how to apply for those resources.” Scott King, the director of ISSS, says, “There was a lot of communication with students. We worked particularly with financial aid offices and deputized our office to talk with students. It was a really nice example of us working together.” Students were overall satisfied with UI’s response to the flood.

Sunday Goshit, a Ph.D student in geology at UI, was pleased with the variety of organizations and people that lent a helping hand: “The community was extremely helpful, and my church was very helpful. Many individuals were concerned and asked how they could help. Assistance for international students was very well publicized. There were e-mails distributed almost every week.”

Besides searching and applying for financial aid, students as well as UI staff faced dramatic changes and interruptions in their daily lives. According to Sherif Negem, a Ph.D student in chemistry at UI, the worst part was having to halt his work. “My research was put on hold. Our research building was flooded, so our lab was forced out of the building. The building I used to work in was ok, but we couldn’t take most of our research instruments. The building is still in the cleaning process.” Some students were even less fortunate than Negem.

For students with children or other dependents, family was a big concern. Goshit, who lived on Hawkeye Court with his wife and children, explains, “We are family people. I had to settle my family. When we were displaced, all we had was one little rug in the living room. You just want to reassure everyone in your family that everything is OK. You can’t go and focus on your research even if you had a lab.”

On the flip side, Seedorf also faced obstacles helping the international students: “When the University shut down, communication was difficult. Our office tried to maintain regular electronic communication on how to get assistance, but obviously many students did not have access to e-mail or the web or even electricity for some time, so it was a challenge to get information out to some students.” Yet some difficulties rose beyond technicalities and communication: “To some extent cultural issues may have played a part in whether or not students sought assistance, or how quickly they did so. Some students may have relied on family members or a community for assistance back home, and external resources, or “charity,” may not have been sought, at least not right away.”

Despite all the devastation, financial hardships, and interruptions that came with the flood, students and staff all retained a positive outlook. The disaster proved to be a testament to the close relationship among students and faculty within the community. “During the process I realized that I have terrific people around me who took care of me, and helped me a lot. Going through this experiment, the lesson of the flood helped me realize I can go through anything else. I came out stronger than before,” expressed Negem.

Goshit has similar views: “[The flood] revealed a lot about the Iowa City Community as a whole. I look at how our community came together and volunteered. Thousands of man hours were contributed toward sandbagging. People left work and their comforts to see how they could help protect people’s houses. Also, from the perspective of my faith, I learned that nothing is permanent. It’s not about material possessions.” For Goshit, it’s situations like this which make him appreciate and love Iowa: “I’ve had a very good experience in Iowa. I just want to express gratitude to the University and to the ISSS for doing a very good job in helping the international students, and to the Iowa community in general, which is the kind of life I grew up with in Nigeria.”

As for the University, it may also emerge “stronger than before.” Seedorf explains, “[The flood] also emphasizes topics we need to cover or reinforce. We already provide a very extensive orientation on living in the US and Iowa City, which covers a wide range of topics. One topic we already cover is weather – how would a student from Nigeria, or a scholar from Finland, know that a certain siren indicates a tornado? Now I think we’ll obviously include flood damage awareness as part of orientation.”

To most people, the flood will only be another event in history that fades over time. However, it will always continue to linger in the memories of individuals and the community – not as a tragedy, but as a victory over what could have been a disaster.