Creating Our Future

By John Swanson
From ASTC Dimensions
May/June 2009

The National Weather Service said, “We anticipate flood cresting at 24 1/2 feet.” That’s what was going through my head as I studied the flood wall, built for a 24-foot crest, and the Cedar River beyond. That flood wall stood just 50 feet from the back wall of the Cedar Rapids Science Station in Iowa. It was 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 11, 2008. We had spent the day moving servers, tools, and the more valued exhibits out of our two basements. I knew our ground floor was at about the same level as the flood wall, so I thought, “The worst will be two flooded basements and maybe some water on the first floor.” Almost as an afterthought, I told everyone to move their computers to the tops of their desks.

Late Friday night into early Saturday morning, the river crested at 31 feet, seven feet higher than that flood wall—and 11 feet above the previous flood record, set in 1929. On Sunday, officials announced that the waters were starting to recede. We were allowed back into our three-building complex on Tuesday, June 17, although workers would still be pumping water out of the basements for four days.

I wasn’t prepared for what I found inside. As we opened the door, the humidity and musty aroma overwhelmed us. Every horizontal surface had a fine coating of what I later learned was the best part of Iowa’s marvelous topsoil, which will take many, many years to restore—one of the lesser known, but sinister, consequences of a flood. Until we left footprints, the carpeted floor looked like an ice rink, smooth and glistening with a skim-coat of mud.

But what struck us most was that nothing was where it belonged. Cases and counters had either collapsed or moved. You could probably produce an acceptable Ph.D. dissertation on the currents and whirlpools created inside a building by swirling flood waters. Entering our offices, we found 50-pound wooden tables hanging from partition walls and file cabinets tipped over. And those computers on the desks—well, that only meant they had been under three feet of water rather than seven.

As we worked through the Science Station, making quick decisions on what was salvageable, I came across a walnut plaque. Badly warped and lying in the muck, the inscribed words caught my eye:

The Best Way To Predict Your Future Is To Create It.

I have no idea how the plaque came to hang on our wall, but I immediately recognized the power in the words of management consultant Peter Drucker. We had the quote made into a banner for the front wall of our building, where it remains, a reminder to a devastated city that even disasters can have silver linings.

It took two weeks and $200,000 to clean out, dry out, and disinfect the building and its contents. Although 90 percent of our exhibits were ruined, there was no structural damage and only minimal exterior damage to the building. When we’re ready to rebuild, it will take nearly $2 million to repair walls, air handling, plumbing, and electrical damage.

The building is now tight, safe, and dry, but we won’t rebuild until we complete a visioning process and know more about how the city will deal with future flood threats. It will take between 7 and 12 years for the city to complete flood prevention planning and build new floodwalls and levees. In our own master planning, we will need to determine whether we will rebuild in our original location or relocate to another site. In addition, we are considering whether to share space or resources with another institution. One possibility is to partner with a local education agency to provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for students and training for teachers in our building.

Science Camp and perseverance

Even before we re-entered the buildings, we realized we had another challenge. We were three days into our eight-week summer Science Camp program when the evacuation order went out. The camp is very popular and is one of our most important revenue sources.

At such a time, the inherent good in people emerges and a spirit arises that I can’t properly express. My church graciously allowed us to use its multiclassroom addition for the camp. They also provided a kitchen, where we stored supplies and parceled out snacks. Four days after the flood emergency was declared “over,” we resumed our Science Camp program.

Still, I was worried. We lost all our files, so we couldn’t verify who had already paid their camp registration fees. Publicly, I was saying, “We’re not in the business of disappointing kids. Science Camp is still on!” But inwardly, I was thinking, “What if they all demand a refund, or dozens show up claiming they already paid and expect a reserved spot for their child?”

However, my fears were unfounded. To a person, parents understood our circumstances, and “The Honor System” worked. When it was all over, nearly 800 campers had participated (a new record for the Science Station), refunds were minimal, and we even managed to make up the two lost days from that flood-affected first week.

An off-site presence

By late August, we had three other examples of how people rise to the occasion in times of need. First I received an e-mail from Mark Kirby of Eureka Exhibits. He wrote, “We have not scheduled our interactive computer simulation, Be the Dinosaur, for the fall, due to taking part of it to the ASTC Conference in October. If it can help, 75 percent of it is yours through the end of the year at no charge.” It took me all of two seconds to hit the Reply key and accept that most generous offer.

Then the reality set in. I thought, “OK, I‘ve got an exhibition, but no place to put it…and what about other exhibition expenses that don’t go away, like staffing, advertising, and insurance?” Once again, something gratifying occurred when a new-to-the-region company, ITC Midwest, approached us and said, “We’re a technology-driven organization and your mission matches ours. How can we help?” They agreed to cover all costs related to staging and presenting the exhibition, totaling more than $30,000. So, with our budget sponsored, the final step was to secure a place to stage the exhibition. A local shopping mall had 3,500 square feet of vacant space and was extremely accommodating with the rent.

Be the Dinosaur opened October 1, 2008, ran seven days a week, and closed on January 4, 2009. We had 5,803 visitors, plus several hundred who attended free Sunday afternoon lectures with local experts and amateur paleontologists. It was, to say the least, a financial success, since the full sponsorship allowed our ticket income to assist with other financial needs.

A shopping mall operation taught us other lessons, too. People go to malls for many reasons other than shopping. Seniors use them for exercise, moms see them as a way to get out of the house, and young people treat them as gathering places. These are all audiences we would like to have at the Science Station. Another benefit is that mall parking is plentiful—and free.

From this new knowledge, we created Science Station@Lindale Mall. We moved to a more visible location on the main floor, opening with an Early Childhood area, a small exhibit called Antarctica’s Climate Secrets, and the few exhibits we managed to salvage and rebuild. We’re keeping the space we used for Be the Dinosaur, too, and will hold our 2009 summer camp there.

Natural disasters happen. No one anywhere is immune from the possibility of a flood, hurricane, tornado, or fire. My advice to other museums: Take plenty of pictures, before, during, and after. They are invaluable when estimating or proving loss. Most of all, take heart from the basic goodness of the human spirit. People will surprise you with their sincere desire to help out.

John Swanson is executive director of the Cedar Rapids Science Station, Iowa.

About the image: Once clean-out was completed after the flood at Cedar Rapids Science Station, every surface had to be disinfected. Photo by John Swanson