Three houses in two weeks: That's how many places the Kuntz family has lived since 16 feet of raging floodwater deluged their heirloom farmhouse in Oakville, Iowa.
Chad Kuntz, a farmer, and his wife, Natalie, a homeschooling mom, had more notice than most residents that the Iowa River was about to blow through the levee near their home. So on June 10, they started packing.
On June 13, the police announced a mandatory evacuation and the Kuntzes moved their belongings and three children-ages 6, 4, and 2-into the home of Mrs. Kuntz's parents, a mile and a half away on the other side of a divided levee.
On June 14, authorities ordered that neighborhood evacuated when the Mississippi River threatened to breach the levee there.
That same day, a woman with a home for sale in nearby Mediapolis, Iowa, offered the Kuntzes refuge. The housing market had been in the doldrums, and she hadn't had many offers. But as more and more of Oakville submerged, flooded-out homeowners were suddenly clamoring to buy her house.
That forced the Kuntzes to find new shelter. To that point, their Christian faith had helped them bear their trial with patience-even when the Iowa River swallowed their own home on the same day. Still, Mrs. Kuntz started to pray a little differently: "I said, 'God, I know You wouldn't have let our house flood if You didn't have a plan. But at this point I would really like to know where You want us to live.'"
Families throughout the Mississippi River Valley have asked themselves the same question since torrential rains triggered the worst flooding in history. Since May, storms across the Midwest have killed at least 24 people. Hardest hit was Iowa, where floods soaked all or part of 340 towns, and 83 of 99 counties have been declared disaster areas.
As the state's recovery efforts grind on, reports of Iowans like the Kuntzes-people who have lost everything-continue to surface. Charles and Rosemary Harvey lost two everythings. Lilly Printing, their family business on 2nd Avenue in Cedar Rapids, is a waterlogged wreck. Fifteen blocks away, their home is also under water. The Harveys, an older Christian couple known for loving their neighbors, are among a growing list of "friends and coworkers who lost homes and businesses," said Cedar Rapids resident Karla Underwood. "My list is getting longer and longer."
In Cedar Rapids alone, Iowa's second largest city, officials peg damage estimates at $1 billion. In addition to thousands of lost homes and businesses, floodwaters there wiped out large chunks of history. The 80-year old Paramount Theater is listed on the National Historic Register; at the peak of the deluge, floodwaters splashed against the bottom of the marquee. Also a total loss: The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, dedicated in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and Slovak President Michael Kovac. Recently renovated, the institution had preserved the history of Czech and Slovak immigration and assimilation into Cedar Rapids during the 19th century. The area is still home to approximately 13,000 residents of Czech-Slovak descent.
Christians in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere have seen the disaster as an opportunity to love their neighbors. Underwood, who works for General Mills, is a volunteer with Serve the City, a coalition of 37 evangelical congregations and seven para-church ministries that is coordinating volunteer efforts in the area. The group is affiliated with Mission America Coalition, a national network of city-based Christian volunteer programs. In Cedar Rapids, Serve the City is working in partnership with the Red Cross, dispatching 3,500 Good Samaritans to do everything from heaving sandbags and clearing debris to diapering infants at a pair of free church-run daycare centers opened so that flood victims could leave their kids in a safe haven while coping with the logistics of loss.
"We see pictures all the time of horrible things that take place in the world," said Underwood. "But to actually be in it and smell it and be part of it is a totally different experience."
For Chad and Natalie Kuntz, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the flooding is the drowning of some residents' dreams. "I have friends with no flood insurance and without God in their lives," Mrs. Kuntz said. "Without God to cling to, they have no hope. There's only despair in their voices, and it's just horrible."
For their part, the Kuntzes lost a home that had been in their family for generations. But shortly after Mrs. Kuntz asked God how He planned to put a roof over their heads, her cell phone rang. The caller was a Mediapolis teacher whom both Kuntzes had had in high school.
"I've got a house in town that I neither want to sell nor rent," she said. "But you are welcome to live it in for as many years as you want."
The teacher's call deepened the Kuntz's trust in God, a trust Mrs. Kuntz said had been building even before the flooding, when the family suffered a series of deaths among family and friends in 2007 and 2008.
"God was very, very near through all of this," she said. "He has taught us that it's not about what you have. It's about loving those around you, and that no matter what, He is there."