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New homes, new hope in Cedar Rapids

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In one week, volunteers raised walls on 20 new homes.

One year after the worst natural and economic disaster in the history of Iowa, the city of Cedar Rapids still bears many scars. The Cedar River flooded more than nine square miles in June 2008, destroying nearly 4,000 homes.

Many restaurants and shops in the downtown area reopened only weeks ago, and some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods remain abandoned. But signs in storefronts proclaim, “We are back.” And the hum of construction is widespread.

The 2009 Habitat for Humanity AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon, which wraps up Friday, has become one of the most visible signs of progress in the city’s ongoing comeback from disaster. In one week, more than 500 AmeriCorps members and other volunteers raised walls, shingled roofs, installed siding, doors and windows on 20 new homes.

NFL quarterback Kurt Warner and his wife, Brenda, supported the event with speeches and good old-fashioned sweat, along with state and local dignitaries. Governor Chet Culver helped wrap up the week by picking up a hammer and pitching in Friday.

Throughout the week, the weather varied from torrential downpours to sunny steam baths. During a 15-minute deluge on Thursday, crews huddled in partially-roofed houses to wait out the worst. In one house, three workers belted out “Amazing Grace” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the rain gradually stopped and the high Iowa sky turned blue.

When a crew courier’s golf cart got mired in the black mud, another volunteer gave it a tug.

The work never stopped for long. Now that the weeklong blitz build is finished, a skeleton crew will remain until early September, by which time all 20 partner families will have moved into their new homes.

“I honestly don’t know who gets more out of this,” said Ezekiel Laurel, a 74-year-old AmeriCorps member from Laredo, Texas. “Initially I got involved with Habitat because I thought it benefited people who need homes. But I’ve learned how much it really means to everyone involved.

“We get to know these families,” he said. “We are brothers and sisters.”