It’s good to see Vince Fiala smile.
With five years’ perspective, the man whose photographed image became a national symbol of the anguish felt by thousands of fellow flood victims, does occasionally flash a grin as he recounts the ruination of his three southwest Cedar Rapids homes on June 12, 2008.
Fiala says the low point of his ordeal came three days later when he and thousands of others were denied access to their flooded homes. “It’s a terrible mess, and we need to be there cleaning it up,” Fiala told then Gazette photographer Courtney Sargent, who captured the frown that has been likened to the theatrical mask of tragedy.
“It was a tense situation,” Vince Fiala’s wife, Barb, says. Hundreds of other flood victims waiting at the checkpoint in the hot sun for clearance to revisit their homes would have stormed the barricades if her husband had given the word, she says.
The Fialas say they have recovered from the flood, but at the expense of considerable labor and much of their life savings.
All three homes — theirs, Vince’s late mother’s and a rental unit — have been refurbished after floodwaters filled the ground floors with 2 feet of filthy water.
Fiala, 73, a retired plumbing contractor, worked 12-hour days with a hired carpenter for several months to repair their homes.
The Fialas also lost two late-model vehicles to the rapidly rising floodwaters.
“We thought we’d have time to drive them out, but the water just came up too fast. Mallory Street was like a raging river,” Vince Fiala says.
The Fialas, who live seven blocks from the Cedar River, thought they would be all right until floodwaters began lapping at their back door on the morning of June 12.
In the hectic scramble to save possessions, they moved everything from their finished basement to the first floor, but that was not high enough. The receding floodwater left behind two inches of mud on the carpet.
Fiala lost a nearly new pickup, and his daughter, Diane Stanek, lost a new car that had been parked in one of his garages.
“It was a pretty white car with 220 miles on it. We jacked it up until the roof of the car touched the roof of the garage, but it wasn’t high enough,” he says.
Barb Fiala left their home in a rescue boat at 2 p.m. Her husband waded out through shoulder-deep water two hours later. As hard as getting out was, getting back in was even harder, the Fialas say.
While they lived with their daughter, squatters occupied their home, tapping into the phone line and making more than 50 calls to Bosnia, they say.
“They wouldn’t let us in, but there were strangers living in our house,” Vince Fiala says.
In the flood’s aftermath, Vince Fiala underwent heart bypass surgery, which he attributes at least in part to flood-induced stress, and was hospitalized for a serious lung infection, which he attributes to the mold that flourished in his and so many other soggy houses.
The Fialas say they never considered moving, though.
“I’ve lived here (on Mallory Street, near the Czech Village business district) all my life. My dad owned Pohlena’s Meat market (a Czech Village institution before the flood closed it) for many years. I wouldn’t feel at home anywhere else,” he says.