ROCK VALLEY, Ia. – A flood of bike jerseys, food carts, tents and vendors felt like a blanket of solidarity for Rock Valley residents Saturday afternoon.
The venue for the 2014 RAGBRAI Expo — with a throng of cyclists gradually covering the pavement surrounding Rock Valley High School as the afternoon wore on — could not have been more fitting, local organizers said.
The same plot of land was submerged one month ago by unprecedented floodwaters that threatened to relocate the first overnight town for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
“We literally needed this to get over the flood,” said Nicole Roder, member of the local RAGBRAI committee and principal at Rock Valley’s middle school and high school. “We’re proud of this.”
Roder and Chad Janzen, superintendent of the Rock Valley school district, on Saturday stood beside aerial photos of the school building, mostly surrounded by water, while directing new arrivals to a registration table.
Down the road, riders lined up for the ceremonial dip of their tire in the Rock River, the same stream that rose to a historic 23-plus feet and flooded more than 150 homes in mid-June.
The town was still able to host the RAGBRAI Expo because of the work of more than 2,500 volunteers, many of them strangers to the community. Federal and state emergency response programs and nonprofit initiatives helped, too.
“Our town stepped up huge, but it was also the county and beyond that,” Rock Valley City Administrator Tom Van Maanen said Saturday, moments after a stranger handed him a $20 bill as a donation and walked away.
The city sold “Overcome” T-shirts with the hashtag #valleystrong for $25 each at a booth, where large donation jugs gradually filled with bills.
One RAGBRAI veteran said the relief effort intersected perfectly with the spirit of the annual ride.
“This is absolutely phenomenal,” said Tom Young of Creston, after buying a T-shirt.
He said the need reminded him of a tornado that devastated Creston two years ago.
“To think what these people went through, just to get ready for RAGBRAI, is incredible,” he said.
Mayor Kevin Van Otterloo said most cleanup was complete, and that all remaining donations will go directly toward affected families within the community.
Between the hustle and bustle Saturday, he said, he found himself pausing regularly to take in the smiling faces and festive spirit filling the streets.
“A few weeks ago, this was all water. Now it’s filled with people and they’re smiling,” he said.
As riders pedal down the road today with 400-plus miles ahead of them, Rock Valley will begin a much more manageable cleanup and prepare for one final summer event.
The annual Rally in the Valley festival is scheduled for the second weekend of August, city officials said.
They said the event will be particularly scaled back this year with a special local focus.
“It will be a celebration of surviving this summer,” Roder said.
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