Flood-Damaged Home Attracts Presidential Candidates

May 28, 2019

The flood-damaged home of Fran and Jason Parr in Mills County has caught the interest of quite a few Democratic presidential candidates as they campaign in Iowa ahead of the 2020 caucuses.

A mix of heavy rain, warmer temperatures, snowmelt and frozen ground in March triggered widespread flooding that caused dozens of levee breaches along the Missouri River and forced many communities to evacuate. People were out of their homes for days in some cases to as long as a few months in others. Some communities are still evacuated while homes in others are so damaged that people have found other places to live as they consider their options.

Fran and Jason Parr’s century-old home in unincorporated Mills County just outside of Pacific Junction has sustained significant damage from 9 feet of floodwaters. They’re not sure if they’ll rebuild or sell their home to the county to turn the land into green space if the county opts to participate in a voluntary buyout program. The Parrs received a $34,900 grant — the maximum amount from FEMA — to renovate their home. 

"I was kind of commenting on mementos here and there laying in the mud. She kind of, she got choked up." -Fran Parr on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's visit.

Democratic presidential candidates have taken note of the flood damage and the consequences for working families. Many have visited western Iowa or Davenport in the eastern part of the state, which flooded April 30 after temporary barriers failed along the Mississippi River. But four candidates have taken the time to meet with Fran and Jason Parr and see their home or the damage in southwest Iowa. On April 17, the first day the Parrs were able to get back into their home, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York stopped by.

“She got into the house. She looked around as we were walking around a bit, and I was kind of commenting on mementos here and there laying in the mud,” said Fran Parr, recounting Gillibrand's visit. “She kind of, she got choked up.”

They told Gillibrand their story and shared pictures of their 4-year-old twin sons.

About a week later, a huge package arrived, filled to the brim with toys, games, books and baseball mitts for the twins and a note for Fran and Jason. The family was in awe. Fran Parr said Gillibrand had said she was going to do that, but “you kind of take it with a grain of salt.”

“The boys, they were thrilled, frankly,” Fran Parr said. “I kind of see that as an indicator of a personal connection. She didn’t have to do anything like that.” 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was the first presidential candidate to meet with the Parrs. She toured the area in late March, when the family couldn’t even access their home. Gillibrand’s visit came almost three weeks later. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii helped them do some demolition work in the end of April and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney toured their home last week. 

The Parrs believe word-of-mouth has attracted these campaigns to their home ever since Klobuchar’s visit, as state campaign directors started reaching out after a story on Klobuchar’s visit to Pacific Junction was published in The Washington Post in April. Fran is a registered Democrat and Jason is a registered Republican, though he does not vote that way, he said. Neither considers themselves to be “politically involved,” they said. 

But they are part of the kind of demographic in the rural Midwest that many presidential candidates are trying to appeal to. 

“We’re a husband and wife with two kids and a dog,” Jason Parr said. “We’re just a working family.” 

"You're able to show potential voters, potential constituents that you understand their situation, you've been there ... " -Dennis Goldford, Drake University Political Science Professor

Touring flood-ravaged areas of western and eastern Iowa and meeting with families and business owners about the damage strays from the typical rallies or usual stops into restaurants and coffee shops that presidential candidates make on the campaign trail. Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science from Drake University, said there’s an advantage to this less-common form of campaigning.

“By making an appearance, you’re able to show potential voters, potential constituents that you understand their situation, you’ve been there, you’ve seen it with your own eyes,” Goldford said.

And, Goldford said, it could help candidates send a message to potential voters in flood-damaged areas.

“You’re saying to them, ‘you can trust me to represent your interests if I get into office, you can trust me to help provide the conditions for you to have a better life’,” Goldford said.

Goldford said if the visit can help “publicize the desperate conditions” and potentially speed up disaster aid, it could benefit local homeowners, but it mostly provides more of a sense of “moral support” from the candidates to those affected by flooding. 

Last week, a $19.1 billion disaster aid package with money for flood-damaged Iowa communities passed the Senate, but was blocked in the House and will stall likely until June. The vote took weeks to pass in the Senate because of debate over aid for Puerto Rico's hurricane recovery.

In this particular instance, homeowners’ getting their story out in local and national media outlets and getting noticed by presidential candidates who currently serve in the U.S. Senate or U.S. House is not immediately helping their case.

“It would be difficult to show an immediate cause and effect situation,” Goldford said. “Precisely what [these visits] could do at the level of government might be a longer term kind of process even if it is just a matter of trying to get disaster declarations issued or relief through FEMA.”

The Parrs feel these candidates have connected with them. They said they hope when these candidates take their stories back to Washington D.C. or along the campaign trail, that it opens up more eyes around the country to the reality that southwest Iowa has a long road of recovery ahead.

“[The flooding] is kind of getting forgotten here and there,” said Jason Parr, acknowledging that a lot of people are still affected. “There’s so many emotions when you cannot access your home.”

They’re not sure if more presidential candidates will come to the area, but the Parrs said they’d be happy to help facilitate more visits.