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Residents, family and friends clean up after flash flooding washed out homes in the Fourmile Creek area of Des Moines. Zachary Boyden-Holmes, DesMoines

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Polly Osborn watched from the high ground of her brother-in-law’s garage as Fourmile Creek turned into raging rapids that engulfed her home and her entire street in what felt like minutes.

The water was already a foot high, maybe, when she and her 74-year-old husband, Jim, awoke to the sound of pounding rain at about 2 a.m. Sunday. By the time they got their third car to higher ground, the water was up to their chest.

And it would be much later, after the water finally receded, that they'd discover 16 inches of mud inside their home.

Flooding on the east side is a painful reality, and the Osborns have survived water damage before. But the water had never been this high, nor the current this strong.

Up and down East 35th Street in the Fourmile Creek neighborhood, the Osborns saw their neighbors struggling to flee turbulent currents and others risking their lives to help save people, pets and possessions.

For Polly, 69, it was the moment that their individual story became part of a greater narrative — the Osborns' struggle was their neighbors' struggle, their pain was their neighbors' pain, and their determination to find a path forward was their neighbors' as well.

In many ways, this neighborhood’s struggle is a microcosm for the issues facing Des Moines in the future.

As climate change affects watersheds, developments keep sprouting in thriving suburbs upstream and masses continue flocking to urban areas, people like the Osborns and their fellow Lee Township residents face the question of what to do next.

Should they take a buyout or should they rebuild? Will they have to pay taxes come September on a home that they might not be able to live in yet?

“I think a lot of people in this area are past wanting to stay,” Polly said. “We’ve heard from people before that they wouldn’t sell or they wouldn’t take a buyout, but we’re hearing from those same people that they’re done.

“This, this was just too much.”

In equal measure with devastation has come hope. Here, in the part of the city hit the hardest by the flooding, the best of humanity have offered their help.

In the Osborns' case, a Facebook post from their niece went viral on social media, prompting people the couple doesn’t even know to take off work to lend a hand.

Seeing that message on Facebook, a little girl up the street brought over some Popsicles, which, besides Jim's shower, was the best thing that happened to him Wednesday.

He gave her a few bucks to pay for the Popsicles. The next day she returned with more. She didn’t need the money, Polly recalled; she was just doing something nice.

“Some of them, I don’t know their names,” Jim said. “I don’t know who they are, but they’re here helping.

"I had one fellow, he helped put in the swimming pool, he called me and said, 'I’ve seen you on TV, and I am on my way over to help.'"

By 8 p.m. Sunday, the water that had ruined nearly everything the Osborns owned crept back, like a predator returned to its cave.

In its wake were left pieces to be picked up and decisions to be made.

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A house, a home

The Osborns' porch on the corner where 35th Street ends had been a gathering spot for coffee and company. Temporarily, the family and their friends moved to the garage, where Polly holds court with a smile and an easy laugh.

With her propensity to get guests a drink and the way she can make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world, it’s easy to see why the friends in her circle are known as the Godmothers of the East Side.

On Tuesday, three days after the flooding, an army of volunteers worked to strip the house, cataloging losses for the insurance company and power washing what could be saved.

“The rest of it, everything, is going to the curb,” Jim said. “So we are pretty much going to be without a whole lot.”

As they cleaned, volunteers would mention how beautiful the house was, how Polly’s unique style made it so special. Her sense of humor spread to the décor: Each shower was plastered with the words, “Get Naked.”

MORE: More than 1,500 properties reportedly affected by central Iowa flooding, officials say

The house is the third that the Osborns have lived in since moving to Des Moines roughly five decades ago. Jim was born and raised in the city, but Polly is from Pittsburgh.

The couple met through friends when Jim, who was in the Navy and stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, would hitchhike to Pennsylvania every other weekend to visit his best friend. A friend of that friend worked at the Pittsburgh Country Club with Polly, and the rest is history.

They got married and moved to Des Moines, where Jim got a job with the city. Their first house was a little place on Garfield Avenue, but the home where they raised their two kids — Jim Jr., now 49, and Tim, 48 — was on East 21st Street.

In the early 2000s, after their sons had grown, Polly searched the city for a smaller place and found the house on East 35th Street, with a large detached garage for Jim's beloved 1938 Oldsmobile.

The plot came with 3 acres that backed up to the creek.

"It’s gorgeous," Polly said. "It’s like having a park in your backyard."

Despite its beauty, the reality of the creek's flood risks never strayed far from the couple's mind. 

'We lost the house'

Just up the street from the Osborns, Nora Bates broke down in tears as she watched the city dump trucks take away the flood-soaked possessions she’d put on the curb.

“I’m sorry, I don’t normally cry,” she said. “It’s just that watching our stuff get loaded into trucks. It brings back those memories, and that’s hard.”

Bates and her husband, Jeff, came home from “Hamilton” on Saturday night to hard rain. After living through the floods of 2010, something about the way the water was backing up in the grate smacked of déjà vu.

The couple moved their cars to higher ground and started bringing up what they could from the basement.

At about midnight, she took a shower, knowing there was a chance it would be the last one she’d take for a while. Quickly, she went back to saving meat from her deep freeze and chasing pictures in the water.

When the force of the water broke through the windows at the top of the basement ceiling, the noise and pressure was deafening, she said. Soon after, the couple and their two dogs — Sandy and Bandit — were rescued in a boat by the Des Moines Police Department.  

Next door, the Lynches, who also had been through flooding before, worked quickly to move cars and their antiques to higher ground.

Erin and her 12-year-old daughter, Jillyan, walked up and down the street calling out to neighbors and trying to ring doorbells until the water reached their chest.

“That’s what we do; we help,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

The Osborns had gone to bed at about 10:30 p.m., expecting the flooding to stay in the backends of their acreage. Their cable went out just before they lay down, so they had no idea how bad things were until Jim woke up at 2 a.m.

“We tried to get a few things up in the air, but the water was rising so fast, we just got to safety,” Polly said.

Soaking wet, watching tools, knickknacks and a refrigerator float out from his garage, Jim was speechless.

“It was just a feeling that everything you worked for is gone,” he said.

Polly called their sons — Tim lives in Houston and Jim Jr. lives in Lee's Summit, Missouri — and was barely able to get words out from the shock and sadness.

“We lost the house.”

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Aerial footage of duplex explosion damage and Fourmile Creek flooding in Des Moines. Rodney White and Brian Powers/The Register, Rodney White and Brian Powers/The Register

Stay or go

For the Osborns, the floods of 2010 were nothing like the disaster of last week. Then, the water made its way right up to the threshold of their house, but the inside was dry.  

“If someone would have driven by too quickly, the water would have splashed into the living room,” Tim said. It wasn't fun, but the entire family considered themselves lucky.

In the years after 2010, the state approached some owners with an offer to buy their homes.

The Osborns' neighbors got an offer of state money in the first round. The Osborns weren’t approached until the second round of offers, which came from federal money, Polly said.

The price was good, Polly said. But it lowered significantly if the couple didn’t use the money to buy another property.

MORE: Larry Cotlar dies after being swept away by floodwaters

The Osborns own their house, and it just didn’t make sense for two empty-nesters in their 60s to buy another house.

“I just want a place to rest, and I want to use that money to travel,” Polly said. “I don’t want to live in that money. I want to live with that money.”

Similar talks of buyouts have begun after the most recent flood.

But the timeline for property acquisitions would be “measured in months,” A.J. Mumm, director of the Polk County Emergency Management Commission, said Thursday. 

The first step is to receive a disaster declaration from President Donald Trump, which the county is working to obtain as quickly as possible.

More than 230 single-family homes, 10 commercial buildings and six apartment buildings in the Fourmile Creek area were damaged by flooding, Mayor Frank Cownie has said.

Citywide, at least 29 buildings have sustained major damage, and many were right around the Osborns' house.

The previous round of buyouts, which resulted in sporadic blotches of green space up and down East 35th Street, “absolutely saved lives” in the recent flash flooding, Mumm said.

Think of it as simply one less potential danger, said Jonathan Gano, the director of public works.

“One less structure means one less person in harm's way as far as life safety goes," he said. "And as far as infrastructure, we have one less home going through this repair process and all that.”

The city is focused on making sure this sort of flooding doesn’t happen again, Cownie said.

Every municipality connected to Fourmile Creek is working diligently to reduce the water flow, he said, including looking at re-establishing wetlands and finding different ways to get the water farther down the stream and away from properties.

Any buyouts will be voluntary; Cownie said he knows that some people have called Fourmile home for generations and still love the lush landscapes and proximity to bike trails.

“In talking to a number of the neighbors, walking up and down East 35th, for instance, there are a number of them saying, 'I can’t do this again, our foundation is collapsing, this is happening, that’s happening,'" Cownie said. "I need to look at other alternatives. So we are going to begin to investigate buyouts with partnerships between the city and the county.”

Polly is hoping that they have more latitude with the buyouts this time around.

“I told (City Councilwoman Linda Westergaard) that it's ridiculous that they would say I have to spend the money for my house in a certain way,” she said. “It should be, 'Here’s the money, period.'"

Many Fourmile residents are still thinking about what happens next, but the Osborns are pretty certain they’ll be looking to move on.

If they come around with a buyout proposal like last time, Polly is ready to say yes.

“I’d kiss them,” she said.

For now, the Osborns are staying in a local hotel and looking to lease a place in Altoona.

Wherever they end up will be a far cry from the house they made a home years ago, Polly said, but they're trying to stay positive.

So when she finds herself getting down, she thinks back to her living room wall. Before her house was stripped to the studs, Polly had adorned that wall with oodles of family photos and a favorite saying, written in curly decorative script: "Together, we make a family." 

Losing everything reinforced the message behind that maxim, she said, surrounded by people she loves.

"This," Polly said gesturing to her house, "this is just a structure."

She paused to collect her emotions before tapping her chest, just above her heart, and adding, "My house is in here." 

COURTNEY CROWDER travels the state's 99 counties  as the Register's Iowa Columnist. She is a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or ccrowder@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

How to deal with a flooded home:

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