- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa

Since June 26, Kirk Hudson has shared a two-bedroom apartment with four fellow electricians near this city 500 miles from their Detroit home.

He has slept in shifts, worked 80-hour weeks, and seen his wife and two daughters twice.

He isn’t complaining. “Michigan’s best job is in Iowa,” Mr. Hudson said.

Mr. Hudson, 41, and his housemates are among 120 Michigan electricians who traveled to Cedar Rapids to rewire Iowa’s second-largest city after its devastation by the worst Midwest flooding in 15 years. The waters swamped the entire downtown and hundreds of surrounding blocks.

Cedar Rapids, a city of 124,000 in the eastern part of the state, was “ground zero” after the June storms, said Doug Neumann, president of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District. About 40 percent of the 700 businesses in the 9-square-mile flood zone still lacked power last week, he said.

In all, about 450 electricians from states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota poured into Cedar Rapids to get jobs restoring electricity to flood-damaged factories and stores, said Bill Hanes, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Cedar Rapids.

Mr. Hanes summoned the reinforcements, or “travelers” as he calls them, after the Cedar River crested 19 feet above flood stage June 12.

The itinerant workers - some of whom pitched tents in area campgrounds because they couldn’t find lodging - evoke the Dust Bowl migrants portrayed in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor-relations professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

“The Joads leaving Oklahoma is exactly what we are seeing coming out of Detroit now,” Mr. Shaiken said.

Mr. Hudson and his co-workers left in search of opportunities that are scarce back home. Driven by cutbacks at automakers and their suppliers, Michigan has lost 170,600 jobs in the past three years, the most of any state, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The state’s unemployment rate last month was 8.5 percent, the highest in the country. Detroit, along with Flint, Mich., made Forbes magazine’s list of the “fastest-dying” U.S. cities last month.

The traveling electricians put a human face to “an entire region of the country facing collapse,” Mr. Shaiken said.

About 1,200, or 29 percent, of the 4,200 construction electricians in Detroit Local 58 of the electrical workers’ union are out of work, business agent Kenith Briggs said.

“I haven’t worked with this many Detroit hands in a long time,” Mr. Hudson said during a break from his temporary job at one of two flooded Cargill Inc. corn mills on the banks of the Cedar River. A mound of ruined furniture and personal belongings sat in front of a waterlogged, empty home across from the mill entrance.

Plants owned by starch maker Penford Corp. and PepsiCo Inc.’s Quaker Foods also were shut down. The companies pay the electricians. Most federal assistance money has gone to homeowners, Mr. Neumann said.

“The availability of electricians from outside the area has played a huge role in the progress we’ve made toward re-opening,” Mike Rizor, facility manager at the Cargill plant, said in an e-mail. They “answered the call, and we’re grateful.”

Jeremy Diederichs, 39, also works at the Cargill site. “I’m saving money now,” said Mr. Diederichs, who is married with a 13-year-old son in Michigan. “If I were at home, I’d be collecting unemployment.”

Mr. Diederichs, who knows Mr. Hudson from their Detroit work, shares the $550-a-month apartment they found in Marion, Iowa, about 12 miles from Cargill.

David Rhodabeck, a 49-year-old electrician from Laingsburg, Mich., made a tent his home for five weeks during his Iowa stay. At one point, he shared Hunt’s Cedar River Campground near Tipton, Iowa, with as many as 20 other electricians, he said.

A wife and six children, including three still at home, are counting on him. He wants to send as much of his paycheck home as possible, so the $90-a-week campground an hour away from his job is worth the inconvenience, he said.

“It’s really tough to pay your costs here and still keep the household going back home,” said Mr. Rhodabeck, who earns $30 an hour in Cedar Rapids, $3 less than what he made before he lost his job more than a year ago at Superior Electric of Lansing Inc.

The city will probably need at least 200 out-of-town electricians through the fall, said Mr. Hanes, the union official.

With work wrapping up on the Cargill plant, Mr. Hudson said he plans to get a job at one of the three destroyed city powerhouses that still need to be repaired.

“As long as they need me, I’ll be here,” Mr. Hudson said. “But it would be better to be working back home in Detroit.”

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