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Flood leaves boulevard of broken dreams

  • Story Highlights
  • The A&W in Cedar Rapids was Doug Ward's life for 30 years until last year's flood
  • Almost a year later, the drive-in sits in ruins, the root beer mugs still muddied
  • The drive-in has been a landmark in the Time Check neighborhood since 1948
  • It will cost upward of $1 million to rebuild or change locations
By Ed Lavandera
CNN
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (CNN) -- Doug Ward drives through a subdivision made up of rows of trailers. You can hear the sadness in his voice as he says, "This just doesn't feel like home." He longs for the life he lived before devastating floods destroyed his Cedar Rapids neighborhood.

Almost a year after the flood, the drive-in is in ruins, the root beer mugs still muddied.

The A&W Drive-In in Cedar Rapids was Doug Ward's life for 30 years.

"I want to come back. I miss (my friends) very much," Ward said as he escorted CNN on a tour of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nearly a year after the floods.

Ward, 64, is an institution in the historic Time Check neighborhood just across the Cedar River from downtown. He owns the A&W Drive-In on Ellis Boulevard, a fixture on this street since 1948.

Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter calls the drive-in Cedar Rapids' "Eiffel Tower."

"It's been there for us over the decades," Hunter said. "It's one of those landmarks that tells you you're in Cedar Rapids."

When floodwaters ravaged Cedar Rapids last June, Ward's drive-in drowned in almost 10 feet of water. Now, the drive-in sits in ruins. A&W root beer mugs covered in dried mud sit on the restaurant floor. The stench of floodwater lingers in the air.

Putting together the pieces of Ward's life hit a snag in the fall of 2008 when an economic storm swept across the country. In a matter of months, the financial support Ward needed to rebuild dried up.

"Life's got to go on. If you sit and worry about it too much, you'd probably be at my funeral today," Ward said. Video Watch as Ward talks about the devastation in Cedar Rapids »

Ward estimates that it will cost close to $1 million to rebuild the A&W Drive-In at its current location. He's been able to line up $350,000 in loans, but that's far short of what he needs.

"The idea that he might not be able to rebuild the business here, it hurts," said Stoffer, the Cedar Rapids historian. "It's happening not just in this neighborhood, but in all the neighborhoods that were affected by the floods."

So now Ward spends a lot of time driving around Cedar Rapids scouting new locations. He wants to stay on Ellis Boulevard, but the surrounding neighborhood sits mostly empty. If people don't move back, then there are no customers to feed.

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"If the neighborhood were normal again, we'd be up and running. But it's not," Ward said.

Ward not only lost his business, but the house he and his wife lived in for 28 years was destroyed, too. The house today sits gutted. The flood weakened the foundation.

Three estimates show it will cost $85,000 to make the needed repairs. FEMA gave the Wards $28,000 toward the costs of rebuilding their home or buying a new one. But without home insurance, it's another cost in Ward's mounting pile of financial troubles.

Ward said if he can't get his business up and running soon, he'll have to find another job. He's tapped into retirement savings extensively, and he's received some financial support (he won't specify how much) from other sources.

Ward is soft spoken, yet tough. He's faced difficult struggles all his life. His father died when he was 5. He dropped out of school after eighth grade to earn money for his family. At 13, he worked in a dry milk factory and spent 10 years working as a Coca-Cola delivery man.

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Owning the A&W Drive-In was a dream that produced a comfortable living. Now he misses the days serving his friends icy-cold root beers. But you won't hear him complain about the battle he's facing.

"I've been knocked around, but we'll get up and get going," he said.

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