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Oct 4 2012

Help Save Hamburg, Iowa!

By Bob Greenberg

Topics: ResilienceSocial MediaState and Local

A Story of Community Resilience, the Potential of Social Media, and the Power of Good Choreography

You probably wouldn’t think twice about helping a community in need after they’ve been struck by disaster. Why not spend just as much effort to help prevent one? Please click here and take a few minutes to watch the video, Dancing for Donations (third link at the top of the page). It’s worth it, trust me. I’ll wait…

You probably chuckled a bit when you saw Hamburg residents discoing in the street. So did I while thinking to myself, “This is America at its best.” Citizens of Hamburg are proactively banding together for a common cause—protection of their community and everyone in it. This, to me and everyone who has seen the video, is an example of America at its most resilient, even if their battle is not yet finished.

Hamburg’s Story

Hamburg, Iowa is an agricultural community located near the Missouri River. Nestled in Fremont County, its closest major city is Council Bluffs, IA which is almost 50 miles away. Its 1,200 residents, many of whom are farmers, farm product wholesalers, and factory workers are faced with the potential destruction of a good part of their town, but they are committed to not letting that occur. Past experience has rendered Hamburg a community that is unified, aware, and driven to ensure it moves forward as opposed to reliving the past.

June 2011, the Missouri River floods hit the central U.S. and threatened tooverrun the town of Hamburg with a wall of water over 17 feet high. The 11-foot levee that was built on the outskirts of Hamburg was designed to protect the town from flooding from Water Ditch #6, not from flooding from the Missouri River.  As a result, the town of Hamburg, in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent six days and nights adding 8 feet of dirt taken from farm lands in the community to the existing levee.  The next month, the Corps handed control of the levee to Hamburg who continued to keep the Missouri River water out of the town through September 2011 when the water finally subsided. Efforts were not wasted—the area surrounding Hamburg received the most damage from the flood—however; Hamburg businesses and residents were economically strapped.

The Challenge…or Opportunity!

Due to Federal regulations, Hamburg is required by law to remove the 8 feet of dirt they added to the levee by no later than March 2013 at a cost of $1.3 Million. However, removing the 8 feet would put the community at great risk (the businesses and townspeople likely to be most affected by another flood have already made it clear that they will not stay if the 19’ levee doesn’t stay in place.

Or, Hamburg can make their current 19-foot makeshift levee permanent at a cost of $5.6 Million.  Unfortunately, these costs will not be supplemented by the Federal government—it turns out that once the government finishes a project like this, it cannot provide additional funding once the project is completed.

An Inconvenient Decision

$5.6 Million!? It sounds like a lot of money, but there are a slew of federal regulations that must be met to make sure that the permanent levee is built to the right specifications and codes.  So let’s recap the options: Hamburg can remove the 8 feet OR Hamburg can rally and try to achieve what appears to be nearly impossible. What would you do? Many communities would undoubtedly pick the easiest option—short-term gain despite long-term pain. It’s not hard to justify such a choice…when resources are not available, it’s understandable to punt and hope history decides not to repeat itself. Not Hamburg. Hamburg is going the distance. The Missouri River isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the residents of Hamburg. As they said on their web site, “Not again, let’s just fix it.” $5.6 Million dollars it is.

A Resilient Community in Action…

Tossing despair aside and refusing to waste time whining about the government, the town banded together and devised an innovative, unique approach—reach out to their fellow Americans to ask for help in saving their town. Disaster relief through prevention.

To get the word out, residents decided to use the principles of social media: develop a YouTube video and a dedicated web site to carry their message and bolster their fundraising effort. The key components:

  1. Nothing is Impossible
    Hamburg residents developed a campaign that wages psychological war against the overwhelming target of $5.6 Million by appealing to what most American’s love and aren’t reluctant to throw a few dollars towards—a single cup of coffee. As described on its web site, “If 1.5 million people give $3…for less than a latte, you can save a town.”
  2. A Community is About Its People
    Instead of portraying themselves as victims, residents young and old chose to reveal to us their true spirit. The community got together and produced the video, Dancing for Donations, which shows the entire town flash-mobbing to Save Us from the River to the tune of Tina Turner’s version of Proud Mary. (According to Hamburg Mayor, Cathy Crain, there was a wonderful debate over whose version to use: Tina’s or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s.) Regardless of the version, we are able to peer through the window and witness the beauty of Hamburg and its most striking quality—despite their somewhat desperate situation, Hamburg residents have maintained their sense of hope and humor. At the end of the day, this is what drives a resilient community—keeping their wits about them, coming together as a community, working out a plan, and moving forward creatively with a can-do spirit and a feeling of gratitude to those who are responding to them.

The entire community is 100% committed to this effort.  When you talk to people in Hamburg, from the mayor, to the city clerk, to the top banker you can see that they have thrown their bodies and souls towards saving their community—and beyond that to keep it safe. I had the honor of talking with Mayor Crain about Hamburg’s situation. Although there is no question about the community’s resolve, I wanted to know why and how they achieved this state of being. “Why are we resilient?” the Mayor asked, “This town is over 150 years old. Many of our residents descend from the town’s founders and were raised with their agricultural values…work hard, rely on yourself, help your neighbors, protect what’s yours. This is our town. We believe in our heritage and our future. On a daily basis these people do quiet, random acts of kindness for each other. It is no surprise we joined together during a crisis.” The Mayor went on to emphasize that during the 120 days of levee building, her cries for help were always answered with, “Yes. We’ll be right there.” Let’s be right there, too. How?

Today, it’s Hamburg…Tomorrow, it Could be Your Community!

In addition to giving a small (or large) donation, the best way to help is to get their story out as widely as possible so others can join in this important effort. Social media is a key tool to accomplish that. Most people reading this are themselves social media practitioners or work with or know people who are. Let’s use every social media tool possible to get the word out on Hamburg. G&H has, and will continue, to tweet about it. Retweet us @GHIServices. Tweet about them on your own. Hamburg has a Facebook page (Hamburg Levee). Like it. Post about it. Volunteer your time. How? Get creative…offer to help research and coordinate appropriate crowdfunding mechanisms or create one dedicated to fundraising in relation to emergency preparedness; go visit Hamburg and produce a short documentary; pick up the phone or send an e-mail to ask how you can best be of service, leverage whatever you have access to in any way you can…use your imagination!

Hamburg has until December 2012 to raise the money. The State of Iowa will be kicking in $1 Million, which leaves $4.6 Million. We will use our blog site and Twitter to feature progress. In the meantime go to Hamburg’s site ( and get to know the people. And again, let’s think about relief efforts from a preventative angle. There’s preparedness, which we all understand, but prevention takes things a step further. Prevention is how we think about our physical health, our mental and emotional health, our personal safety…it’s why we bother to change the oil in our cars. We buy our lattes to prevent ourselves from falling asleep at our desks. While we’re on the subject…buy one less latte for just one day. You won’t miss it. Promise.

Contact Hamburg: 712-382-1313;

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