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PERCIVAL, Iowa — One day after returning to her home just south of town, Nancy Boyd stood in her backyard and surveyed everything around her.
Verdant fields of soybeans and corn had surrounded the light brown farmhouse when she and her husband evacuated during the Missouri River flooding in June. Those fields now lay dying, dead or caked in the dried, flaked mud that the receding water left behind.
It's like a desert, Boyd said.
"If you could compare pictures from the Dust Bowl days, where you see nothing but dirt across the farmlands ... that's the way it looks out there," she said. "All the crops are dead."
Along both sides of the Missouri, high water is slowly receding. But it is leaving behind a moldy, sand- and soil-caked mess that those moving back into homes and farmland will have to clean up for months, if not years.
As evacuees trickle home, family by family, the lucky ones are finding that the floodwater failed to reach their front doors, that the level of water and mold in their basements can be overcome. With work, their homes can be made whole, become livable again.
The unlucky — mainly Iowans west of Interstate 29 — are returning to houses now stained with Hurricane Katrina-style watermarks 2 feet or more above ground. They must determine whether repairs can be made or contemplate a future away from longtime homes.
For the dozen or so flood-displaced families who spent the summer camped at Waubonsie State Park in the Loess Hills, the arrival of fall and receding water signaled the time to pack up and try reclaiming what was lost.
Nancy and Curt Boyd count themselves lucky, though their basement had 3 feet of water.
They are replacing their furnace and water heater, and federal aid might help with that.
The Boyds moved their camper home near the house in early October and started the day-to-day work to move back in. Among the key perks of getting back: Their four house cats, boarded in nearby Sidney, could come home.
The Boyds made regular trips all summer to check on the farm. They allowed The World-Herald to join them on the day they moved their trailer back. A few days before moving back, Nancy stood in her farmhouse's kitchen and spread her arms wide.
"Compared to a camper, whaddaya got?" she said, smiling. Then she opened the refrigerator. Her face contorted at the smell, and she slammed it shut. The inside was covered in mold.
Curt towed their home of four months out of the park, with Nancy driving behind. The tiny convoy pulled onto Iowa Highway 2 and wound between the Loess Hills, down into the Missouri River valley and onto newly reopened Interstate 29.
Curt exited at Percival and drove through the deserted town at 30 mph or so, past homes and businesses with brownish, 3-foot waterlines on the outside.
He turned onto the white gravel of 210th Street, crawled over the BNSF Railway tracks and pulled into the driveway of his farm, where a carving of an American eagle perches over his mailbox.
As Curt parked truck and trailer, Nancy stepped out of the SUV and looked around. She smiled. A flock of birds perched in a silver maple tree sang overhead.
"Well," she said, "I'm home."
The couple still must move in. Most of their furniture is stored in a semitrailer on their farm. The house must be cleaned before any of the furniture is moved back in. An inch-long dead spider lay in the rails of their rear sliding doorway.
"Things happen in a house that stays empty. I bet those spiders had a ball in there," Nancy said. "There were a lot of spider webs."
Another task: Regain the affection of her cats, who have made it plain they are not pleased about being boarded all summer. Three out of four ignore Nancy. Only brown-and-white longhaired Winston will venture close to her. She expects this will change once the furniture is back in and things become a bit more normal.
Less than a mile away, at the house that Curt's brother Chris Boyd shares with his wife, Debbie, in Percival, Debbie was unpacking their Waubonsie trailer home and restoring their single-story white frame house to normal.
They were lucky: Their home is a bit higher than most, and floodwater didn't quite reach it.
Debbie believes she was the first to move back to town. She wanted to get home quickly and get the house ready. She works at the nearby Sapp Bros. truck stop and knew her time would soon be consumed by reopening that business.
"I didn't want to stay in this camper any longer," she said.
They were visited by Jean Sidwell, 71, who lives on a farm northeast of Percival. She, too, recently returned after living in a small camper in the backyard of a Nebraska City acquaintance. Many of her belongings were still in storage.
"I'm sleeping in a recliner," she said. "I'd put up with that to be back home again."
Both Boyd families know people who can't come home.
Like Charlie and Patti Bohlen, who lived on an acreage west of I-29 and still live at Waubonsie. Charlie operated Bohlen's Farm Service in Percival, where Chris and Curt and other farmers sipped coffee in the mornings.
The Bohlens don't know where they will stay. Curt Boyd has said they could park their camper in the new shop on his farm through the winter. Charlie thinks they may be able to stay in a house in Hamburg or Sidney, but does not know how soon he will be able to reopen his shop in Percival.
Either way, Patti is tired of living in a trailer.
"I'm a planner. This uncertainty is just driving me nuts," Patti said. "The longer it goes on, the more stressed I get."
One recent afternoon, Percival resident Chuck Lemrick, 69, sat at the foot of the stairs of his partial basement, leaning on a broken hoe handle, contemplating his family's future.
The front of his house is now 4 inches lower than the back. Repairs would cost thousands. Lemrick's adjuster knew of someone with a similar problem who paid $64,000 to set things right.
"I'm retired. I can't afford something like that," he said. "But that's what I think we'll have to do, is start all over again."
The estimate would later come in at $43,200, and the possibility of federal individual assistance would brighten his outlook.
But on Oct. 12, before he knew any of that, he faced the task of returning to his and his wife's temporary home in Sidney to break the bleak news. He tried to stay positive.
"Things have a way of working out. It's not going to be easy. We'll survive. I know we will."
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