Cedar Rapids flood recedes; levee fails

June 14, 2008 4:53:50 PM PDT
The dark, filthy water that inundated the entire downtown of Iowa's second-largest city was receding Saturday after forcing 24,000 people to flee, but those who remained were being urged to take draconian measures to avoid overwhelming the city's only remaining drinking water source. A sandbagging siege saved the last of the city's four collection wells from contamination by the record flood. But officials warned that if people didn't cut back on flushing toilets, taking showers and other nonessential uses, the town would be out of potable water within three to four days.

"Water is still our primary concern," said Pat Ball, the city's utilities director. "We're still using water at a greater rate than we're producing."

More than 400 city blocks and 3,900 homes were flooded in Cedar Rapids, where early estimates put property damage at $736 million, according fire department spokesman Dave Koch.

While the Cedar River ebbed in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, a levee breach in the state capital of Des Moines flooded a neighborhood of more than 200 homes, a high school and about three dozen businesses.

More than 200 homes were evacuated in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, as a flood crest headed down the Iowa River. The Iowa City crest isn't expected until Monday or early Tuesday.

"This is our version of Katrina," Johnson County Emergency Management spokesman Mike Sullivan said of Iowa City. "This is the worst flooding we've ever seen."

At least two deaths in Iowa have been attributed to the flooding, which has prompted the governor to issue disaster proclamations for 83 of the state's 99 counties.

President Bush was briefed on the flooding in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest while he was in Paris, and was assured that federal agencies are making plans to help people affected by the high water, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

"He expressed his concern for people who may still be in danger and for those who are hurting from the impact of the storms," Perino said.

Elsewhere, Illinois emergency authorities said a levee along the Mississippi River in far western Illinois burst Saturday morning and voluntary evacuations were under way in Keithsburg, a town of about 700 residents.

"The levee broke in two places," Keithsburg Alderman George Askew, 76, said of the town some 35 miles southwest of Moline. "We're getting under water."

Parts of southern Wisconsin have been dealing with flooding for days. West of Milwaukee in Summit, authorities on Saturday found the body of a 68-year-old man near his vehicle on a flooded road.

Iowa's worst damage so far was in Cedar Rapids, where the Cedar River crested Friday night at nearly 32 feet, 12 feet higher than the old record set in 1929.

Murky, petroleum- and garbage-choked water inundated three collection wells and threatened the fourth before several hundred volunteers staged a last-ditch sandbagging operation. The collection wells are fed by a network of four dozen smaller wells.

Water lapped to within 3 feet of the improvised, 4-foot-high wall surrounding the brick pumping station before it began to recede. Two portable generators, one as big as a semitrailer, roared around the clock to keep the three pumps inside running.

"It's the little engine that could," said Ron Holtzman, one of several people who came to watch the operation Saturday from a nearby foot bridge.

The pumps were drawing at near capacity of 15 million gallons a day. But that's not enough for the city of around 120,000-plus residents and the suburbs that depend on its water system.

Officials estimate it could be four days before the river drops enough for workers to begin pumping out flooded portions of the city. City Engineer Dave Elgin said the Cedar River was dropping at a rate of about 2 inches an hour Saturday.

Residents took the warnings seriously.

Kathy Wickham, 65, was collecting water from the dehumidifier in her basement and has been bathing from the 6-inch-deep enamel washbasin she used as a child on the farm.

"I grew up without any running water, so I'm going back to my childhood," she said.

Raejean White posted bright yellow signs at all six entrances to the Preston Terrace Condominiums that read: "If it's yellow let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."

In Catherine Holt's household, there are nine children ranging in age from 2 to 17 - including four teenage girls. She said they're making do with baby wipes and water stored earlier in the week in milk jugs and soda bottles.

"So what if it stinks?" said Holt, who closed off one of the family's two bathrooms and forbade the children from using any faucets. "This is so minor compared to what other people are going through."

About 100 miles to the west in Des Moines, a levee ruptured early Saturday and allowed the Des Moines River to pour into the Birdland neighborhood near downtown. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for 270 homes, authorities said. Many residents of the area already had left after a voluntary evacuation request was issued Friday.

Des Moines city crews and National Guard units started to build a temporary berm in a bid to stop the water, but by midmorning the water had cut through mounds of dirt and sandbags and inundated the homes and other buildings, including North High School.

"Things happened really fast," said Toby Hunvemuller of the Army Corps of Engineers. "We tried to figure out how high the level would go. Not enough time. We lost ground. We didn't want to risk life or harm anyone, and the decision was made to stop."

Authorities knew the aging levee near Birdland, a working-class, racially diverse neighborhood, was the weakest link in the chain of levees that protects this city. A 2003 Corps report called for nearly $10 million in improvements across Des Moines, but there wasn't enough federal money to do all the work.

"This was the first to fail, and we felt it was the one likely to fail," said Bill Stowe, the city's public works director.

Some residents were upset that other areas of city have received more flood-control improvements than Birdland since massive floods hit the area in 1993.

"In the short term they did a great job with the buildup of the sandbags. But they should have known this was coming," Chris Lucas said at a shelter in a middle school. They should have built it up a long time ago. They knew this was coming for years."

Just south of Cedar Rapids in Iowa City, the Iowa River is expected to crest at 33 to 34 feet late Monday or early Tuesday, far above the 25-foot flood stage.

At the University of Iowa, students and faculty joined with townspeople and members of the National Guard to fill thousands of sandbags in the area known as the Arts Campus.

"We've pretty much just abandoned any effort to try and protect the Arts Campus because we are just overwhelmed by the amount of water," university spokesman Steve Parrott said. "It's just too unsafe."

Valuable paintings, including a rare collection of African art, have been removed from the art museum, Parrott said.

Since June 6, Iowa has gotten at least 8 inches of rain, and that followed a wet spring. As of Friday, nine rivers were at or above historic flood levels. More thunderstorms are possible in the Cedar Rapids area during the weekend, but next week is expected to be sunny and dry.


Associated Press National Writer Allen G. Breed and AP Writer Melanie S. Welte in Des Moines contributed to this report.