FEMA again rejects Cedar Rapids plan for Time Check recreation center

Appeal to FEMA regional office still possible; FEMA officials say it's time for city to move on

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FEMA said forget it.

For a second time in a month, regional representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday told the Cedar Rapids City Council that they will not support the city’s plan to replace the flood-destroyed Time Check Recreation Center with a new $3-million facility built in the 100-year flood plain.

All nine members of the council participated in the Tuesday morning teleconference with FEMA representatives to make the council’s case -- that the need to replace the recreation center in the same spot where it once stood outweighed the concerns about rebuilding in a spot in the flood plain, where the 2008 floodwaters in the city reached 14 feet by some accounts.

FEMA representatives had no time for the insistence of council members, saying that federal rules prohibit such construction if a "practicable" option outside the 100-year flood plain is available.

In the face of council persistence, Bob Bissell, FEMA’s regional mitigation division director, minced no words. Bissell said the nation’s flood insurance program is running a deficit of $17 billion, with another $20 billion likely to be added as a result of the recent Superstorm Sandy disaster on the East Coast.

Bissell said the nation needed to look at "the bigger picture," stop building in risky 100-year flood plains and do what’s best "for all of us."

Council member Don Karr, who often notes as he did in Tuesday’s teleconference that he grew up in the Time Check neighborhood, dismissed Bissell’s comments, saying that building the recreation center in the 100-year flood plain was "about people, and people do live on rivers."

At one point, one of the FEMA representatives took exception to Karr’s characterization that FEMA had not helped the city rebuild better than it had been. Other council members were quick to note that FEMA has helped the city.

After the teleconference, council members Scott Olson and Monica Vernon talked about appealing the FEMA regional office’s position.

Olson, Vernon and council member Ann Poe were among council members who argued that replacing the recreation center nearly on the spot where it had been would put it near park land and existing basketball courts, playground equipment and a ball diamond and would help revitalize the neighborhood.

Much of the Time Check Neighborhood in northwest Cedar Rapids, which sits between the Cedar River and Ellis Boulevard NW, was destroyed by the 2008 flood, and most of the homes now have been demolished.

During the meeting, Poe asked the FEMA representatives if the city could build the recreation center right on the river at the site of the former Jack Henry salon, 1895 Ellis Blvd. NW, because the site sits in the 500-year flood plain.

The FEMA representatives said the federal rules on rebuilding address elevation and placement in the 100-year flood plain, not proximity to a river.

After the meeting, Poe said the site of the former salon, across Ellis Boulevard NW from Ellis Park, would provide proximity to the park’s swimming pool, ball diamonds and other amenities. But she added that getting children across Ellis Boulevard NW would need to be addressed.

Vernon rejected the salon site for the recreation center, saying it might be in the way of the city’s proposed flood protection system and it, like Ellis Park, is not close enough or central enough to the neighborhoods where the children are.

Council members are opposed to an earlier city site selection committee’s recommendation that the recreation center be built in Ellis Park.

Olson also rejected the idea salon site, saying that such a riverside site would create a public "perception" that the city was building at a particularly flood-prone spot even if it is outside the 100-year flood plain.

Olson said the city needed to reconvene its second site selection committee and start looking for a new site for the recreation center outside the 100-year flood plain, even as it appeals to FEMA’s national headquarters.

"There’s no wiggle room," Olson said of the FEMA regional office’s position of rebuilding the recreation center in the 100-year flood plain.

"They’re not going to move," Poe said after the meeting.

Vernon said she wants to start looking for new sites to the south that could put a new recreation center in a location between the Harrison Elementary School area in northwest Cedar Rapids and the Taylor Elementary School area in southwest Cedar Rapids, both core neighborhoods hit by the 2008 flood.

The city has plans to extend Ellis Boulevard NW to Sixth Sixth Street SW, which will bring the two neighborhoods closer together, she noted.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Linda Seger, president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, and Aggie Doyle, chairwoman of People For Parks, both said the best spot for the replacement recreation center remained in Time Check Park, where the old center had been.

Tuesday’s teleconference was requested by the council and prompted by FEMA’s letter to the city last month, in which FEMA said it would not approve spending FEMA disaster dollars on the recreation center if it’s built in the 100-year flood plain.

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