Tussle with pesky ice dam continues in Cedar Rapids

DNR spokesman says there's 'nothing' that can be done about ice jams

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The flood of 2008 is fresher in mind now than it was at the start of the week.

Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director, late Wednesday afternoon said the remarkable-looking and pesky ice jam in the river above the 5-in-1 dam is of a size unlike anything that the city has seen and may bring localized flooding surprises that the city hasn’t seen before.

Elgin, a veteran of the 2008 flood, was making no promises even as he said city crews — with pumps, sandbags and the city’s pioneering deployment of temporary HESCO flood barriers — had contained water pushed out of the Cedar River in the northwest Cedar Rapids neighborhood below Ellis Park.

Ice jams on the river are not atypical, and usually occur on average between March 5 and March 10, last a day or two and break up. The city now is beyond 48 hours, the ice hasn’t dislodged and the jam extends farther than ever, from the rail bridge at Quaker Oats to the Edgewood Road bridge, Elgin said.

He said the ice jam includes ice from upstream that has cascading over the ice sheet in the river and ice from upstream that has rolled under the ice sheet. The same amount of broken up ice is likely under the ice sheet as above it, Elgin said the Army Corps of Engineers engineer told him this week.

"We’re really trusting Mother Nature to do what she’s done in the past, and avoid doing something so different that it creates more problems for us," the public works director said. "But again, we’re dealing with something that we haven’t seen before, so we’re doing the best we can to respond to the uncertainties of what has been going on."

Elgin said the city has received reports of water in basements of three properties. Water would have gotten into more homes had they not been bought out and demolished in the city’s flood-recovery buyout program, he added.

For now, he said flood water had been pumped down and all the homes that had been in harm’s way are out of it for now.

"But we’re very closely watching what’s going into the river because it’s unpredictable as to what that ice blockage will do," Elgin said. "If it simply plugs up so tight that water can’t get through, there will be water rising somewhere."

Questions have arisen in the northwest Cedar Rapids neighborhoods where the localized flood water has been about the city’s operation of the 5-in-1 dam and the release of water through it.

Elgin said the gates below the water surface were opened in systematic fashion beginning on Monday so as not to damage the gates and to get more water through the dam.

Linda Seger, a 2008 flood survivor and president of the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association, last night said the city should have gotten pumps and sandbags into the neighborhood faster on Tuesday rather than waiting until early Tuesday afternoon after what she said was prodding from her and others.

She was also critical of the city using police officers in what she said were unmarked cars to go around to homes and advise residents of the flood situation.

"People thought the National Guard was here, and of course, everyone’s a little nervous after the flood of 2008, and they were jumping to conclusions," Seger said.

Some young neighbors of hers on Eighth Street NW actually rented a truck and began moving their property from their house, she said.

Ron Fournier, spokesman for Army Corps of Engineers’ in Rock Island, Ill., said on Wednesday there is "nothing" that the Corps or anyone else can do about ice jams.

"There have been many ‘solutions’ devised and attempted by various entities, such as blowing holes with dynamite, using ice-breaking vessels (and so forth)," Fournier said. "Typically the ice will just close up after the hole is blown or a path is cut into it with a vessel."

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