Inside flood command: Little time for disagreements as the water rose

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CEDAR RAPIDS — At the busiest point, some 150 officials filled the countywide Emergency Operations Center and adjacent rooms at Kirkwood Community College back in June 2008.

They directed the impossible effort to hold back the Cedar River and then to begin rescue and recovery as the river backed off from its historical, disastrous climb to 31.12 feet.

At one point on Friday, June 13, as the river crested 11 feet above the city’s previous record level, Rob Davis was sitting in the midst of the emergency center hubbub as then Gov. Chet Culver arrived and worked the room. Culver patted him on the back, thanking him for all that he was doing.

“What are we doing?” Davis, the city’s engineering operations manager, recalls thinking at that moment. Right then, he was staring at city flood maps. “Thanks,” he responded. The governor, he thought, was as big as a linebacker.

Helplessness had set in at that brief moment. The city had lost its battle against the flood. The city and county now were moving into flood rescue and recovery. It is a recovery that continues today in Cedar Rapids.

As fortune would have it, mobilizing the countywide Emergency Operations Center was a matter of second nature and much practice, says Mike Goldberg, director of the Linn County Emergency Management Agency who, at the height of the flood, was the chief public information officer for the center.

Linn County, home to the Duane Arnold Energy Center’s nuclear power plant, needs an EOC by federal regulation and must conduct radiological response drills four times a year. It was those practices that made it simple for local officials to descend on the Emergency Operations Center as the flood arrived.

Center opened June 9

According to the command center log from June 2008, a first call went out for officials to meet at the EOC at 2 a.m. Monday, June 9, for a National Weather Service briefing to prepare for massive flooding.

“If I’m here at 2 in the morning talking to the National Weather Service about massive flooding, I am pretty revved up,” recalls Tom Ulrich, operations officer at the Linn County Emergency Management Agency.

The center fully activated at 3 p.m. Monday but then scaled back. Forecasts, though, only got worse. Then they turned unreliable as rain kept falling, the river kept rising and a flood gauge in downtown Cedar Rapids itself was flooded.

Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, spent much of his time in the crowd of officials at the center in the days leading up to the flood crest on Friday, June 13, and in the days after as the river retreated.

The center, he says, mattered. It was a focal point from which to hunt down resources from agencies with representatives in the room and via landline phones and get them into the field. Eventually, the rising floodwaters forced the computer servers for city and county email systems out of commission and made local cellphone service less than reliable.

Elgin and Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager, were on the phone with each other — Elgin in command central, Hanson out in the field directing the public works ground game — as the flood approached, arrived, lingered and left.

Elgin and Hanson remember being awakened from sleep early on Monday morning, four days before the flood crest, with a report that the rising Cedar River had poked its way through the levee protecting Czech Village and was beginning to flood homes. Some residents were evacuated there and across the river near the former Sinclair meatpacking plant.

The city summoned contractors, as spelled out in the flood response plan, to build temporary berms at low spots and leaky spots on the west side of the river at Czech Village south of downtown and the Time Check neighborhood north of downtown.

Elgin says the city had some confidence that it could do a reasonable job of protecting the city against a disaster if the Cedar River climbed to 22.5 feet, 2.5 feet higher than it had ever been. The city did a good job in 1993, when the river reached 19.3 feet, and it had learned from that experience, he says.

He noted, too, that the river — a forgotten point to most — reached 17.3 feet in April 2008, just two months before the June disaster. The April river rise was handled easily, Elgin says.

At 8:40 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, the river gauge in Cedar Rapids put the river at 22.38 feet, according to the log.

Until Thursday morning, says Linn County Emergency Management’s Goldberg, flooding upstream in Palo was causing problems but sentiment at the command center was that Cedar Rapids had a plan to protect against a record flood of “normal” proportions.

All that hope vanished. Evacuations of neighborhoods were well underway when, at 10 a.m. Thursday, the train bridge below the Eighth Avenue bridge collapsed into the river. By nightfall, the river was reaching toward 30 feet.

A call to save the well

A lasting memory of the flood crisis was the late Thursday evening rush to save the city’s last of some 50 water wells not yet damaged by the flood.

Hanson still gets misty-eyed as he recounts the battle to save the well near the Edgewood Road bridge, which was closed to the south by floodwater. Sufficiently desperate was the matter that Hanson broke city protocol — and all that he says he learned as a career U.S. Navy officer — and called KCRG-TV9 and asked it to put out a call for volunteers. In no time, as many as 1,000 people had converged on the Edgewood Road bridge to help with the sandbagging task, recalls Hanson.

Not generally known, though, is what transpired at the command center before that call for volunteers. Elgin shares the story.

On that evening, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director at the time, got a call from his crew in the field that without a large supply of sandbags quickly, the last operating water well was about to be knocked out of commission.

Ball looked across the table at Elgin, pleading for sand and sandbags. Elgin called; the city needed sand, though. Elgin then walked over to Linda Langston, Linn County supervisor, and asked if the county could help. Langston quickly checked. Linn County had sand on the east side of the river and trucks available to deliver it.

“All of that occurred in 20 minutes,” Elgin says. The well would have been lost if he, Ball and Langston hadn’t been in the same room at the same time at the crucial moment, he says.

The well would still have been lost, even after the sandbags had been put in place to hold back the river, if Ball and Elgin hadn’t been sitting across from one another. Elgin says Ball had suggested shutting down the well temporarily as an added precaution, but with the sandbags now in place, the river water was higher than the well motor, and turning it off would have forced water up the well shaft, Elgin says. He and Ball were able to hash that out across the table, he says.

To close or not to close I-380

The next morning, with all the bridges in the city out but for the Interstate 380 bridge across the Cedar River, traffic on the I-380 bridge had nearly come to a standstill. Not only was there an enormous amount of traffic, but people were getting out of their vehicles to take photos of the flood, Elgin says.

Police Chief Greg Graham, who had just moved to the city and started the job as police chief on June 1, came over to Elgin at the command center and asked if it made sense to close the I-380 bridge to traffic to ensure that emergency vehicles could get from one side of the river to the other and to the city hospitals on the east side of the river.

“I’ll check with the Department of Transportation, but in the meantime, go ahead and close it,” Elgin said to Graham. A local DOT official was in the room, and Elgin ran the idea past him without objection.

“Within 20 minutes, I get a call from Nancy Richardson, the director of the DOT,” Elgin recalls. “ ‘You closed I-380? You don’t have permission to close the interstate.’ ”

In quick order, a different plan for the bridge was hatched. Two lanes remained open for all traffic, with the third lane just for emergency vehicles. The bridge was back open in about 30 minutes, Elgin says.

Police Capt. Steve O’Konek, who headed up the department’s patrol division at the time of the flood, says people shouldn’t forget that the initial flood rescue and recovery work took place even as the Police Department, Fire Department, City Hall and Public Works all had been forced out of their homes and into makeshift quarters by the flood.

At the same time, he was helping to choreograph the delivery of law enforcement services by the city’s 200-officer department and with the help of some 600 to 700 National Guard troops and 177 volunteer officers from departments across the Midwest.

“We didn’t have a lot of time for disagreeing,” O’Konek says. “We had a little time to get a lot of things done.”

He says he still is struck by how little flood victims complained as they got to work cleaning out and getting back into their homes. Equally striking, he says, was coming on residents who lived a distance from the river and who didn’t follow local news. They asked about all the out-of-town police cars and wondered, “ ‘Are you guys having some kind of convention?’ ” O’Konek recalls. “ ‘Was the flood really that bad?’ ”

Greg Eyerly, who was managing the flood response in the field for the city’s utilities department, stopped in at the center just once, on the Sunday after the crest.

“I think I remember the bacon the most,” says Eyerly, who went on to become the city’s flood-recovery director for a time. What he remembers more was that the command center delivered anything requested.

“And when I say anything I mean more city staff, boats, sandbags, food, water, shovels, generators, bolt cutters, portable lights, power company people, police escorts, gas, diesel, trucks, bulldozers, cranes, pumps, volunteers, weather forecasts, National Guard troops and helicopters,” Eyerly says.

By Monday, June 16, Elgin no longer reported to the center. First thing that morning, he was standing on the back of a car, megaphone in hand, directing public works crews from the parking lot outside Kingston Stadium, where the department’s entire fleet of vehicles had been moved to higher ground.

By Tuesday, then City Manager Jim Prosser had convened his department directors for a 7 a.m. meeting at the temporary city hall in an office park in northeast Cedar Rapids. They met daily for weeks and then often after that.

Julie Sina, who just retired as the city’s parks and recreation director, remembers the sentiment around the table: “It needed to be done, it needed to be done now, not later.

“It’s like, ‘OK,’ now we need to dig out of this. How are we going to recover? What’s the plan? What are we going to do first, second, third, fourth … 201st, 202nd, 203rd … and we’re just about there.”

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