Behind the Great Wall of Hope it Holds

Volunteers take a break outside of Little Bohemia, which is on the protected side of a HESCO flood barrier, as they clear out the bar in preparation for the projected Monday crest of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Volunteers take a break outside of Little Bohemia, which is on the protected side of a HESCO flood barrier, as they clear out the bar in preparation for the projected Monday crest of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Jeff Melsha, who runs the iconic Little Bohemia tavern, was determined to look on the bright side Sunday afternoon as he and his friends carried the last loads out of the old joint and sandbagged the doors.

With everything that wasn’t nailed down now moved out or raised up, Melsha looked ahead. He figured he might take the opportunity to make some repairs and re-varnsish the floor before he moves stuff back in.

“That is, if it doesn’t flood,” Melsha said.

He was standing not far from a massive wall of sand-filled HESCO barriers stacked tall in the street next to Little Bo. Looking on the bright side means staying on the dry side. It’s the Great Wall of Hope It Holds.

“But who’s to know? If it breaches in one place, it will probably take 15 minutes to flood all this,” Melsha said. To be safe, unlike in 2008, Melsha is packing up the tavern’s contents. Last time the Cedar River bellied up to the bar, it took more than two years to reopen.

Todd Dorman column from 2010: Little Bohemia returns

“Boy, it looks like it sure could hold,” he said.

By tomorrow morning, roughly six miles of barriers will be under the gun from an expected 23-foor river crest, the second-highest ever. Will the big HESCO boxes hold, and save scores of homes and businesses from damage? It’s been the subject of much speculation and prayer in recent days. Determined engineering vs. determined nature. Go engineering!

“We’re just hoping what they say is true and they’ll protect us to 26 feet,” said Craig Stephan, co-founder of Iowa Brewing Company at 708 Third St SE. He was among several folks removing equipment from the brewery Sunday afternoon. What they couldn’t move were 1,860 gallon fermentation tanks full of beer.


“If we take on no water, that beer is good. We’re assuming if we take on much or a lot of water, we’re going to have to dump that beer. It’s a big deal,” Stephan said.

“I hope you can come back in a week,” he said.

On Sunday, I wrote there would be ample time after the flood to talk about why Cedar Rapids doesn’t yet have permanent flood protection. But, apparently, the discussion and debate are not waiting for the Cedar’s crest. I’ve read and heard many theories and a few conspiracies. As someone who has watched this saga unfold, I’ll toss in my perspective.

After the flood of 2008, there were two tracks running simultaneously. One was the recovery, rebuilding and redevelopment track. The other was the flood protection track. Both seemed daunting, but, remarkably, it was the flood protection track that looked far more certain.

Homes and businesses were being bought out by the hundreds to make room for a system everyone figured the federal Army Corps of Engineers would fund and build. That’s what the corps had done in Grand Forks and other flooded communities. Slam dunk.

In December 2009, the corps dropped a bombshell, a preliminary feasibility study claiming only east bank protection cleared the corps’ cost-benefit threshold. In other words, only walls and levees protecting downtown and east bank industries would provide benefit in excess of the cost of building the system. On the west bank, the benefit fell short of the cost. Split the baby, the report recommended.

It’s easy to blame the corps. But the agency was required to use a model created in the 1970s to evaluate risk to property from flooding over the next 50 years. And according to that model, based on history, the Cedar’s risk for catastrophic flooding was deemed low. It’s not that the property in Cedar Rapids isn’t worth enough to protect, it’s that the corps model doesn’t see much chance it will be damaged.

The folly of that assessment is painfully obvious as we watch the Cedar invade yet again. This is a city at risk, period, no matter what “That 70s Model” would have us believe. Outdated federal policy has kept us at risk, and to add insult to injury, the corps has failed to deliver even the promised funding for east bank flood protection.

But I must reluctantly interrupt this fed-bashing to point out that Cedar Rapids voters shot down two local-option sales tax measures that would have provided money for flood protection. The first, in May 2011, was a 20-year tax increase with 50 percent earmarked for flood protection and 50 percent for streets. It failed by 216 votes, which also scuttled a legislative effort to get $200 million in state assistance for walls and levees.


The second measure, a 10-year tax with 100 percent going toward flood protection, failed in March 2012 by an even wider margin. The measure was rejected in all but 10 of the city’s 44 precincts. In 18 precincts scattered around town, opposition topped 60 percent. The message seemed pretty clear.

Eventually, the city secured $264 million over 20 years through a state sales tax rebate. But there would be no big local match.

Far more recently, the National Citizen Survey asked 929 Cedar Rapids residents last January what they see as the single most important issue facing the city. Among five possibilities, including street repairs, public safety, job creation and taxes, flood control finished fifth at 9 percent. It bested only “other.”

Perhaps this difficult week will be a watershed moment on the long road to protecting this city. I’m not suggesting it’s some “silver lining” or any other such nonsense implying this horrible, dangerous situation is welcome.

But maybe it’s a sobering moment.

Sobering for federal officials, who need to press Congress for permission to change they way they evaluate risk. Sobering for the Republicans representing us in the U.S. House and Senate, who should drop their party’s aversion to climate science and make sure a change happens. We need a model that weighs our risk , not during the Nixon years.

Sobering for all of us, who are now realizing we can’t truly move on from this flood stuff until the city is protected. HESCO barriers may do a heroic job this time. But what if the heavy rain that fell on the north end of the Cedar watershed last week had fallen, instead, in the middle, leaving crews with far less time to prepare?

It’s that uncertainty that gives even the bright side a dark side.

“This is what, September? We could put all this back in, fix the floor, fix the front window and this could happen again next spring,” Melsha said.

But amid all this watery sobriety, we should pause to raise a glass to Little Bo and Iowa Brewing and all the other great local spots, sitting dark and sandbagged behind the Great Wall of Hope it Holds. Stay dry, my friends.

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