Two other communities upriver from Cedar Rapids — Palo in Linn County and Vinton in Benton County — suffered heavy damage from Cedar River flooding in June 2008.
The Cedar crested in Vinton on June 12 at 24.7 feet, almost 10 feet above the 15-foot flood stage. The crest hit Palo June 13, the same day as Cedar Rapids.
For two days in June 2008, Palo was cut off completely by the flooding Cedar River. The entire city of 899 was evacuated.
The community in northwest Linn County is relatively flat, and the flooding Cedar spread out, flooding all but 10 of the city’s 423 homes. It would be days before residents could re-enter and begin repairing their homes.
“Twenty-nine-and-a-half inches — that’s the difference between hitting the top of your desk and the bottom of your desk — and we’d stacked a lot of stuff on the desks."
- Beth Rathje
employee of the Palo Savings Bank
The city estimated flood damage at around $36 million — $22 million to homes, $4 million to businesses and $10 million to public facilities. State and federal asssitance covered $19.5 million of the losses, the city about $2.5 million.
Even by August, fewer than 20 percent of the people who lived in Palo had been able to move back home. Some of those displaced by the flood lived in tents outside their homes as rebah work continued inside.
Since the flood, the Palo City Hall and Community Center, once in the center of the city, was rebuilt and moved to the outskirts of the city — to a spot the floodwaters didn’t reach, City Administrator Trisca Dix said.
Before the flood, most Palo residents relied on their own wells for water, but most of the wells were contaminated in the flood.
Since 2008, the city has redone its sewer system and now has a water utility.
The Alliant Electric substation has been moved out of town and now can be shut down by grids, should another flood hit.
Beth Rathje, an employee of the Palo Savings Bank for 40 years and now its vice president and cashier, lives in Newhall. Her home stayed dry, but her workplace didn’t.
Bank employees, she said, had planned for about a foot of water in the building. It took on twice that.
“Twenty-nine-and-a-half inches — that’s the difference between hitting the top of your desk and the bottom of your desk — and we’d stacked a lot of stuff on the desks,” Rathje said.
For five months after the flood while the bank building was being rehabbed, the bank operated out of an empty doctor’s office in Atkins a few miles away.
When another flood threatened in 2016, the bank decided enough was enough. It’s relocating to the edge of town across from the new community center.
Among the homes flooded in 2008 was one owned by Jennifer Salyars, a city employee. She renovated her home, only to have the 2016 flood damage the already comproimised foundation. She had to completely rebuild the house, from the ground up.
“We all have trauma,” Salyars said.
A park now stands beside the Cedar River in Vinton as a testament to the spirited recovery in this Benton County community of 5,300, about 40 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids.
Celebration Park has replaced the homes damaged — and razed — by the flood 10 years ago.
The city’s downtown remains connected to the riverfront through the park. A monument under one of the park’s pavilions keeps the story of the park’s origins alive, a nod to the homes and businesses lost in the flood.
“We celebrate the fact that we take care of ourselves,” said John Watson, mayor during the flood and on through 2017.
“We celebrate the fact that we’re resilient Iowans, and that we in Vinton believe that if we all work together, we’ll take care of all the things that happen to us,” he said.
The 2008 flood caused an estimated $14.8 million damage in Vinton, and the city received $13.3 million in flood recovery assistance, about 90 percent of that total from state and federal funds, City Administrator Chris Ward said.
The city and county had to repair and rehab the city’s Municipal Electric Utility, the fire station and the Benton County Jail and Sheriff’s Office — all close to the Cedar River. The basement of the Benton County Courthouse took on floodwater, too, but the grounds became a place to feed people as they worked on flood recovery.
In rebuilding, the city decided to move the fire station farther from the river, Benton County Emergency Management Coordinator Scott Hansen said.
The 2008 damage was not caused by a lack of preparation, he added.
Hansen observed that while “you cannot beat Mother Nature’s fury unless you are extremely well-prepared,” things happened in 2008 that couldn’t have been prevented. ... The water pressure was just too great.”
Damage in future floods will be limited because 30 of the flooded homes and businesses were bought out so fewer structures are close to the Cedar, he said.
Life in Vinton has returned to normal, Watson said, but what he remembers is how city residents came together immediately after the flood.
“As always, human beings, when there’s a catastrophe, the ‘who’ you belong to, ‘where’ you belong — that’s all gone,” Watson said. “It’s ‘we’re in this together, let’s work and get things done.’ ... That’s what happens in small towns.”
A youth community garden was added along the river where three houses once stood, thanks to a $10,000 grant from Iowa State University Extension.
“It’s unique in that it’s a teaching garden for kids,” said said Greg Walston, ISU director of extension and outreach in the county. “We also have another community garden that we’re starting for people to actually grow vegetables.”
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