Flood 2016: Seven days in September
CEDAR RAPIDS — It started with a message.
“Sorry for the late text,” wrote Justin Koller, on his job as the city’s sewer operations manager just two months, in a message to his boss about 10:30 p.m. Sept. 21. “But I want to make sure you know the river is going to crest at 19.5 feet.”
That boss, Public Works Director Jen Winter, knew he was scheduled to be gone on a trip for a few days.
“It’s not great timing,” she responded.
Indeed, time was of the essence. So in short order, that austere warning mushroomed into an enormous effort to mobilize contractors, business leaders and volunteers to transform this work-a-day city into a war zone — one battling a river that once again threatened to invade.
In just seven days in September — Sept. 21 to 27 — people came together to fend off a catastrophe, albeit it not without close calls and help from the Cedar River itself.
WEDNESDAY, Sept. 21: 'I need to be here'
Koller was set to take off two days for a reunion of friends in Branson, Mo. But his thoughts were here.
Among other things, he was tasked with monitoring Cedar River gauges — one the safeguards for a city with a major river running through it.
Since the historic flood of 2008, drinking water wells were raised, the sewer plant secured and the electrical grid waterproofed.
The National Weather Service now predicted a 15-foot river crest in five days in Cedar Rapids. That’s considered a moderate, but manageable, flood stage. But then meteorologists forecast another 6 to 10 inches in the Cedar River watershed upstream.
That night he noticed something alarming.
“Sorry for the late text, but I want to make sure you know the river is going to crest at 19.5 feet,” Koller messaged his boss, Public Works Director Jen Winter, about 10:30 p.m.
Thinking of Koller’s vacation, Winter responded, “It’s not great timing.”
At 19.5 feet — more than twice as high as the current stage — the Cedar River would hit its fifth-highest crest ever in the city and be 7.5 feet above flood stage.
The up-and-coming New Bohemia District, parts of Edgewood Road NW and the bottom of several major bridge decks would be inundated.
Koller dashed off the text to his boss and canceled his plans to attend the reunion.
“No worries,” he responded that night. “Trip is canceled. I need to be here.”
Thursday, Sept. 22: 'We are going to need help'
Radio broadcasts were calling attention to the river forecast, and noted that upstream counties of Butler, Greene and Floyd were flooding. Cedar Rapids city staff rolled in with all eyes on the water.
At 7 a.m., Koller began reviewing the city’s flood-response manual with his team. Created after the 2008 flood caught many off guard, the plan lists in detail what to expect, what to protect and what roads to close — on an inch-by-inch basis — as the river climbs.
The city would enlist engineering consultants HR Green, Anderson Bogert and HDR to begin designs on the placement, height and makeup of what would become a 9.8-mile flood wall along the east and west banks of the river.
“We started examining the (flood manual) plan in context of what kind of improvements are warranted and where and what should the elevation be set at,” recalled Jim Halverson of HR Green. “What would be the optimal way to use resources? There were a finite number of facilities, so where should we put them?”
By 10:28 a.m., gauges and river models used to interpret Mother Nature dealt another blow. The crest projection was ratcheted up to 24.1 feet.
Aside from 2008, 24.1 feet blows away the next-highest recorded crests — 20 feet on June 1, 1851, and March 18, 1929. At 24 feet, 1,600 homes and businesses would be under water.
"We knew this was going to be a major ongoing incident over a long period of time."
- Wayne Jerman
Cedar Rapids police chief
City communications staff began orchestrating an afternoon news conference. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz called an all-hands meeting with his leadership team for 1 p.m.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett was in Mason City for a speaking event for Engage Iowa, his think tank. The rains he encountered the night before on the drive up could be problematic downstream, he reasoned. He had more events scheduled, but with conditions worsening, he raced home.
“It’s all coming our way,” he said.
Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman was in a task force meeting about 11:30 a.m. when Capt. Jeff Hembera pulled him aside.
The stakes had been raised. While the prediction remained much lower than in 2008, many remembered how that crest forecast kept changing and rising, leaving the city with widespread disaster.
“We knew this was going to be a major ongoing incident over a long period of time,” Jerman said.
At the 1 p.m. meeting, leaders activated the Incident Command Center, a hierarchal system to coordinate multiple divisions working together to respond to an emergency situation. It was a popular approach for police departments after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is a routine tactic for firefighters.
The center would oversee evacuation zones, curfews, security and possible rescues.
Sometime after a 2 p.m. news briefing, Pomeranz spoke with Winter, who perhaps as much as anyone would guide the city’s critical response, about the magnitude of what was about to happen.
The city had four days to prepare. Pomeranz vowed not to micromanage decisions. Whatever resources Winter needed, he said, just ask. And he offered a key directive:
“It’s both sides of the river,” Pomeranz said. “We are going to do whatever it takes to protect this city.”
By evening, a multipronged attack was set in motion — flood defense, public safety and security, communications, a massive volunteer sandbagging operation, a supply chain and traffic control.
Calls came from big and small companies and cities — from Waterloo, West Des Moines, Coralville and Johnson County, among others — offering help.
Justin Holland, city construction operations manager, examined the tasks ahead.
“We are going to need help,” he told Winter.
Friday, Sept. 23: 'This is my city'
Dave Schmitt Construction, an excavator and utilities contractor in Cedar Rapids since 1964, was on the ground by 7 a.m. to assemble the first pieces of the flood wall that turned Cedar Rapids from a busy metro hub into a zone with giant bunker walls running across its now-evacuated streets.
City Engineer Nate Kampman had called Thursday to see how many workers and what resources Schmitt could spare, as he did with numerous other contractors.
"Our guys responded as if it was their house they were protecting."
- Jay Gallery
Dave Schmitt Trucking director of operations
Schmitt was working on a housing development and a separate utilities project and already was contracted to fortify flood protection for several large industrial customers including Quaker Oats, Ingredion, Mercy Medical Center and Cargill. Within an hour after speaking with Kampman, the company committed to three, six-man crews.
In the days ahead, Schmitt constructed sand barriers between Eighth and 12th avenues SE and another segment near the GreatAmerica Building. Pirc-Tobin and Peterson Contractors tackled barriers on 16th Avenue SE.
Rathje Construction protected the Time Check neighborhood. Schrader Excavating & Grading worked on the downtown area from First Avenue SE to Eighth Avenue SE.
“Our guys responded as if it was their house they were protecting,” said Jay Gallery, Schmitt director of operations.
Designs from HR Green and other engineers armed city inspectors who guided contractors on where the barriers needed to be placed and how high to build. Contractors had to adapt on the fly as river level projections kept changing.
City leaders enacted a communication plan that included a daily briefing at 8 a.m., a briefing of the City Council at 9 a.m. and an open-to-the-public news conference at 10 a.m. (The open-to-the-public morning news conferences soon would move to the Ice Arena, outside the flood-affected area.)
The evenings had a similar debriefing of staff and council, with a look to the next day.
After the morning media briefing, the City Council quickly passed a disaster proclamation allowing city staff leaders to skip some usual processes, such as taking bids.
“Rules and regulations shackle people and we had four days to react,” Corbett said.
The bills still will have to get paid for most, if not all, of the help the city received.
As construction of the massive flood wall was underway, the forecast changed again. The new crest prediction climbed to 25.3 feet, prompting a redesign from a 24-foot protection level to 26 feet.
“As things were changing, we looked at river models and ran for a variety of scenarios,” said Teresa Stadelmann, a water resource project manager who was designing the system in real-time and feeding the new plans back through city engineers to the contractors.
“Ultimately the immediate lowest areas had to fill to certain height, and then we needed to have a complete line of protection,” she said.The flood wall had to go higher and wider.
As the wall went up, the city needed miles of more barriers.
The barriers — fabric-lined mesh blocks made by HESCO Inc. that get filled with sand — originally were designed for erosion control but have become popular for flood control as well as military bunkers.
Around 4:30 p.m., Corbett called Dave Rusch, president and chief executive of the Cedar Rapids-based trucking company CRST International.
"I was breaking arms."
- Mike Gannon
CRST chief operating officer
“We need more HESCO barriers,” Corbett said. “We’ve identified some in Peoria, Ill. Can you get some flatbeds and transport them here?”
By 5:15 p.m., Mike Gannon, CRST’s chief operating officer, was on the phone with Winter. How much equipment were they talking about? How many truckloads would it take? Where were did the barriers need to go?
But Winter found some much closer, through the University of Iowa. Without a blink, Pomeranz cleared a $1.5 million check for the barriers.
“There was a sense of urgency,” Gannon said. “We need more of these barriers. We need to extend it out. And we are desperate to get these up here.”
But late on a Friday, finding a crew was easier said than done. Drivers already were scheduled for other deliveries.
“I was breaking arms,” Gannon joked.
After calling around to a few hubs, he found Joe Lenk on layover in Iowa City; Larry Smith on layover in the Quad Cities; Larry Walters, who was on home break in Albany, Ill., about 60 miles east of the Quad Cities; and Ray Barnard, a safety trainer for CRST in Cedar Rapids.
“Ray is local,” Gannon said. “He almost had tears in his eyes he was so happy to help. He said, ‘This is my city. I want to help.’”
Meanwhile, Corbett texted Diane Crookham-Johnson, whose family had founded Musco Lighting.
“Diane, who could we call to get some temporary portable lights so we can work around the clock filling HESCO barriers?” he asked.
“On it,” she replied minutes later. “I’ll have a contact and truck arrival time shortly.”
Saturday, Sept. 24: 'These guys were the stars'
The first CRST truck arrived at 10:30 p.m. Friday, and a convoy ran through the night, with the final one unloaded at noon Saturday.
After working all day Friday, Travis Rathmell, a new-to-the-city public works laborer and temporary construction inspector, worked all night unloading the shipments until the morning shift arrived.
“There was only one guy there unloading everything,” CRST’s Barnard said. “The contractors were coming to get (the barriers). We’d drop them off and only a couple would get them — but once daylight came around, they were coming to get them real quick.”
In all, the four drivers hauled 370 barriers — approximately 4.5 miles of HESCOs — in 16 truckloads during a 15-hour overnight shift.
“These guys were the stars of the night,” Gannon said. “They really stepped up.”
As morning arrived, a little bit of good news came. The crest prediction was lowered to 24 feet. Later in the day it was lowered again, to 23 feet.
Still, the second-worst flood ever was heading for Cedar Rapids. A breach in the system could put any one of many neighborhoods underwater.
On Saturday evening, as the water level started to climb in earnest, city engineers recognized a major problem.
A 108-inch diameter storm sewer draining from NewBo and downtown to the river already was filling with water.
The potential for the high waters backing up through the sewer into businesses and homes prompted a quick response: City project engineers Sandy Pumphrey and Dave Wallace and Mike Butterfield of HDR engineered a fix, and called and Peterson Contractors, which agreed to execute the plan at 7 a.m. the next day.
The solution was unconventional. They’d drill down and bore holes in the pipe, pour in concrete — some 10 truckloads — and pump out the remaining water. The concrete was poured into a section due for removal anyway as part of permanent flood pump station expected to be installed by next fall. It worked.
“This needed to be done,” City Engineer Kampman said later. “That pipe always has water in it and we knew it would flood.”
Sunday, Sept. 25: 'We needed to be on top of it'
The river began rising quickly, reaching major flood stage by the end of the day. Evacuation notices went out for some 3,951 residential and commercial properties that would be inundated if the river stage reached 28 feet.
“That’s when the river was going to start rising really to a point we needed to be on top of it,” Greg Smith, assistant fire chief, remembered.
The Incident Command Center went live at 7 a.m., fully staffed as a 24-hour operation. Smith and police Capt. Steve O’Konek had been named as co-commanders.
Evacuations, which were not mandatory, went in effect at 8 p.m. at the same time a curfew — until 7 a.m. the next morning — for evacuation zones was enacted.
“In order to patrol those areas, it is impossible if people are going about their normal business,” O’Konek explained. “You can’t distinguish between a thief and a resident. A curfew gives us legal authority to challenge people and find out what their intentions are.”
After 48 hours of construction, the flood barrier was largely complete.
But the work wasn’t done.
Attention turned to patching leaks, building wells and plugging storm sewers with rubber bladders to stop backflow from the river.
Maxwell Construction worked with the city to lead the work of staving off leaks in the stormwater system.
“We were starting to see some leaking of the storm sewer wells as early as Sunday morning,” Public Works Director Winter said. “Some of our city crews transitioned through the day Sunday from constructing storm sewer wells and plugs to filling sandbags and staging sandbags, materials, and equipment throughout the flood evacuation area. There was really no time we said, ‘We’re good.’”
Monday, Sept. 26: 'It was pretty chaotic'
Around 5:30 a.m., while reinforcing a levee by Ingredion along the west bank, Schmitt Construction crews were traveling along A Street SW near Czech Village. There they noticed water pooling on the “dry side” of an earthen levee.
Matt Myers, a city traffic engineer, was a “spotter” for these early-morning hours. He noticed it, too. If more than a trickle was spotted, any of the overnight crews on duty was to put out an alert — and fast.
Soon, water poured uncontrollably from wells into the street near the intersection of Bowling Street SW and C Street SW from raised wells. The wells were intended as a gravity system to relieve pressure, such that water would could rise but only as high as the river level.
A stockpile of supplies such as packed sandbags were staged in the area beforehand in case water found its way to the dry side. Sandbags were the first line of defense — but the water was too powerful. It kept leaking.
And when they made progress in one spot, three or four others started leaking because of the water pressure.
“It was pretty chaotic,” said Justin Holland, the city’s construction operations manager. “It was the first real action after the infrastructure was built.
“We weren’t naive that this wasn’t going to happen. It’s what we were waiting for and what we were prepared for — we just didn’t know where it was going to happen and how bad it would be.”
By 7 a.m., the next shift of workers — many who’d pulled a 16-hour day Sunday — had arrived. The water had risen to 4 feet deep. About 40 people were on scene fighting back the water.
“It was now or never,” Schmitt Construction’s Gallery said. “Something had to be done at that time or it would get very bad, very quickly.”
"It’s what we were waiting for and what we were prepared for — we just didn’t know where it was going to happen and how bad it would be."
- Justin Holland
Cedar Rapids construction operations manager
So the crews changed the approach, and created giant plugs made of sleeves filled with smaller sandbags. It appeared to be working.
Meanwhile, clay arrived from Wendling Quarries. It proved water resistant as crews built cones around the wells to raise up the opening.
By 10 a.m., humans gained the upper hand in the battle against nature, although it would be noon before it was fully under control.
At the same time, water started inundating in the Time Check and Kingston Village areas. Rathje Construction, which had built barriers in that section, and city crews headed that way.
“It was easier to manage in Time Check because it was a bigger area,” Holland said. “There was more room to work. We could move the water around more to get it to flow where we wanted.”
Still, Time Check would need attention until the water began to recede the next day.
Tuesday, Sept. 27: 'Cautious optimism'
As the crest approached, the projected high-water mark decreased again — to about 22 feet. The lower river level, as much as any human effort, had as much as anything to do with the success.
Key staff such as Winter, Holland and Mike Duffy, the street operations manager, worked nearly around the clock. Some set up cots in the City Services Center. Others slept for stints in their cars.
Holland was sitting on a HESCO barrier along 16th Avenue SE in NewBo when he saw what he considered the scariest moment of the flooding.
Around 4 a.m., water topped an old berm separating the Sinclair site and NewBo from the Cedar River.
“You battled so hard, and we were able to battle off the Time Check area and Czech Village, and this is so new,” Holland said. “This happened so much differently and it happens so fast.”
Within 45 minutes, water 4 feet deep filled south of 16th Avenue SE, putting pressure on the barrier wall.
While some water seeped through, it quickly gushed through the storm sewers on Third Street SE. It happened so quickly workers couldn’t tell where the water was coming in.
Wallace, one of the city engineers at the City Services Center, had a map of the sewer system and was able to guide the field staff — which pipe to tackle first to “cut the head off the snake.”
By midmorning, the water was pumped back into the river, which very slowly was receding after cresting about 21.92 feet at 8 a.m.
As the day progressed, problems decreased, Winter said. A sense of “cautious optimism” set in.
“In every aspect, you had contractor and city employee working together,” said Patt McDowell, president of Schmitt. “You had our guys working together next to other contractors. The city had a plan in place, Cedar Rapids police and state patrol kept lanes clear so materials could get through. Quarries stayed open and sand pits stayed open all night so we can get sand.
“That is what people don’t realize — how many people worked together to protect the city,” he said.
They fought the flood
Some of the key players in Cedar Rapids’ action plan:
► Title: Safety trainer
► Age: 52
► 2016 flood role: Drove overnight to bring barriers to Cedar Rapids
► Home: Lifelong Cedar Rapidian
► Background: Worked for CRST International for two years
► Title: City engineer
► 2016 flood role: Coordinated contractors constructing flood barrier
► Age: 40
► Home: Grew up in Pella
► Background: Started as city engineer in August 2015 after working at Cretex Concrete Products in Maple Grove, Minn.
► Title: Sewer operations manager
► 2016 flood role: One of first to flag the rising river level
► Age: 33
► Home: Oregon, Wis.
► Background: Took his latest role two months ago, after three years in the utilities department.
► Title: Construction operations manager
► 2016 flood role: Helped respond to breaches in flood system
► Age: 37
► Home: From Decorah
► Background: Started his city job two months ago, after leaving Forterra Pipe & Precast.
► Title: Police captain
► 2016 flood role: Co-commander of Incident Command Center
► Age: 54
► Home: From Coon Rapids, Minn.
► Background: Joined Cedar Rapids police in 1985.
► Title: Assistant fire chief
► 2016 flood role: Co-commander of the Incident Command Center
► Age: 47
► Home: From Swea City
► Background: Joined Cedar Rapids Fire Department in 1994
► Title: Project manager in water resource
► Age: 41
► Home: From Brooklyn Center, Minn.
► Background: Has been with HR Green for 13 years
► Title: Public Works director
► 2016 flood role: Coordinated creating and maintenance of flood protection system
► Age: 42
► Home: Grew up on a dairy farm just outside Dyersville
► Background: Started as public works director in April 2015 after 10 years at HR Green.