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Evacuation zone begins to shrink as Cedar River descends

Mayor: 'You did it. You saved your city.'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — As the Cedar River continued its slow descent Wednesday, Cedar Rapids began the march toward a return to normalcy.

For the first time since city officials strongly recommended residents and businesses leave a projected flood-inundation area on Saturday, the evacuation zone was collapsed.

“We had almost 6,000 homes and businesses in the original evacuation area,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said during Wednesday morning’s news conference at the Ice Arena. “This will allow around 2,500 individuals and businesses to return.”

But while many were permitted to go back home Wednesday, others outside the new perimeter were not. To them city officials preached patience, citing the river level, which at 20.7 feet at midday would have represented the third-highest crest of the Cedar River.

The river still remains a threat, especially in low-lying areas of the city.

 

“The level of the river is still three feet higher than pretty much all of NewBo,” said Jen Winter, public works director.

Winter said city crews and contractors monitored the flood protection measures overnight Tuesday, which have continued to keep the river at bay. Pressure on the city’s storm sewer system has forced water back into the dry side of the flood protection system.

Pumps continue to run 24 hours a day, Winter added.

“We need to remember we’re still in a critical situation,” she said.

The original evacuation zone was based on protecting homes in businesses in an area represented by a river crest of 28 feet. Cedar Rapids police Capt. Steve O’Konek said the evacuation zone was reduced to 24 feet on Wednesday, creating a two-foot buffer above the 22-foot river crest on Tuesday.

Barricades and checkpoints were moved to that 24-foot level overnight and are to remain in place until the zone is further reduced.

 

“Residents in the 24-foot evacuation zone ... are still not advised to be in there,” O’Konek said. “It’s still dangerous.”

That 24-foot zone is to be maintained to allow city works and contractors to work on tearing down the flood-mitigation efforts when the time comes.

Pomeranz said the city would continue to reduce the flood zone as the river recedes. The level is expected to drop to 18 feet on Thursday evening.

“Until that occurs, the city of Cedar Rapids is on the job,” he said. “We’re working hard and we’re doing our very, very best to make sure all the work we put into building this temporary system ... remains stable.

“Our goal is to get our citizens and our businesses back into the area as quickly as possible, while also maintaining our safety,” he added.

O’Konek said city workers would be driving by homes to check for obvious signs of damage, but would not enter any residences except in the case of a life-threatening situation.

“We don’t think there is any exterior damage at those homes,” he said. “There may be water in the basement.”

If residents find water when re-entering their houses or businesses, they should check with the appropriate utility company to ensure the electricity has been turned off. If there are damages, those must be repaired by a state-licensed contractor, O’Konek said.

“Get referrals from friends on contractors,” he said. “If you’re uncertain, the city has established a phone line to verify a contractor is licensed. That line is active now.”

That number is (319) 286-5929.

Contractors must obtain a flood permit to make repairs, but O’Konek said the fee to obtain those permits has been waived.

 

Utilities Director Steve Hershner said garbage collection would resume next week for residences no longer in the flood zone, with a focus on household refuse pickup. Residents are allowed to put out two extra 35-gallon bags of trash at no extra charge.

The city will be working with a contractor to pick up sandbags for residents, and plans for flood debris will be made at a later time, Hershner said.

“We’re asking industries and businesses and commercial operations to handle the disposal of their own sandbags and debris,” he said.

The Cedar Rapids Public Library is now out of the flood zone and employees are returning to move materials and furniture back from the second floor, said Police Chief Wayne Jerman. However, The library will remain closed until next in an effort to reduce pedestrian and vehicle traffic near the flood zone.

Jerman said the city hopes businesses now out of the flood zone will take similar steps as the library.

“We know everyone is very anxious to have their lives returned to normal and get back to their homes and businesses,” he said. “But please remember, as long as streets and bridges remain closed, traffic around the downtown area is going to remain very difficult.”

Winter, the public works director, said downtown bridges — which remain closed — will open after the river recedes, barriers are removed and the bridges are inspected.

“We will reopen the bridges as soon as we can,” she said.

City hall likely will remain closed for about 30 days to allow for clean up after some minor inundation in the basement of the building, Pomeranz added.

Cautious with his remarks since the flooding began, Mayor Ron Corbett on Wednesday declared victory over the river, thanks to a herculean effort from city staff, contractors and volunteers.

“Because of that effort, it worked,” he said. “You did it. You saved your city from the second-highest crest this community has ever experienced ... Over the next few days, let’s not be careless. But also, it’s OK to feel a little pride because you deserve it.”

For all of The Gazette's Flood 2016 coverage, please visit our flood coverage center.

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