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Cedar Rapids officials ready for emergency rescues if necessary

10,000 estimated to have been evacuating

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids public safety officials are prepared to make emergency rescues if water from the Cedar River breaches a temporary, 10-mile flood barrier assembled in the past few days, they said.

The biggest concern may be if the wall of sandfilled-HESCO barriers and berms crack. If a severe breach happens, the pressure of the river could send water gushing rapidly into neighborhoods.

“If a catastrophic failure of the temporary barrier occurs, the water may reach farther than the 23-34 foot (river elevation) mark,” said Cedar Rapids Fire Battalion Chief Brian Gibson. “We have a contingency plan if we have a levee breach ... Cedar Rapids police and fire are prepared to make evacuations if and when it is needed.”

Gibson said responders will have response equipment, including boats, ATVs and fire trucks, stationed on both the east and west bank of the river. The river is projected to crest at 23 feet around 7 a.m. on Tuesday, and when it does the channel will be racing at about 90 cubic feet per second, nearly four times as fast as Saturday.

The strong current makes crossing the river dangerous, necessitating crews be self-sufficient on each side, Gibson said.

An estimated 10,000 people have evacuated from neighborhoods along the east and west bank of the river, so far, said Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman. City data shows 5,449 parcels are within evacuation zones, including 3,461 homes, condos and apartments, and 490 commercial and industrial locations.

The city took extra caution with evacuation zones. Included are homes and businesses that wouldn’t likely be affected based on the current projection. Officials are on guard, though, after the 2008 flood climbed much higher than anyone predicted.

Evacuation zones include areas that would be inundated if the river reaches 28 feet, as well as areas that would lose access even if they don’t take on water. According to the city data, only about 20 percent of the 5,449 parcels (701 living units and 104 commercial and industrial locations) are in the 24 foot inundation area based on flood maps.

Residents will not be forced to leave in evacuation zones, but the city goal is 100 percent compliance. Authorities had to make more than 500 water rescues during the 2008 flood, said Maria Johnson, a city spokeswoman.

The fire department has a drone as part of its hazardous materials unit and planned to use it to assess how many people remained in evacuation zones, but the drone had technical problems, Gibson said. The drone still may be used to inspect for breaches in the flood protection system, he said.

Instead, city crews drove neighborhoods to see how many people remained. As of Monday morning, city officials estimated about 50 percent compliance with the evacuation request and did not have an update later in the day. Residents are being advised to plan to be out of their homes until Saturday.

The city made multiple attempts to notify people of the evacuation, and Buelow and Gibson said on Monday afternoon they would not be making additional door-to-door requests as residents had likely made up their minds.

Some 360 Iowa National Guard soldiers are staffing 72 evacuation zone check points around the clock. The soldiers will be checking identification to allow property owners or residents access, as well as enforce an 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew. Roads are closed in the evacuation zones. Police also will be patrolling the areas.

Monday was a day of waiting for many of those remaining in the evacuation zones.

While water bubbled up from manhole covers at a few points on the west side of the river along First Street SW and near E and F Avenues NW, the river had not climbed out of its banks yet. It would still be nearly a day before the community learns how bad the flooding will get.

The New Bohemia District was deserted on Monday, but a number of residents held their ground in the Time Check neighborhood, which may have been the hardest hit in the 2008 flood. They cited a variety of reasons for staying, including fear of looting, a feeling of safety and the belief the water won’t reach their home.

Ronnee Peterson, 47, and Melissa Smith, 36, two neighbors on Fifth Street NW in the Time Check neighborhood said they heard someone trying to break into the home of a neighbor who had already left and called police. Johnson, with the city, said there has been no looting incidents.

“This is my house,” Smith said. “We have lots of stuff in our house.”

Peterson her daughter Tabitha McGraw, 24, and grand daughter Avah, 3, sat on the front porch of neighbor Smith. The two families met during the 2008 flood, they said, and planned to stick together this time around, too.

“If the water comes on the street, we are going,” Peterson said. “We won’t risk our lives for our house. Smith added, ““My husband or I will be up, or our neighbors will call us, or we will call them to let them know if the water is rising,” Smith said. “That’s what we do.”

Brandy Goodwin, 25, said she rushed out as fast as she could before the 8 p.m. curfew on Sunday evening. She came back on Monday to grab a few things, before going back to her hotel.

Andrea Abernathy, 47, who lives on I Avenue, said she has go bags filled, dog and cat food packaged, and is ready to leave if necessary, but she plans to wait out.

“I feel pretty safe,” she said. “We are watching what is happening. We’ve already go things put up on the first floor.”

Two emergency shelters are available for residents, at Cedar Hills Community Church, 6455 E Avenue NW, and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, located at 1340 Third Avenue SE.

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

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