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Evacuation notices could come Sunday morning, as Cedar Rapids braces for flooding

Forecast calls for Cedar River to reach 24.1 feet by Monday afternoon

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Road closures are being planned for Saturday and home and business evacuation notices could come as soon as 8 a.m., Sunday as possibly the second worst flood in the city’s history bears down — just eight years after the worst, Cedar Rapids officials said.

The National Weather Service is predicting storms up north along the Cedar River basin, combined with local rain, is going to cause the river in Cedar Rapids to rise rapidly beginning Saturday afternoon from 9 feet to 17 feet by Sunday afternoon and crest at 24.1 feet sometime late Monday or early Tuesday.

The river is considered at flood stage when it reaches 12 feet, moderate flood stage at 14 feet, major flood stage at 16 feet, a 100-year flood at 22.5 feet and a 500-year flood at 26.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

If the Cedar River reaches 24.1 feet flooding would occur in several neighborhoods near the downtown area affecting homes and businesses, closing roads and potentially leading to evacuations, city officials said. At risk in the latest forecast are the areas of Time Check, the downtown core, the New Bohemia District and Czech Village.

“The city is taking this event very seriously and we are putting in plans today,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said. “Citizens, property owners need to do the same.”

Corbett advised residents, business owners and property owners to examine a flood map — crgis.cedar-rapids.org/Floodstages/index.html — to determine if water may reach their property, and if so “begin the mitigation effort today.” Mitigation may be relocation, moving to higher ground or sandbagging, he said.

The extent of possible damage is not known.

The flood projections changed throughout the day on Thursday based on updates in the weather forecast and the outlook — for good or bad — may continue to change. Peter Speck, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Davenport, said river crests and forecasts could change frequently as water flows down the Cedar River and rainfall continues.

City officials plan to have daily briefings at 10 a.m. until the danger passes.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has verbally issued a disaster proclamation for Butler, Chickasaw and Floyd counties, and said additional counties are likely to be added.

“We are already providing a number of flood mitigation tools to assist and expect more in the coming days,” Branstad said in a news release. “This afternoon, I spoke with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett informing him that the state stands ready to assist Cedar Rapids to prepare and respond to the expected flooding next week. Iowans should take the necessary precautions to remain safe until the flooding has receded.”

Residents and business owners were slowly realizing the severity of the forecast on Thursday afternoon.

“Overall our concern is low because we have other family in town, but it’s high in the sense we have our kids and stuff here,” said Casey Burke, 33, sitting outside his home on Second Street SW in Kingston Village. “We were under the impression what happened in 2008 would never happen again.”

Burke’s home would take on water when the river reaches 21.5 feet, according to a U.S. Geological Survey flood map.

In NewBo, movers for Kirkwood Community College were removing kitchen equipment from the NewBo City Market, which announced it is closed as of Friday. Across the street, potters were removing supplies from a pottery studio in the Cherry Building.

“If it gets to 24 feet the basement will be full, where we have the rented studios,” said John MacDonald, a potter in the Cherry Building. “It’s much better to get out early than to try to get out at the last minute.”

In Time Check, Pat Sedlacek, 81, whose Penn Avenue home sits on the bank of the river, is moving his vehicles and boat out of the area. His nephew Tom and Tom’s children moved Sedlacek’s belongings out of his basement and onto the first floor of his home Thursday evening.

In 2008, water covered his yard and filled his basement.

“This is our home,” Sedlacek said. “I’ve been here 40 years. We rebuilt. If it happens, we’ll find someplace else to live.”

Mike Lathrop, of PJ’s Czech Shop in Czech Village, said he and his staff plan to have everything moved out by Sunday.

“We are not panicking right now because it could go higher or it could go lower,” Lathrop said. “You can’t stop Mother Nature. When she cries, she cries big.”

City officials plan to set up sandbagging stations in NewBo and near the City Services Building, 500 15th Ave SW, but specific locations still are up in the air. People looking to volunteer can do so through the United Way at uweci.org, and those in need of help can call 2-1-1.

NewBo and Czech Village start to see impacts of flooding around 18.5 feet, and downtown starts see impacts at approximately 20 feet, Cedar Rapids spokeswoman Maria Johnson said. Water reaches the sub-deck of the First, Second and Third Street Bridges between 22 feet and 24 feet, prompting closure, according to city officials.

Fire Chief Mark English said incident management personnel plan to look at the latest projections and data at 8 a.m. Sunday to determine if evacuations are warranted.

“If we do get to 24 feet, homes and businesses will be impacted,” English said. “If you are asked to evacuate by police, fire, city government please do so. It’s for your best interest and that helps keep our people, public safety employees and all city employees, out of harms way to get someone who should have been evacuated earlier.”

Public Works Director Jen Winter said crews have been installing pumps, plugging sewers to prevent floodwater from inundating sewer systems, and identifying areas for strategic sandbagging. Road closures are being planned for Saturday in advance of the rising water.

“We want to close the streets before the water hits the road for the safety of the general public,” she said. “We don’t want anyone driving through standing water. If you see standing water turn around a find another route.”

As another precaution, some traffic signals also are to be turned off and switched to stop sign controls. In low-lying areas, property owners without backflow preventers on sanitary sewer systems should place a heavy object, such as sandbag or metal plate over the sewer, to prevent backflow, she said.

The city plans to deploy Tiger dams and HESCO barriers for flood protection beginning on Saturday, but has not yet determined the locations for the barriers, Winter said.

Street closures, what protection methods to use where, and evacuations are being guided by the Flood Response Manual, which was revised in March 2015. City officials plan to follow the plan closely, Winter said.

The threat comes just eight years after a so-called 500-year flood ravaged the community causing $2.4 billion in damages to public and private property, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Floodwater damaged 5,390 Cedar Rapids homes and 1,049 businesses over 10 square miles.

Just this year, the city hired contractors to install the first pieces of a planned $625 million flood protection system. Building the protection system of levees, flood walls and pumps along the east and west banks of the Cedar has been slowed as federal funding that had been authorized was never budgeted. Meanwhile, local voters who approved an initial tax levy to pay for flood recovery, rejected a tax that would have helped pay for flood protection.

The flood of 2008 was the worst Cedar Rapids has ever seen. The Cedar River crested at 31.12 feet on Friday, June 13, 2008, more than 15 feet above the major flood stage. Water covered the Third Avenue bridge and flowed close to the bottom of the First and Second Avenue bridges.

The predicted crest of 24.1 feet on Monday would be the second highest water level recorded, supplanting 20 feet, which was recorded on June 1, 1851, and again on March 18, 1929.

Cedar Rapids officials said they are much better prepared and with new equipment as the threat presses in, having dealt with the flood of 2008.

The city has elevated its drinking water wells and fortified the wastewater pollution plant.

Steve Hershner, utilities director, said the water supply and treatment facility are protected above the predicted river level, but people should conserve drinking water. The wastewater plant’s flood protection system, which was installed since 2008, is to be activated, he said. He noted slidegates on the 5-in-1 Dam are to be opened late Saturday or early Sunday.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the city has learned lessons since 2008 and is better prepared.

“We want the public to know we have the staff, resources, the equipment, the knowledge and background to address the kind of event that is a potential based on the best information we have,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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

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