In frenzy to erect flood walls, a few in Cedar Rapids left to fend for themselves

Some NewBo businesses end up on the 'wet' side of the sand barrier

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CEDAR RAPIDS — When the city announced early Saturday that residents and business owners inside the flood evacuation zone were being strongly urged to leave by Sunday night, Dave Owens got to work.

As owner of Mad Modern, a 5-year-old retro and midcentury modern furniture store on the south end of the NewBo District, he prioritized moving out his heaviest and most valuable inventory before directing his attention to sandbagging.

Later Saturday, he saw crews erecting a sand barrier and earthen berm along 16th Avenue SE — separating this and a few other properties from the rest of NewBo and restricting access.

“And we are on the wrong side of this thing,” he said.

In the enormous effort to build a makeshift flood protection system in only a few days, city leaders had to make rapid — and they say in some cases, tough — decisions on where miles of barriers would go.

While thorough damage assessments will be conducted in the coming days, it appears the vast majority of homes and businesses threatened indeed did survive, thanks to the quick action.

Cedar Rapids Public Works Director Jen Winter said the city had to make the “tough decision” about where to erect NewBo’s sand barrier, which she said had to go on a paved surface.

Because Third Street SE dead ends before the river, 16th Avenue SE offered the last hard-surface opportunity.

Other options meant using smaller paved ways that would have sapped more time.

“We looked at what we could get up in three days,” she said. “We had to look at what we had for options and what we could do to protect as many as we could.”

Owens bought the property for his store in 2010 and spent years renovating it. Crews didn’t erect a barrier down the avenue in the flood of 2008, and so he wasn’t expecting it his time.

About 5:30 p.m. Saturday, authorities notified him he had until dark that day to leave.

“He basically said you’ve got 40 minutes,” Owens said. “We thought we would have another 24 hours.”

After access was blocked, Owens said he scaled the wall several times to secure his business and finish preparations. But he wasn’t able to get sandbags or volunteers in, and so locked up Sunday afternoon.

By the time the Cedar River crested at 22 feet Tuesday, the “wet side” of the barrier had taken on several feet of water. Some business owners coined a term for the wet part of NewBo: “NoBo.”

Owens said he isn’t necessarily criticizing the decision, even if he doesn’t like it. He wishes someone would have better communicated it.

Winters said the city did try to connect with business owners in that block, going door to door.

“It’s possible someone wasn’t there when our crews were out there,” she said. “It’s possible we were unable to reach him.”

Tornado’s Grub and Pub also ended up on the wet side of the barrier.

Owner Tom Slaughter, one of the most vocal critics, said he questions the city’s reasoning.

“If you Google it, these HESCO barriers are made pretty much to go anywhere,” he said.

He called the city’s explanation “excuses.”

Asked whether the barriers could have gone on grassland southeast of 16th Avenue SE — potentially protecting businesses that got wet — Winter told The Gazette the risks were too great.

“They have a high rate of failure if you have wet ground,” she said. “They are more likely to slide away. You risk undermining them.”

Although most businesses on the wet side of the barrier evacuated, Slaughter and his family didn’t. And their wood-and-sand wall — as of Wednesday — had mostly held the water off.

“We had a night last night from hell,” he said.

Pipes and hoses burst, he said, and the gas-engine powered pumps put off carbon monoxide.

Tornado’s crew ended up sleeping outside, Slaughter said. Family and friends brought blankets and took shifts minding the pumps.

Slaughter said he’s resisting filing a flood-insurance claim because he worries it would prevent him from obtaining coverage in the future, forcing him to close.

Darci Bunting, a manager for Kickstand Bar & Grill also on the wet side of the barrier, said she knows the city had to make a tough call.

She said she thinks it was the right one.

“In order to keep out a rushing wall of water, it was the best place to put it,” she said.

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

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