Small community of Sutliff expecting minimal flood damage

Action taken to protect historic bridge as river rises

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SUTLIFF — For the small, unincorporated community of Sutliff, history doesn’t actually seem to be repeating itself.

Sutliff, a Cedar River town in the northeast corner of Johnson County, is known for its 1898 three-span Parker truss bridge — part of which was washed away in the 2008 flood. This time around, the water isn’t expected to be as high and the people are more prepared.

The Iowa Flood Center, located at the University of Iowa, installed a water level sensor on the bridge Friday afternoon so there is little context about what type of flood stage the river is at. However, one business owner said officials told him to expect Tuesday’s crest to be about 18 inches less than the crest of 23 feet expected in Cedar Rapids.

“It won’t get up to the road or close us down or anything so we should be all set as long as it’s at that crest,” said Randy Howell, owner of the historic Baxa’s Store and Tavern. The tavern is located just across the road from the river and the bridge’s entrance.

Howell said he doesn’t need to start sandbagging his store until the river reaches 28 or 29 feet above flood stage. Back in 2008, his store was closed for a week while he was forced to pump water to get it away from the century-old foundation.

“I‘ve had groups of young kids ... wanting to know when we’re going to be sandbagging,” Howell said. “We haven’t had to use them because everything has been taken care of, but it really made me feel really good.”

The bridge, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, saw the worst of the damage during the 2008 flood. Debris and water collected on the bridge before breaking part of it away.

The community rebuilt the bridge and installed removable sides to allow floodwater to flow through it rather than get caught up in it. Dave Wilson, Johnson County Emergency Management coordinator, said county officials took off the side panels on Saturday as a precaution.

“Most folks who come in here are locals and everybody loves the bridge and they don’t want to see it go down again,” Howell said.

Only a handful of homes or cabins are in Sutliff that are not on bluffs and protected from the river, said Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chairman Rod Sullivan during a meeting Monday. All of them have been evacuated and the county has dropped off sandbags, if needed.

The owner of the cabin located nearest the Cedar River declined to comment when reached by The Gazette on Monday.

Wilson said county officials are “not super concerned,” and added, “We’ve done all we can to prepare.”

County officials expect most of the flooding damage to come to local farmers who have crops on the flood plain. Howell said he knows of local farmers who moved animals and began to harvest crops in anticipation of flooding.

“We’re just going to kind of cross our fingers there. Most of the damage will be to the farm fields,” Sullivan said. “Not ideal but we’re certainly not dealing with it like our friends in Linn County.”

This flood seems to be a unique situation for Johnson County. Because the Iowa River is not flooding like the Cedar River, Johnson County officials from various departments have been able to help Cedar Rapids prepare.

Staff from Emergency Management, Secondary Roads and the Auditor’s Office, among others, have joined the effort in Cedar Rapids. Additionally, Supervisor Janelle Rettig said during Monday’s meeting that 14 Johnson County trucks were used.

“Our staff really stepped up from every office,” said Rettig. “I hope that Linn County gets through this.”

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

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