Above ground flood measures holding, but underground flood threat remains in Cedar Rapids
Cresting Cedar River putting pressure on storm sewer system
CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s not over yet.
That was the message Cedar Rapids leaders had for citizens Tuesday. The Cedar River crested around midday near 22 feet and throughout the flood zone, the miles of barriers and berms and thousands of sandbags held the rising waters at bay.
“It’s not over yet, but we’re feeling very good, we’re feeling very, very confident,” said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz. “This temporary system that we built in less than two days will protect our city.”
But, until river levels recede in the coming days, an unseen threat looms, officials warned. While above ground measures — nearly 10 miles of earthen berms and barriers and approximately 250,000 sandbags — have been successful, the river is putting pressure on the city’s storm sewer system. Until river levels dip back below major flood stage — 16 feet — the potential remains for floodwaters to enter through the storm sewer.
“It’s still not a safe situation,” said Jen Winter, public works director. “What you see above ground is dry, what is underground is completely saturated.”
Evidence of the underground water was visible in the flood zone, Winter said. In areas close to the river and in low-lying neighborhoods, crews saw water coming up from the storm sewer and bubbling up from the ground. Pumps were placed in those areas to remove the water, Winter said.
Because of the underground saturation and pressure on the sewer system, Winter said many residents in the flood zone are likely to see water in their basements.
“I would say people in every zone have water in their basement,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to avoid that if you’re near the river. If you’re in that area within a block or two of the river, you’ll have water in your basement.”
Utilities director Steve Hershner said residents could reduce the pressure on the sewer system by being careful about their water usage in the coming days.
“What you discharge or flush will flow by gravity through this system,” he said. “Please discharge water wisely.”
Because the flood zone might look safe from above, some citizens could feel its safe to re-enter the area. Fire Chief Mark English said the area is not safe and people should still stay away.
“The battle is not over,” English said. “We’re fighting a good fight and we need to see this to the finish. That means heeding these warnings.”
That also means the evacuation zone — represented by a river level of 26 feet — is not changing until Wednesday at the earliest, Pomeranz said.
“We’re evaluating that,” he said. “We’re pleased with the way things are ending up. We’re pleased the level is a bit better.
“The job’s not over yet.”
Roads that had been closed throughout the flood zone remained closed on Tuesday, including all downtown bridges over the Cedar River. Because those streets are not open, the city’s public transportation system remains suspended.
All Cedar Rapids Community School District schools are to remain closed through the end of the week, according to district spokeswoman Marcia Hughes.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett compared Tuesday to being a politician on Election Day. He said while residents might feel anxious or restless, they should instead be at peace and trust the actions that have gotten the city this far.
“In 2008, we felt defenseless,” he said. “In 2016, we took action and mobilized. Rather than sit back and be defenseless, we defended ourselves.”
“I’m sure when we wake up ... we’ll wake up on the winning side,” he said.
Corbett said he remains hopeful that if flood measures continue to hold over the next 24 hours, evacuees could return to their homes by Friday.
If the measures do hold, it is due to a $5 million to $6 million temporary system put into place by city crews, contractors and volunteers in just a matter of days.
“It may have been costly ... but I’d rather clean up some sand and pick up some unused sandbags than go through months and months and months of mucking out people’s homes and businesses,” Corbett said.
For all of The Gazette's Flood 2016 coverage, please visit our flood coverage center.