Flood threatens a very different Cedar Rapids

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Just when we had gotten back to sweating all the small stuff, the normal stuff, like arguing over sidewalks, pointing out potholes and getting miffed about TIF, the skies open and the river rises, again.

The news hit like a ton of sandbags Thursday morning. Twenty-four feet? Seriously? Second-highest ever. The Flood of 2008, in many ways, seems long ago, but not 100 years.

Now, I’m writing this on Friday morning ahead of my deadline. I pray by the time you’re reading it Sunday morning, the National Weather Service has issued a Never Mind Warning, effective immediately. If that’s the case, feel free to crumple up this column and light a celebratory barbecue.

If the forecast holds, you might be much too busy to read this anyway. If it goes higher...let’s not go there.

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

It needed to be said, of course. But, really, nobody has to tell Cedar Rapids to take this seriously.

Cedar Rapids 2016 is nothing like Cedar Rapids 2008 when it comes to a flood threat. Back then, I wandered the streets of Time Check and other core neighborhoods talking with people who had no idea what to expect. Ditto with city leaders, who sent crews out with laser levels in an effort to figure out where the water might go. The unknowns rose along with the river.

Some folks swung into feverish preparation. Some less so, because history, even the worst watery history, had spared them before. And then the river hit an unthinkable 31.1 feet.

But not this time. Everywhere you look are resolute people taking it seriously.

We’ve now got invaluable maps pinpointing the dreaded “blue line,” or how far the water will go. We’ve got highly organized volunteer efforts already drawing legions of people to threatened neighborhoods. We’ve got property owners swinging into action to get ready.

The city has an elaborate response plan that will be put to the test. Ditto the preparations of so many building owners who raised, sealed and reinforced their properties in response to 2008. Some new construction “built to flood” will take water, if the forecast holds. But the city’s water supply isn’t vulnerable this time, officials say, a big plus.

Then there’s the reality, heartbreaking still, that there’s much less property to flood. Large expanses of core historic neighborhoods inundated by 2008’s flood are gone, bought out and torn out.

So the invading Cedar River will find a very different city. No amount of planning and preparation can solve every problem and anticipate every surprise, but the victims of 2008 have become the seasoned flood fighters of 2016. Different.

And yet, the sick, anxious feeling is the same. No amount of preparation can make words such as “evacuation” feel OK.

It’s a kick in the gut to realize that a long, arduous road back from an epic disaster has produced a recovery that’s so remarkably fragile. A deluge or two, or three, in Floyd County or elsewhere at the north edge of our known weather map, and it’s back to the sandbags, back to the muck.

But that’s how a watershed works. We know that now. We know our fate is upstream. And we know, for whatever reason, whatever label you want to slap on it, very heavy rain is no longer an oddity. April, June, September. It doesn’t seem to matter.

But there will be time for that discussion later, runoff and wetlands and topsoil. There also will be time to politely ask if the Army Corps of Engineers would like to wade into town and re-evaluate its flood control foot-dragging.

Later. There’s too much work to do now. But boy do I hope you’re about to flip those column-fired steaks.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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