Flood of 2008 caused 'wild scramble' in Iowa City, Coralville

IOWA CITY – When the police officer knocked on the door of their Iowa City home a bit after midnight, Liz Pearce, Laurie McCormick and their three kids were told they had 30 minutes to evacuate.

The Iowa River, which normally flowed just beyond their backyard, was already out of its banks and threatening the 3-to-6-foot-high sandbag levee erected over the previous several days in the Parkview Terrace neighborhood next to City Park.

The family loaded up two cars with clothes, some toys, and computers and student work for Pearce and McCormick, who were professors. For reasons she can't explain, Pearce also grabbed the spice rack.

“It was just a wild scramble,” the now-54-year-old said recently.

The evacuation, on Thursday, June 12, 2008, drove home for Liz McPearce, as she is now known after she and Laurie married, that the flood was going to be much worse than she had anticipated even just a few days before.

It ended up being the biggest flood in Johnson County's recorded history.

The Iowa River in Iowa City crested at a record 31.53 feet on June 15. Major flood stage is 25 feet.

Coralville Lake, the man-made reservoir built to control flooding, hit a record 717.02 feet above sea level. That's five feet above the dam's emergency spillway.

After May 1, water usually leaves the lake at a maximum of 6,000 cubic feet per second. Outflow in June 2008 reached 39,462 cfs, yet another all-time high.

Such massive flooding was not expected initially. Officials first warned of water in flood-prone areas, then a 1993-like flood and then outflow of 25,000 cfs.

“We really believed, in the beginning, that we would be OK,” Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said.

Two events made him realize that was not going to be the case. One was when the person hired to pump the Iowa River Landing area called in the middle of the night saying he needed to get his equipment out because flooding was inevitable. The other was when Coralville's wastewater superintendent said the city's pump stations needed to be shut down and the controls removed to prevent damage to them.

The gravity of the situation hit Regenia Bailey, then Iowa City's mayor, when she got a call while out of town June 11 saying an emergency City Council meeting was needed that day to empower the mayor to order evacuations, something not in the City Code at the time.

She issued an evacuation order for Parkview Terrace a few hours later, just past midnight.

Bailey heard from residents irate they were forced to leave, especially in the dark. But she said it had to be done then or else people risked waking up surrounded by water. At 11 a.m. June 12, water topped the neighborhood's makeshift levee.

Other parts of Iowa City and Coralville were eventually evacuated. In all, about 500 households in Iowa City and another 300 in Coralville faced mandatory evacuations, plus dozens of businesses. Nearly 800 homes and 260 businesses were damaged in Iowa City, Coralville and rural Johnson County.

Given two hours to evacuate, the operators of Lucky Pawz dog day care and boarding in southern Iowa City scrambled to call people to pick up their pets, co-owner Jim Kelly said. Of the approximately 75 animals there, 10 to 20 remained and had to be moved to a location two miles away.

They had spent the days leading up to that building a sandbag levee, but about 2.5 feet of water got in the buildings anyway and caused serious damage.

“My hands, I think, were sore for a good two months after that from moving all the sandbags,” said Kelly, 35. “It was hard to close my hands for two months.”

The community was nearly cut in half by the flood. By June 15, Burlington Street was the only in-town street still open over the Iowa River, but it was threatened. (Interstate 80 never closed.)

The city marked a spot on the Burlington Street bridge that, if reached, would mean the horizontal load of the water was too much for it to withstand, Iowa City Public Works Director Rick Fosse said. Someone was stationed there 24 hours a day, and water got within 2 inches of the mark.

The city had public safety equipment, garbage trucks, buses and staff on both sides of the river. Hospitals were prepared, too.

“Basically, we were set up to operate as two cities,” Fosse said.

The community eventually recovered, although in some cases that's ongoing. Some people walked away.

McPearce and her family never lived in their home on Normandy Drive again. They put many of their belongings three to four feet off the floor, but it wasn't enough to escape the water.

When they returned to their home after the evacuation, a snake was swimming in their daughter's room.

“As soon as we saw that, we decided we could never go back,” McPearce said.

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