Volunteers needed as flooding continues in Johnson County

Dryer weather has eased pressure, though more evacuations possible

A woman and a young boy walk along the top of the emergency spillway at the Coralville Lake as the water level continues
A woman and a young boy walk along the top of the emergency spillway at the Coralville Lake as the water level continues to rise Saturday, June 1, 2013 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

Flooding from an overwhelmed Iowa River will continue in Johnson County, and up to 60 structures could become inundated with water in the coming days. And yet, officials feel optimistic.

“Mother nature has spared us from much worse conditions,” said Terrence Neuzil, spokesman for Johnson County Emergency Management. “There was no widespread rain on Friday, and that is incredibly good news.”

The National Weather Service predicts a chance of showers Saturday afternoon but dry conditions Sunday and Monday. Some precipitation could return next week, but Neuzil said it’s not expected to be extreme.

As for water already in Eastern Iowa’s waterways, officials say levels at the Coralville Lake are expected to continue rising until it crests at 712.8 feet on June 8 or 9. Water from the lake is expected to pour over the spillway at 712 feet on June 6.

With the Iowa River running at about 40,000 cubic feet per second into the Coralville Lake, Neuzil said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to increase the dam’s outflow to 17,000 cfs and eventually 18,000 cfs today – meaning the gates will be fully open.

As the lake elevation begins to climb and pressure begins to build, the outflow will increase to 20,000 cfs by June 4 or 5, according to the Corps of Engineers. When it tops the spillway, the outflow will rise to 21,000 cfs, officials said.

At that level, according to Neuzil, 50 to 60 structures countywide will become vulnerable to water damage. At least half of them lie in unincorporated areas of Johnson County.

“Some are under water now,” he said.

Preliminary damage estimates for the unincorporated portions of the county are between $4 and $5 million. Damage assessments for the county’s urban zones are still being processed.

“This is going to be a prolonged event,” he said. “It’s going to be part of the scene all summer.”

‘We are ready to go’

Flooding earlier in the week prompted mandatory evacuations of the River Front Estates and Izaak Walton League neighborhoods in Johnson County. Additional mandatory evacuation orders include the Driftwood, Camino Del Rio and Ocean communities.

Mandatory evacuations were put in affect at 4 p.m. Saturday for Sand Road, 560th South to Highway 22, and three addresses on Tri County Bridge Road. Voluntary evacuations include homes along Swan Lake, Winter Eagle and River Bend roads and Fountain Court.

Road closures have included Dubuque Street and the 800 block of Normandy Drive in Iowa City. Sand Road, south of 560th St. to Highway 22, soon will be closed, officials said Saturday. And Swan Lake Road is closed at various points.

When the Coralville Lake outflow reaches 20,000 cfs, Iowa City officials said Rocky Shore Drive, which becomes Park Road and connects Iowa City with the Coralville Strip, could become affected, along with Iowa Avenue.

City spokeswoman Shannon McMahon said Rocky Shore Drive could be closed as soon as Monday, and officials have made contact with businesses in the area.

Maja Hunt, co-owner of Every Bloomin’ Thing flower shop on Rocky Shore Drive, said Saturday that her store was mostly evacuated, and everything remaining was at least three feet off the ground.

“We are evacuating to my house,” Hunt said. “We still have brides and people who still want to get married this summer. So we are going to do all our weddings out of my house.”

Hunt said she’s expecting flooding similar to in 1993, and she feels much more prepared today than when flood waters rushed in during the 2008 flood.

“We have talked about a plan, and we are ready to go,” she said. “It is what it is.”

‘We don’t need to add a rescue’

Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig said the county has experienced "minor difficulties" with some people unwilling to comply with mandatory evacuation orders. For those folks, she said, “We are no longer able to provide emergency service.”

Rettig said the same people pushing back against evacuation orders today did so during the 2008 flood. Johnson County crews aren’t going to force them out of their homes, according to Rettig.

“But if they call 911, we won’t be able to help them,” she said. “We will not put at risk the lives of our responders because they didn’t follow instructions.”

Dee Goldman, Coralville Lake operations manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said his staff also has seen people taking safety risks down by the reservoir and dam. With current elevation levels at 705.82, Goldman said, “We have been seeing some silly stuff going on out there.”

He said people have been wading in the water, running across the spillway, scaling the rocks to get closer to the flow and videotaping themselves doing so.

“We don’t need to add a rescue situation to the mix,” he said.

The road that crosses the dam remains open, but it likely will close in the coming days so crews can make preparations for water to come over the spillway, Goldman said. Visitor traffic is understandable, he said, but it makes it more difficult for the Corps to do its job.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, visited the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center on Saturday and said he planned to help sandbag later in the day. What he observed during his visit was impressive, Loebsack said.

“Since 2008, we’ve learned a lot about managing a real disaster, and everyone is doing a fantastic job of getting the county prepared,” he said.

Iowa City officials have made an “urgent” call for volunteers willing to fill sandbags. Help is needed until 8 p.m. Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Volunteers should report to the United Way Emergency Volunteer Center at Montgomery Hall on the Johnson County Fairgrounds to register and receive assignments. Volunteers are asked to wear closed-toed shoes and to bring sunscreen and water.Questions can be answered at the United Way Disaster Call Center at 319-337-8657.