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‘It’s scary’: Eastern Iowa communities battle rising Mississippi River
Upstream snowmelt is making the Mississippi River flood; crests expected to reach top-three historic records in some towns
- Above normal temperatures melted some of the historic snowpacks in Minnesota and Wisconsin, making the Mississippi River, local rivers and tributaries swell.
- The NWS has issued 58 flood warnings across Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri.
- The NWS’ Quad Cities bureau is expecting many river communities in its service area to endure water levels rivaling their top three highest historical crests.
- Eastern Iowan river communities are banding together to combat high water levels.
As Iowa’s only island city, Sabula is completely surrounded by water. The Mississippi River flows along its eastern banks; lakes border its remaining sides. Typically, the water offers residents scenic views — now, it’s infiltrating their homes as the Mississippi River swells.
Around 500 people live on the island, which lies between Dubuque and Clinton. Eighty percent have sump pumps at the ready to siphon water out of their basements, Sabula utility supervisor Travis Woodhurst estimated. Volunteers and city staff are manning the levees, preparing for the Mississippi River to crest around Monday. The town’s wastewater treatment plant is now only accessible by boat.
Days before its peak, the river is already swallowing backyards and basements — like that of 87-year-old Mary Shear, who has lived in her riverside home for 34 years. The fencing in her backyard was almost completely submerged by Wednesday.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s wonderful. The other 1 percent, we have floods,” Shear said. “But, you know, the water goes in — and the water goes out. Just have to be patient.”
As of Thursday morning, the National Weather Service had issued 58 flood warnings across Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri. Iowa accounted for 11 of them.
Fourteen gauges along Iowa’s stretch of the Mississippi River — including those at McGregor, Dubuque and Burlington — were experiencing major flooding as of Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. Three others, including Lansing and Guttenberg, were experiencing moderate flooding.
The NWS’ Quad Cities bureau is expecting many river communities in its service area, stretching from Dubuque to Keokuk, to endure water levels rivaling their top three highest historical crests. The peaks could occur as soon as Saturday in Dubuque and slowly follow in downstream areas next week.
On Monday afternoon, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Allamakee, Clayton, Clinton, Des Moines, Dubuque, Jackson, Lee, Louisa, Muscatine and Scott counties. The action lets state resources be utilized for response and recovery from flood impacts. Another proclamation issued late Tuesday activated the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program and the Disaster Case Management Program for five of the 10 counties — Clayton, Clinton, Dubuque, Jackson and Scott.
More precipitation may fall in Minnesota and Wisconsin into the weekend, bolstering the Mississippi River’s flow even more. As water levels continue to rise, areas in Eastern Iowa are bracing themselves — armed with flood infrastructure, sandbags and strong communities.
“It seems like we have a 100-year flood every five years,” said Camanche city administrator Andrew Kida. “It’s quite the ordeal. And for us, it’s a way of life.”
How we got here
After several major snowstorms swept through Minnesota and Wisconsin this winter, the states ended the season buried in thick snowpacks.
Most of the icy heaps melted in a matter of days by mid-April as above average temperatures warmed the Upper Mississippi River basin. Senior service hydrologist Matt Wilson of the NWS Quad Cities bureau called the warmth and corresponding above normal precipitation “worst-case scenario” conditions in a flood outlook earlier this month.
Much of that water sloshed into tributaries, regional rivers and the Mississippi River upstream of Iowa. But it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, said Jordan Wendt, a service hydrologist for the NWS bureau in La Crosse, Wis.
Last year’s near-record drought, which scorched Iowa crops and hindered barge traffic, left soil moisture lower than usual. The drier grounds sucked up much of the snowmelt like a sponge, saving downstream communities from wetter fates.
“Initially, this flood threat could have surpassed 2001 levels — if not approach 1965 levels,” Wendt said. “It saved the day, in a sense, from making this much worse.”
Infrastructure in action — or lack thereof
Repeated flooding from the Mississippi River has left a legacy of flood infrastructure in many communities along the waterway.
Dubuque, for instance, closed 13 of the 17 floodgates along the river by Monday and is operating four permanent pumping stations and three temporary pumps. The rest should shut by the end of the week — the third time all the flood gates have closed since the flood control system was completed in 1973.
At least 16 locks and dams on the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and Missouri have been closed due to high water levels, debris and current. Some may come back online as soon as this weekend, said Patrick Moes, the deputy public affairs chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Paul District.
As a result, no barges are traversing the waterway.
“When is the last time we had this amount of locks and dams closed? No one honestly knows,” he said about those in his district. “I’ve been here 13 years. I’ve never experienced the amount of closures we’re dealing with this year. It’s truly a historic flood in terms of impacts.”
Some areas along the river, however, aren’t as protected by flood infrastructure.
In Camanche, the city doesn’t own much riverfront property, so it can’t create a robust flood infrastructure system, Kida said. It wouldn’t be cost-effective, either: roads and parking lots take the brunt of flood impacts.
Still, there’s a vulnerable stretch of homes in town along the Mississippi River. One houses 84-year-old resident Jack Murphy, who recalled other times when the bloated river threatened the home he and his wife have lived in for 35 years. He brought out a scrapbook, splayed it open on the sandbag barrier taking shape in his backyard, and pointed out sandbag barricades of floods past.
It’s a routine he and his wife, Willa, 81, have been through numerous times.
“You don’t sleep at night,” Murphy said about living so close to the rising river. Every morning like clockwork, he wakes around 4 a.m. and checks the water levels. Local students and friends are helping him build his sandbag barrier.
The Mississippi River at Camanche is projected to crest around 23 feet by Monday — ranking in the top three highest peaks in the town’s history.
Willa described the impacts of living through repeated flooding: “It’s scary … You think it’s not going to happen, and then all of a sudden, everything lets loose, and you’ve got to hurry up and do something.”
Strong sense of community
The latest long term models show the Mississippi River will be below flood stage around mid- to late-May, Wendt said. Extra precipitation could prolong that period.
In the meantime, river communities are preparing for the worst. But they’re preparing together — with neighbors helping neighbors, customers helping businesses, friends helping friends.
Kim Kuehl, 50, owns the bar and restaurant Bill’s Boat Landing in Clayton. She took it over from her father, who owned the establishment from 1976 to 2002. The building hadn’t flooded since it was moved to higher ground in 1965. But, fearing the worst from the projected crests, Kuehl, reached out to the community via Facebook for volunteers to sandbag her business.
More than 100 showed up to create a barrier of around 1,000 sandbags.
“It makes me feel so grateful and humble and makes you feel good for doing what you do,” Kuehl said. “You have people that want to make you get through it.”
A bit farther north, Bergman Island sits in the Mississippi River across from McGregor. Don Briggs, 73, and his wife evacuated their summer cabin on the island after putting their belongings on tables and blocks of wood. As they wait in Cedar Falls for the floodwaters to recede, 12 friends have already called to offer their cleanup assistance, Briggs said.
“That’s a showcase of Iowans. We’re all willing to help,” he said. “We’re just like, ‘Hey, that’s all part of it. Let’s just strap up our boot laces and get it cleaned up and get it back to shape.’”
Madeline Heim of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco of WNIJ Northern Public Radio contributed to this report.
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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