116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
On the road to flood recovery, sometimes we all feel like the kids in the backseat yelling, “Are we there yet?”
Much has been accomplished in the five years since the Cedar River engulfed downtown Cedar Rapids and other eastern Iowa cities saw record floods. High water earlier this month tested flood repairs and mitigation projects done since June 2008.
With each success, there is also impatience to put the disaster in the past and feel truly prepared for future floods.
Officials in Cedar Rapids and at the University of Iowa predict at least three more years of major flood repairs. Those timelines could be extended for projects that do not secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We are still looking at three years,” said Roy Hesemann, Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Utility Plant manager. “And FEMA could push it to six or seven.”
The biggest project left on the “to-do” list is a proposed 7.5-mile $375 million flood-protection system for the city of Cedar Rapids. The red arches of the $8.2 million amphitheater and levee in at Bret Sunner Park are one of the first visible signs of this effort.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has secured $104 million to protect the city's east side, but a west side buffer is less certain. The city will work to come up with a local match for those federal funds, likely by applying to a new state flood protection fund that will contain the incremental increase in the state sales tax.
The city's Water Pollution Control Facility was knocked out for 12 days following the 2008 flood, sending more than 3 billion gallons of untreated or partially-treated sewage into the Cedar River. Construction started this spring on a $21 million flood wall and earthen berm to be complete in fall 2014.
The wall and berm will protect the plant from surface flooding that starts when the river reaches 23 or 24 feet, said Megan Murphy, Utilities Department spokeswoman.
The Cedar River crested at 18.23 feet on June 2, which was well below the danger zone, but the facility struggled with the large amount of wastewater coming through the sewer system at the same time as rain water, Murphy said.
"Flush wisely," city officials warned in a news release. “During high water events, it causes stress on our sewer system, making it important to be mindful of the amount of wastewater we are sending down the drain.”
In Iowa City, where the Iowa River rushed into 22 UI buildings causing over $850 million in damage in 2008, several major renovations are just getting started.
Hancher Auditorium and the School of Music will both be relocated to higher ground at a combined cost of $347.7 million. A new art building will cost $84.6 million. All three projects will include demolition of the old buildings and will be done in 2016.
But because FEMA won't pay to move the UI Museum of Art and the university can't get insurance by the river, the UI has started raising money to relocate the building – all adding time to the process, President Sally Mason said.
Iowa City's Gateway Project, which includes raising Dubuque Street and the Park Road Bridge by City Park, would cost $40 million with completion in 2016. Once this is done, Iowa City won't have to worry about water covering Dubuque Street, one of the main entrances to the UI campus and downtown Iowa City.
Flooding caused closure of Dubuque Street for about two weeks in late May and early June, just as UI students are coming to campus for freshman orientation.
Coralville is mostly done with its flood projects, although work continues on an $11.7 million project elevating the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad (CRANDIC) line to provide a levee that would protect Highway 6 from flooding.
Some eastern Iowa leaders who have dealt with flood recovery say the destination of this trip isn't “back to normal,” but a new normal that will be better than before.
“It will never be back to what it was before the flood,” said Jennifer Pratt, a planner for the Cedar Rapids Community Development Department. “But the positive thing is we're recasting that shift. We're seeing it as economic development and growth, recasting what that new normal means.”
Gazette reporters Diane Heldt and Vanessa Miller contributed to this report.