Community

1993: Iowa rains that wouldn't go away

25 years ago, floods destroyed crops, closed major roads, caused deaths

Iowa River floodwaters in July 1993 close many streets and businesses in the Highway 6 and First Avenue area in Coralville. The city would spend more than $4 million in 1994 and 1995 on a flood abatement program, followed by millions more after the 2008 flood. (Gazette archives)
Iowa River floodwaters in July 1993 close many streets and businesses in the Highway 6 and First Avenue area in Coralville. The city would spend more than $4 million in 1994 and 1995 on a flood abatement program, followed by millions more after the 2008 flood. (Gazette archives)
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It wouldn’t stop raining.

Twenty-five years later, that’s the most common recollection among those who endured the flood — actually, the floods — of 1993.

John Lundell, now the Coralville mayor who was Iowa City’s transit director at the time, said the 1993 floods were the first time water climbed over the top of the Coralville reservoir.

Floodwater hit homes and businesses, but soon subsided, allowing property owners to begin cleanup efforts. But heavy rains returned.

“It went back down relatively quickly, in a few days it had receded,” Lundell recalled. “But we had a repeat of it. People were hammered a second time. ... It was physically and mentally disabling to put in that much effort and have to deal with the disaster to begin with and try to recover and get back to normal, only to experience it a second time.”

Linn County Supervisor James Houser, who served on the board in 1993, recalls trepidation as talk of flooding filled the community.

Preparing for the worst, officials performed elevation measurements on May’s Island, as well as on the nearby Linn County Sheriff’s Office, to see if projections surpassed the elevations of the public facilities.

“We were really all kind of nervous about what was the river going to do,” Houser said.

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Ultimately, the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids crested at a little more than 19 feet, far below the record-setting deluge on 2008. Still, flood stage is exceeded above 12 feet.

It was so bad across Iowa that President Bill Clinton took the unprecedented step by mid-July of declaring the entire state a federal disaster.

And it wasn’t just Iowa. The ‘93 floods swamped eight Midwest states, lasting 200 days in some places, according to the National Weather Service.

At the time, the flooding was an unprecedented disaster, causing billions in damage to homes and businesses and wiping out the ’93 corn and soybean crops.

Though subsequent floods have dulled recollections, that year’s flooding was unheard of in the United States, affecting 320,000 square miles and causing an estimated $15 billion in damages — roughly $26 billion in today’s dollars.

Clinton convened a July 17, 1993, flood summit with Midwest governors in St. Louis. Three days later, the Mississippi River crested at a record 47 feet in St. Louis. Levees collapsed and people fled for their lives. And it kept raining.

In Iowa

In Iowa, flooding started in late March and peaked in July. The persistent, heavy rainfall and flooding:

• Closed Interstate 380 for two weeks in mid-July, and Highways 151 and 965 even longer. Dubuque Street, the main entryway to Iowa City, was closed for more than two months.

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• Knocked out the water plant in Des Moines, leaving 250,000 people in Iowa’s largest city without running water for two weeks; thousands more went without electricity.

• Caused record flooding in the Iowa, Des Moines and Skunk river basins.

• Halted barge traffic for nearly two months on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Causes

The floods of ’93 started with the wet fall of 1992, followed by heavy snowfall in the 1992-93 winter over the Upper Mississippi River basin.

In the spring, the snow melted and it started raining, with rain often falling in the same locations. By June, the soil was saturated — but the rains didn’t stop.

Portions of east-central Iowa recorded 48 inches of rain from April through July.

The year still is the wettest one in recorded weather history in Cedar Rapids (60.46 inches); Iowa City (62.89 inches); and Waterloo (42.07 inches). The normal annual rainfall in Eastern Iowa is 35 inches.

Some areas in Iowa had rainfall that was 400 to 750 percent above normal, the National Weather Service reported.

The historic 2008 flood is top of mind in Eastern Iowa. But it is the 1993 flood that still gives Des Moines — and much of the rest of the state — nightmares.

TIMELINE

In 1998, on the fifth anniversary of the flooding, The Gazette prepared a timeline of the momentous summer of 1993. Here is an excerpted portion:

March-April

March 30: National Weather Service predicts record flood levels on the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids. The city prepares for expected crest of 21 feet.

April 2: The Iowa River tops flood stage at Belle Plaine, Iowa City and Lone Tree.

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April 3: Cedar Rapids Mayor Larry Serbousek declares a local emergency as sightseers flock to see the flooding. The Cedar reaches 18.43 feet, its highest level since the 19.6-foot flood in 1961.

April 4: The Cedar River crests at 19.27 feet. City workers, volunteers and Iowa National Guard troops reinforce temporary dikes.

April 5: Cedar River floodwaters recede; city officials declare victory over fourth-largest flood in history in Cedar Rapids.

April 20: The flood cost Cedar Rapids an estimated $1.4 million, with nearly half going to replace a water main.

April 26: The Cedar River rises above flood stage again, but only to 13.7 feet.

MAY

May 2: Benton, Buchanan, Muscatine and Webster counties are added to designated list of disaster areas, joining Black Hawk, Butler, Linn and Tama.

May 3: Another round of heavy rain begins. In Riverside in Washington County, residents report up to 7 inches of rain. County gravel roads, ballparks and golf courses are saturated in many Eastern Iowa counties.

May 6: An Iowa Department of Transportation employee is nearly buried under a mudslide on Highway 76 between McGregor and Marquette.

May 9: A state crop report shows only 3 percent of the corn crop is planted; normally, 27 percent is planted by now.

JUNE

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June 7: An intense storm causes a fire in Coralville offices when lightning strikes. Heavy rains drench region.

June 16: High winds and heavy rains down trees and power lines and damage a school roof in Winneshiek County.

June 17: State officials issue an unusual citizen preparedness alert as thunderstorms head toward Iowa with the potential to cause more flooding.

June 18: Rains dump on Eastern Iowa. The National Weather Service issues flash-flood watch.

June 19: Heavy rains cause a Benton County road to collapse, killing two Vinton women who were driving on it.

June 24: Floodwaters invade Cedar Rapids City Hall basement (on May’s Island at the time) for the third time this year. Little Bear Creek flows into the Jones County town of Wyoming, chasing three families from their homes.

June 25: Locks and dams close on the Mississippi.

June 27: Heavy rains drench the Coralville Lake area. Army Corps of Engineers urges boaters to stay off the Mississippi.

June 29: Mississippi floodwaters seep through a dike at Marquette as citizens fill sandbags. Gov. Terry Branstad says flooded cropland is a “significant disaster.”

June 30: Coralville Lake floodwaters force evacuations, sandbagging in Iowa City and Coralville. Inland rivers across the state, including the Turkey and Wapsipinicon, leave their banks. Davenport prepares for a Mississippi River crest of 22.5 feet.

July

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July 1: President Clinton announces he will tour flooded areas in Davenport. Branstad declares 27 more counties disaster areas, bringing the total to 42.

July 2: U.S. Coast Guard outlaws boating on the Mississippi River from Dubuque south to Grafton, Ill. River swells at Davenport, where heavy damage is estimated and the National Guard is called in to help.

July 4: Clinton promises $400 million in federal disaster money for farmers with flood-damaged fields.

July 5: For the first time ever, water flows over the spillway at Coralville Dam. Indian Creek in Cedar Rapids and Marion floods homes and parks. Thousands of basements flood in Cedar Rapids as sanitary sewers back up. Downpours of up to 6 inches in a matter of hours force some Monticello, Langworthy and Olin residents to evacuate.

July 6: Clear Creek overflows, shutting down most businesses along Highway 6 in Coralville. Some 150 students evacuate the University of Iowa’s Mayflower Residence Hall because access is cut off by a flooded Dubuque Street. Marion mayor calls flooding from Indian Creek the “worst ever.”
July 7: A 70-year-old Ely man dies when his car plunges into floodwaters. Six UI buildings remained closed as the Iowa City mayor declares a state of emergency. Rising water forces 800 Louisa County residents out of their homes after an Iowa River levee breaks.

July 8: Hundreds of soldiers and volunteers work to shore up levees in Oakville, Wapello and Columbus Junction. Continued rains put more pressure on Mississippi River levees.

July 9: In Ames, Hilton Coliseum is flooded, and Iowa State University cancels summer classes. Vice President Al Gore promises swift federal aid to flooded areas. The number of Iowans evacuated reaches more than 6,000 in 28 shelters. Independence residents flee the flooding Wapsipinicon River, which surged to 18 feet — 6 feet above flood stage.

July 11: The Des Moines Water Works floods, leaving 250,000 residents without water. Thousands are without electricity, and 5,000 are evacuated. The Iowa River chases 200 Chelsea residents out of town. Anamosa residents fill sandbags as the Wapsipinicon River sweeps into town.

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July 12: Raw sewage invades Cedar Rapids homes and businesses and flows into the Cedar River as workers race to restore operations at the wastewater plant, which loses power. Mayor asks residents to curtail water use. Iowa River floods Amana.

July 13: President Clinton declares entire state a disaster area. Interstate 380 and Highway 965 close at midnight because floodwaters are too high at the bridges. Two pumps at the Cedar Rapids wastewater start operating again. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, estimates the crop damage at $1 billion. Iowa City braces for higher water and asks residents to stockpile fresh water.

July 14: Hundreds of motorists fight bumper-to-bumper traffic between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids as I-380 and Highway 965 remain closed. Cedar Rapids sewer plant goes back into full operation. President Clinton spends six hours with Des Moines residents and promises $2.48 million in aid for victims of Midwest floods. Some 2,100 National Guard troops are on duty to help with flooding statewide.

July 15: Coralville Lake crests at 715.72 feet above sea level. Coralville and Iowa City residents cross their fingers, hoping that sandbags hold off surging floodwaters. Des Moines businesses are asked to stay closed.

July 16: Branstad and Harkin tour Iowa City flooding. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials peg preliminary damage estimates at $2.4 billion in Iowa.

July 17: More heavy rains forcing residents in Jones County and hundreds in Des Moines to flee homes. Clinton meets with Midwest governors at a flood summit in St. Louis. Geologist says 22 Iowa streams have set records for volume or crest.

July 18: Cedar River again crests at 17.98 feet in Cedar Rapids. Mississippi River surges near top of 52-foot flood wall in St. Louis; a levee breaks, threatening homes.

July 19: More than a fourth of Iowa’s corn and soybean crops is lost or in danger. Coralville Lake rises again and Iowa City and Coralville brace for more.

July 20: Solon man drowns in Lake Macbride.

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July 21: Businesses on First Avenue in Coralville build a levee of rock and sand and pump water. Des Moines restores water for sanitary purposes only.

July 22: July flooding costs city of Cedar Rapids $2 million, city officials say. On top of the $1.4 million in damage from April flooding, the city total reaches $3.4 million. A few Coralville businesses reopen after all-night pumping.

July 23: Iowa City officials estimate flood damage at $4 million (in public property). Flash flooding kills four people in Missouri.

July 24: Clear Creek floods again, spilling over Highway 6 and into a business area of Coralville.

July 25: Flood losses reach $2.7 billion in Iowa and grow worse with each rain, state officials say.

July 26: Cedar River at Cedar Rapids falls below flood stage for the first time since July 10.

July 27: The U.S. House approves $3 billion in Midwestern flood relief; Clinton asks for $1 billion more. Mississippi River falls below flood stage at Dubuque. Flood front shifts to Kansas City.

July 28: After 14 days of heavy traffic on detours, I-380 and Highways 965 and 151 reopen. Coralville women are killed in car pileup on busy detour. Damage is estimated at up to $2.5 million in Linn County.

July 29: Nearly 300 television stations broadcast flood aid telethon, which raises $1.67 million.

July 30: Des Moines water declared safe to drink.

July 31: 2.5 inches of rain worsen flooding in Coralville. Mississippi levee breaks, flooding St. Louis suburb.

AUGUST

Aug. 2: Officials report July’s rainfall in Cedar Rapids — 17.03 inches — the rainiest month in 111 years of recorded weather history.

Aug. 4: Some 21,129 residences were damaged or destroyed in Iowa because of flooding, officials estimate.

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Aug. 6: Congress approves a flood-aid package of $5.7 billion that will provide $2 billion in direct relief to farmers. Coralville’s First Avenue opens for first time since early July. UI students hold their own commencement at Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids after flooding on campus forced school officials to cancel the event at Hancher Auditorium.

Aug. 8: Total flood damage in the Midwest could reach $15 billion; politicians ask for review of how agencies handle the disasters.

Aug. 9: Flash flooding in Cedar Rapids turns city streets into rivers.

Aug. 10: Downtown Cedar Rapids is without electricity because of a lightning strike. Coralville businesses flood again.

Aug. 11: Iowa crops judged worst since the 1988 drought.

Aug. 12: Car repair shops are swamped by flood-damaged cars. Clinton signs flood-relief bill.

Aug. 14: A vicious storm with heavy rains tears roofs off buildings, floods streets, cuts off power to hundreds and downs trees; 70 mph winds in Cedar Rapids prompt 95 calls to the Fire Department in three hours.

Aug. 16: Iowa City hit with flash floods. UI officials estimate summer flood damage at $4.5 million. More heavy rain causes flooding along Turkey and Upper Iowa rivers.

Aug. 17: Army Corps of Engineers warns Coralville businesses that the Iowa River and Coralville Lake are on the rise again and may cause flooding.

Aug. 18: 1993 becomes a record year for rain on Cedar Rapids — with 135 days left of year. The 50.96 inches wipes out 50.32 in 1965. Tama and Chelsea are flooded by Iowa River again.

Aug. 26: Iowa gets $28.4 million in federal housing aid.

Aug. 29: Des Moines hit with 10 inches of rain; residents fill sandbags.

SEPTEMBER

Sept. 1: Flood pushes up food stamp distribution in July by 17 percent.

Sept. 2: Clinton announces the federal government will pay 90 percent of flood damage to public facilities. Iowa officials, expecting a waiver of those costs, say 10 percent could devastate the state budget.

Sept. 14: Cedar Rapids City Council allocates all of the initial federal disaster funds for housing.

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Sept. 17: Dubuque Street in Iowa City finally reopens. Ukrainian volunteers help tear down flood-damaged homes in Chelsea.

Mary Sharp and Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette, and the Burlington Hawk Eye, contributed.

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