Palo, Vinton awaiting word on any federal flood protection funds

Flood of volunteers helps communities cope

Floodwaters are shown up against a row of HESCO barriers in Vinton on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Bob Ducharme shows how high the water reached during the flooding of September 2016 at his home in Vinton. After taking on 2 and a half feet of water from flooding in the summer of 2008, Ducharme raised his house five and a half feet. Photo taken on Thursday, September 28, 2017. (Cliff JetteThe Gazette)
A trruck drives in between two rows of HESCO barriers leading to the Electric Generation building in Vinton on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The view north down 2nd Avenue toward the Electric Generation building in Vinton on Thursday, September 28, 2017. (Cliff JetteThe Gazette)
The view looking west down W 3rd Street in downtown Vinton on Thursday, September 28, 2017. (Cliff JetteThe Gazette)

VINTON — After his home took on more than 2 feet of water in the 2008 flood, Bob DuCharme raised it 5 feet and built a retaining wall around it.

But eight years later, in 2016, he was fighting the Cedar River again.

“We had water completely around our house,” he recalled of flooding a year ago that threatened his house on Third Street. “Six pumps going on inside the house and one big gas pump going outside. We kept the basement dry. We kept the house dry.”

It took an exhausting effort to make it all work, DuCharme said. A pump would go out every three or four hours, requiring DuCharme to stay up for most of 36 hours straight to keep the water — which spilled in through the wall — at bay.

DuCharme knows he’s just as vulnerable to flooding as he was a year ago. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped him with a loan in 2008, he’s not expecting any financial help now. Nor does he think he deserves it.

“I’m stupid enough to stay there,” DuCharme said. “Instead of rebuilding, I should’ve just walked away. I really wish I could’ve just walked away.”

The rest of the flood-prone areas of Vinton — particularly the fire department and the electrical plant — are no more protected than they were when the river crested in 2016.

Mayor John Watson doesn’t know if help is on the way. Watson said FEMA visited and looked into relocating the fire department and electrical plant. But the city doesn’t have the budget for those projects and Watson isn’t sure — particularly after hurricanes recently ravaged Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico — if FEMA will come through, either.

“Where does that money come from?” Watson asked.

Fortunately for Vinton, 2016 showed that the city was capable of withstanding the flood. Sand barriers and an army of volunteers helped to keep the fire department and electrical plant dry.

Without any money for relocating those restructures or erecting permanent flood protection, that’s the plan for the future, Watson said.

“We’re in a small river town that takes care of itself pretty much and that’s what we intend to do in the future, too,” he said.

Watson said the city has looked into other flood protection measures, including a bladder could be filled with water and expanded to act as a flood barrier. Watson said the city might be able to buy a bladder to protect the fire department and electric plant for a few hundred thousand dollars.

Watson said after 24 years as mayor, he’s not running again this year.

Combating future floods will fall on new City Council members as well as two new Benton County Board of Supervisors members, he said.

“These people will have all these things to deal with in the next few years,” he said. “As we all know in Iowa, we’re probably going to flood again some day. That’s just the way of it.”

In Palo, the Cedar River crested last year at more than 18 feet on Sept. 26, filling some basements with water and forcing dozens to evacuate.

Sand-filled flood barriers were erected — stacked 8 feet high in some places — to protect the municipal plant and keep the lights on.

But the city of about 1,000 didn’t escape unscathed. Streets, wastewater lines and several pumps were damaged, recalled Palo City Council member Ryan Scheckel.

“On the city infrastructure side, we did still sustain a lot of damage,” Scheckel said.

Trisca Dix, the Palo city administrator and clerk, said preparations and repairs from the 2016 flood — as well as updated projects including an earthen berm near the municipal plant — are estimated to cost the city roughly $680,000 so far.

FEMA money could cover some but not all of it, Dix said.

As was the case in Vinton, volunteers were the community’s greatest resource, said Palo Mayor Thomas Yock.

“The town was pretty badly hit, but the citizens kind of all took hold and we had several parties going around and helping whoever needed to be helped. We just kind of put it all back together the way it was,” Yock said.

Following the river’s crest, Linn County officials inspected 41 Palo homes for flood damage, said Les Beck, director of Linn County Planning and Development.

Beck said one home was found to have foundation damage as a result of the flood, while 35 had between a few inches up to about a foot of water in the basement. Five of the homes inspected were unaffected by flooding.

“It was significantly less damage and fewer homes affected than the ‘08 flood, that’s for sure,” Beck said.

“As far as homeowners, I think everybody pretty much came through that unscathed,” Yock said.

As with preparations, the cleanup following last year’s flood was a communitywide effort and Palo was back to normal operations within a week after the river’s crest, Yock added.

“Our citizens do that. If they’re not affected, they help somebody else who is. That’s what small towns do,” he said.

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