Government

Cedar Rapids mobilizes against rising river - again

Cedar River predicted to exceed major flood stage Thursday

John Hansen (left) of Cedar Rapids holds a paddleboat steady while helping a friend load items from a refrigerator as Dee McLaud of Cedar Rapids approaches on a paddleboard in Ellis Harbor in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. The Cedar River in Cedar Rapids is projected to reach major flood stage on Thursday after heavy weekend rains. The harbor was closed Tuesday evening and power scheduled to be disconnected on Wednesday. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
John Hansen (left) of Cedar Rapids holds a paddleboat steady while helping a friend load items from a refrigerator as Dee McLaud of Cedar Rapids approaches on a paddleboard in Ellis Harbor in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. The Cedar River in Cedar Rapids is projected to reach major flood stage on Thursday after heavy weekend rains. The harbor was closed Tuesday evening and power scheduled to be disconnected on Wednesday. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The river has Cedar Rapids on defense — again.

The Cedar River entered moderate flood stage — rising past 14 feet Tuesday evening — and was expected to reach major flood stage — 16 feet — in downtown early Thursday.

The river is predicted to crest Thursday afternoon at 16.5 feet, at which point low-lying roads and parks flood, and the underground storm sewer system is at risk of backing up.

Residents and officials are no stranger to the threat here, having survived severe flooding in 2008 and a 2016 scare that put the city back on its heels for a week.

“I believe that we are seasoned flood fighters,” said Public Works Director Jen Winter. “We have done this before; we will do it again.”

Elevated water levels were causing flooding elsewhere, too, including on the Wapsipinicon River, Iowa River and upstream on the Cedar.

Users of Ellis Harbor were scrambling to remove valuables and pull boats out of the water.

“It happened really, really fast,” said Sarah Moses, 38, who was waiting with her daughter, Lola Sherman, on shore to remove their pontoon boat. “I don’t think anyone would have known it would be this fast.”

On Monday afternoon, a picnic with about 100 people was at a nearby shelter, she said. By Tuesday morning, the shelter was underwater.

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Chase Stinger, 27, of Cedar Rapids, pulled his boat off the water Monday morning and stuck around to help others.

“It’s all friendly — a family down here — helping each other get out,” he said. “It’s Iowa. It’s what you expect. You just have to understand what you sign up for when you get a boat.”

The city has closed several low-lying roads and parks. By Tuesday night, Winter said crews were expected to have implemented flood control measures up to the 18-foot protocol, which includes plugging and adding concrete cylinders over manhole covers and stormwater inlets, closing storm sewer gates to prevent flooding from underground, and filling in low-lying areas including around the McGrath Amphitheatre.

River level forecasts are based on gauge monitors from the National Weather Service. The forecast takes into account past precipitation and precipitation amounts expected approximately 24 hours into the future.

With more storms looming and remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon predicted to be headed for the Midwest, the rivers could rise more than predicted at this point.

“We are in a very wet pattern right now,” said Jessica Brooks, service hydrologist for the weather service in Davenport. “While we are dry today (Tuesday), we are looking at daily chances of rain through much of the next week and with the pattern pulling in lots of moisture from the Gulf.”

In addition to a flood warning “until further notice,” Cedar Rapids also is under a flash flood watch until Wednesday evening.

Storms could “contain torrential rainfall and could produce rainfall rates in excess of 1 to 2 inches per hour,” according to the advisory.

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“It is possible river projections could go up,” Winter said. “If the projection does go up, we will be ready to respond to that and increase the level of protection.”

Winter said at the 20-foot protection level, two sandbagging stations would open and the city would begin deploying sand barriers to fortify parts of the city. Officials plan to re-evaluate Wednesday morning to determine if they need to increase the protection.

Cedar Rapids has been through this enough that protocols exist for what steps to take next if the river level creeps up.

“I do feel good knowing we have a lot of practice and our city staff, I have confidence they know what to do,” Mayor Brad Hart said. “We have done this way too many times.”

Hart said this threat is the latest reminder the city needs to complete a permanent flood protection system “so we can stop worrying every time it rains hard.” He urged people to “keep fingers crossed and say a little prayer.”

Linn County Risk Manager Steve Estenson said the county is expecting to close Ellis Road and Lewis Access Road at some point in preparation of flooding on the Cedar River.

County officials also are preparing for flooding on the Wapsipinicon River near Pinicon Ridge Park, Wakpicada Park and the Matsell Bridge Natural Area. Some roads also will be closed, including Paris and Valley Farm roads.

While the city has begun making progress in the past couple of years on permanent flood protection, including building the Sinclair levee that protects the New Bohemia District up to 20 feet, the full system is at least another 10 years from completion.

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The predicted level this week would be the highest since 2016, but well short of the devastating 2008 flood, when the river crested at 31.12 feet and caused an estimated $5.3 billion in damage and losses.

In 2016, the city spent $10 million to protect people and property and escaped mostly unscathed. It was the second highest crest in the city’s recorded history — 21.95 feet — on Sept. 27, 2016.

The cost this year will depend on how high the river goes, Finance Director Casey Drew said.

Flood gauges do not predict flooding for Iowa City, although the Army Corps of Engineers announced several closures at Coralville Lake due to rising water levels, including the boat ramp and swim beach at Sandy Beach Day Use Area, low-lying campsites, and beaches and the boat ramp at the Sugar Bottom Recreation Area.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette contributed to this report.

 

Cedar Rapids closures as of Tuesday evening include:

 

ROADS

  • Otis Road west of Indian Creek
  • Ellis Road west of Edgewood Road
  • A St and 21 Ave SW

PARKS:

— Robbins Lake Park

— Ellis Harbor boat launch

— Jones Golf Course back nine holes

— Manhattan Park Pavilion

— Recreational trail (Prairie Creek to 16th Avenue SW)

— Softball Hall of Fame at Ellis Park

— Cheyenne Off-Leash Dog Area

— Seminole Valley Park

— Ellis Park is limited to access by Zika Avenue

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