Government

Federal help for Cedar Rapids flood wall starts with 4-foot-thick gate

Federal officials arrive to help city mark launch after years of lobbying

CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa’s congressional delegation and the top brass of the Army Corps of Engineers joined local leaders Tuesday for the ceremonial start of the federally-led portion of a flood control system designed to protect the east side of downtown when the Cedar River rises, which has been increasingly frequent.

First up is a 4-foot thick, 14-foot tall, 67-foot long floodgate that will hide behind a flood wall in good times, but when water rise be able in about 30 minutes to roll into place across the eastern approach to the 16th Avenue Bridge — helping protect the New Bohemia business district from the type of devastation it and the rest of the city core sustained in 2008. The city suffered what the Army Corps estimated to be $5 billion is property and economic damages in that flood.

A contract to complete the $2.4 million segment was signed last week with General Constructors of Bettendorf, according to Jason Smith, a program manager with the Army Corps, Rock Island office, which is managing the project.

The contractor must complete “safety submittals” over the next several months before construction begins, possibly later this year or next spring, Smith said.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz referred to Tuesday as “another first” in the decadelong effort for permanent flood protection. The city has spent millions on temporary protections as the river has threatened multiple times a year — virtually every year since then.

About 20 demonstrators also were on hand to call attention to the role climate change has played in the increase of extreme weather events.

The city has been slowly assembling a flood control system through local and state support, and smaller federal grants. The Sinclair Levee and McGrath Amphitheatre have been completed while the Quaker Oats and Czech Village flood barriers are under construction. But gaps are numerous.

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Tuesday signified the pace of construction will quicken. The federal dollars will allow the system to go up a “lot faster,” and frees the city to pursue funding for protections on the west side of the river, Hart said.

A contract for a levee system between 10th and 12th Avenues SE near the African American Museum of Iowa is expected to be awarded over the winter, with construction to begin in the spring, Smith said.

Soon after, multiple projects will be going on simultaneously as the Army Corps looks to complete the east side system — protecting businesses, residents and public buildings from near Cedar Lake just north of the city center to the New Bohemia District at the south — by January 2023.

“My whole goal in the Corps of Engineers is to revolutionize the Corps to be able to make us more streamlined, to be able to get projects done, high quality projects, ahead of schedule and under costs,” Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, said Tuesday during the ceremony. “So we are in.”

Semonite praised Cedar Rapids leaders as a “model team” for their ability to forge partnerships, helping the Corps by “setting the conditions for success,” and for being “forward thinking” in finding ways to get the project done.

“You might say nothing like that could happen again,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-New Hartford, said about the flood. “It can happen again. And with this project here, it’s going to protect it from at least happening in the damage that it had in the past, unless there’s something really extraordinary happening again. So we’re here to celebrate, because the community is pulling together.”

The east side system is being supported by $117 million of federal aid, of which $41 million must be repaid by Cedar Rapids. Local officials and federal representatives consider the award first announced in July 2018 a victory, coming more than a decade after the 2008 flood and years of lobbying.

“This is an exact demonstration of what happens when the federal government and its partners can work together for the betterment of a community,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, said in thanking the Corps. “You did not give up, you gave us every opportunity to visit with you with your staff.”

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Ernst credited Cedar Rapids leaders “for your dogged determination in raising this issue and making sure that your voices were heard at the federal level.”

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, who was also on hand, told The Gazette money could be available for the upcoming Eighth Avenue Bridge project through legislation to fund bridges, highways and other infrastructure, including 20 percent earmarked for non-federal works.

City officials have estimated the full east side system would cost $245 million, and the full flood control system also including westside protection and a new Eighth Avenue Bridge would cost $750 million by the time it’s done in 2034.

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

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