Government

Federal delegation recognized in Cedar Rapids for securing flood-recovery funding

Sen. Chuck Grassley (left) talks with former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett while city council member Scott Overland talks with Sen. Joni Ernst at a luncheon to recognize the Iowa congressional delegation for their role in securing federal flood protection funding on Wednesday, August 8, 2018, at the DoubleTree Hotel convention center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (left) talks with former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett while city council member Scott Overland talks with Sen. Joni Ernst at a luncheon to recognize the Iowa congressional delegation for their role in securing federal flood protection funding on Wednesday, August 8, 2018, at the DoubleTree Hotel convention center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Part of Iowa’s congressional delegation were in town on Wednesday citing cooperation and persistence in Washington, D.C., as they celebrated with local officials for obtaining $117 million in long-sought federal aid to help build a flood control system.

First District U.S. Rep. Rod Blum and U.S. Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley attended a luncheon at the Cedar Rapids Convention Center hosted by the city of Cedar Rapids to thank them for their efforts in securing the money 10 years after a record flood destroyed the heart of the city and caused an estimated $5 billion in damages and loss.

“When I went into the Senate, this was one of the top projects I had that needed to get done,” Ernst told reporters before the luncheon.

“I had served as a soldier during the flood 10 years ago here in Cedar Rapids and saw the devastation first hand, so this was a priority ... . We stayed after it. The city stayed after. God bless them for doing that.”

Ernst and others had lobbied the Army Corps of Engineers to consider projects in rural areas, which have been overshadowed in the benefit-to-cost formula by projects in coastal cities areas with higher property values, she said.

Blum had developed a relationship with Mick Mulvaney, director of the federal Office of Budget and Management, which constructs the federal budget, and continually pushed the project on that end.

The three representatives said their frequent reminders had made Cedar Rapids a household word in Washington.

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“The president, trust me, I know between the two senators and myself, almost every single time I saw the president, I’d say, ‘Cedar Rapids loves you, Mr. President,’” Blum said during his public comments. “He loved to hear that, and he loved to recall the rally he had on the river with the fireworks.

“But the second thing I’d whisper in his ear is, ‘Cedar Rapids needs a flood wall.’”

‘Government does work’

While some had lost hope of federal help, Ernst said what changed was the adoption of a disaster supplemental appropriation bill, which earmarked $4.575 billion for states such as Iowa that had not had natural disasters in 2017.

That allowed help for more rural areas, such as Cedar Rapids, the senator said.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the collaboration shows “government does work” and “can work effectively.”

“We can now officially say we are excited about a bright future ahead of us,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said.

Cedar Rapids spent $2,779 on the event. That includes costs from the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, which manages the space, and commemorative coins given to each of the approximately 60 attendees.

Outside, about 25 people and a giant inflatable chicken intended to resemble President Donald Trump assembled for a protest on the sidewalk across from the convention center.

Cindy Garlock, part of the leadership group of the Cedar Rapids-Marion chapter of Indivisible, which organized the protest, said they were critical because the event was private and Blum in particular had a spotty record of holding public events.

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“It’s great we got flood-protection money, but it took a real long time,” she said. “I wish they could have used their influence sooner in the process,” she said.

“And Time Check was one of the hardest hit areas in the flood, and I live there. None of the people who live there have been allowed in this meeting.”

The Plan

The flood control plan calls for seven miles of levees, walls, gates and pump stations to protect both sides of the Cedar River to the same volume experienced in June 2008, when the river rose to a record 31.12 feet.

The latest cost estimate is $550 million or $750 million with inflation over 20 years of construction.

An open house is scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Aug. 22, at the Cedar Rapids Water Department Administration Building, 1111 Shaver Rd. NE, to discuss the project design — particularly whether a flood wall should wrap around Cedar Lake or cut off before the lake.

The Cedar Lake option would protect more properties but cost more.

The city has committed $110 million, and the state is chipping in $267 million through sales tax recoupment initiative.

The federal share and additional smaller grants bring the total committed to about $510 million, but city officials still estimate a gap of $342 million over 20 years.

A plan to cover much of that gap is expected to be presented to City Council as soon as next month, said Tyler Olson, a City Council member tasked with helping develop the plan.

East Side — West Side

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At the luncheon, Pomeranz credited his staff for their efforts to support in the bid for federal aid, including Rob Davis, the city’s flood control manager.

Davis has been working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, which will oversee federal participation in the project.

Davis said he learned last week the Corps is authorized to begin drawing on the $117 million, which is restricted to use on the east side of the Cedar River.

Davis noted completing the west side remains a priority, and segments will continue, including a levee in Czech Village, at the same time as east side work, although the east side section likely will be completed more quickly.

“They want the east side done in less than 10 years, that’s their goal,” Davis said. “But I don’t want to give the impression that all the emphasis is on the east side. The city still is following through on the west side.”

The faster pace of work on the east side could worsen the impact of flood events on the west side.

Because of that, the city may reprioritize the order of westside construction — such as moving up the segment near McGrath Amphitheatre — to mitigate flood impact.

The city and the Corps plan to divvy up design responsibilities with the Corps taking lead on north and south segments of the flood control system while the city would lead the downtown area, he said. The Corps would manage the majority of construction, although the city still would have a handful of contracts, he said.

The hope is the first construction projects using the money would begin in the second half of 2019.

The likely first two candidates would be a levee from the CRANDIC rail line near Ninth Avenue SE to 12th Avenue SE and a gate on 16th Avenue SE, Davis said.

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

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