CEDAR RAPIDS — At first blush, a visitor Saturday might not notice this community ravaged and threatened by floodwaters in recent years was preparing to come within inches of another “major” flood event.
Baristas in brew pups inundated by previous floods calmly steamed lattes. Pedestrians strolled through a hopping NewBo District. Just two counties south, abnormally dry conditions persisted where climatologists last week pronounced drought.
By looking and listening closer, though, a visitors would see the signs — including those closing roads. They’d hear the evidence — like a business owner, while clearing a table, chatting about the forecast with diners.
“Whenever you see that much rain, you get nervous,” said Matt Danielson, co-owner of Brewhemia in NewBo, which took on water during the 2016 flood. “Whenever it gets predicted to be around 17 feet, you got to think about the possibility of getting some water.”
Forecasts earlier this week called for a 17-foot Cedar River crest Sunday in Cedar Rapids, surpassing the 16-foot major flood stage mark and bringing water farther out of its banks. The city, seasoned but still scarred from historic flooding in 2008, responded by mobilizing protections for up to 18 feet of water — including closing roads, trails and parks; rescheduling events; and temporarily relocating solid waste operations.
But river projections ticked down to 16.7 feet Friday, and dropped more Saturday.
The National Weather Service projected a crest at 1 a.m. Monday at 16 feet, the threshold for the major flood stage and about 2 feet higher than the river level Saturday afternoon.
Danielson said his team was watching warily, prepared to get everything off the ground.
“Especially in these old foundations,” he said. “You got pumps ready to go if you need to pump out any water. But, fortunately, there’s no water.”
Danielson and his NewBo peers Saturday reporting feeling relatively experienced in flood drills — which sometimes evolve past the threat stage and sometimes don’t.
“You know what do to,” he said.
A sunny outlook for at least the next week has National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Pierce optimistic the flood threat will pass without major materialization, allowing many business owners to avoid taking significant action or sustaining damage.
“The crest forecast has dropped two- to three-tenths of a foot, mainly due to attenuation of the flood wave,” Pierce said. “Gravity is pulling the water down.”
By the time the crest arrives, Pierce projected it would be further revised to below 16 feet.
“As more time goes by, we get a better accounting of the water,” he said. “And we have more or less of all the water accounted for.”
Pierce noted that although the Cedar Rapids area took on more rain than average in August, the total wasn’t too far above normal — 1.3 inches. June was worse, running 4.5 inches above normal and July was 2 inches drier than average.
And although many residents might view a week of rain as inconvenient, or even alarming in light of flood threats, Pierce reported the moisture as helpful in combating drought conditions in southern Iowa — where Appanoose, Davis and Wapello counties remain in “extreme” drought.
Just last week, parts of Linn County and all of Johnson County were labeled “abnormally dry,” meaning the rain has actually helped in some ways.
“The drought area has shrunk,” he said. “And I would suspect some further reduction. But once a drought is in place, it takes a lot of rain over an extended time period to totally erase it.”
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With river levels still on the rise Saturday, several Cedar Rapids roads, parks and trails were closed. City officials didn’t announce new closures — or planned ones — and all the downtown bridges remained in use, even as the crest is now projected just hours before the Monday morning commute.
They did, however, promise public works personnel around the clock this weekend “to continue to monitor pumps, plugs, and other protection measures.”