High waters: Floods of 2016 transformed Eastern Iowans' lives
Along the Turkey River and the Upper Iowa River and the Cedar River, 2016 was the year floodwaters inundated Eastern Iowa — the devastation of homes and businesses on one hand, and the outpouring of strangers helping strangers on the other.
Sometimes, the worst of times brings out the best in people. And our communities saw that.
In Elkader, merchants, city officials and volunteers combined in August to make flash food control look like a well-oiled machine. When the Turkey River crested lower than expected, they all were filled with relief.
In Decorah, shelters took in people who hurriedly escaped flash flooding that caused concrete walls to cave in and ceilings to collapse.
On the Upper Iowa, the community of Freeport was evacuated. In Chickasaw County, a motorist died when waters swept away his car.
'Epic Stand,' published by The Gazette, documents Eastern Iowans' efforts to combat the floods of 2016. Proceeds from book sales benefit the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. To order a copy, CLICK HERE.
In Cedar Rapids, where the Cedar River created at 21.9 feet on Sept. 27 — the highest since the historic 2008 flood — the city still is figuring the cost of a gargantuan effort to stave off what could have been a far worse calamity.
In the aftermath, 19 Iowa counties became eligible for federal assistance to help rebound from at least $22 million in damage caused by extensive flooding along the Cedar River from Sept. 21 to Oct. 3, President Barack Obama declared.
The Gazette’s online readers voted the Cedar Rapids flooding as the story of the year for 2016.
DECORAH — Further north earlier this year, communities in Winneshiek County in northern Iowa were hit with a devastating flash flooding from the Upper Iowa River following heavy rains Aug. 23 and into the morning of Aug. 24.
According to the Winneshiek County Sheriff’s Office, the communities of Decorah, Bluffton, Spillville and Fort Atkinson were “significantly impacted” and Freeport, the unincorporated town just east of Decorah, was evacuated overnight.
Erin Golly is a 42-year-old Freeport resident who was among those who’s home was damanged in overnight flooding. Golly’s home on Golf View Road — where she lives with her husband, Jason Golly, and two teenaged daughters — got four feet of water in the basement, resulting in nearly $60,000 in damages.
On Dec. 21, Golly said they were just completing work in the basement, which included new electric wiring, a new boiler and new water heater on top of cosmetic repairs.
In an interview with The Gazette Aug. 25, Golly had said about a third of the belongings stored in the basement, including photographs and her daughters’ baby blankets, had to be thrown away.
I try not to think about it too much,” Golly said. “Even the littlest things, I would just cringe thinking about that.”
The dynamic of the neighborhood along Golf View Road, which sits next to the Oneota Golf and Country Club in Freeport, has changed, Golly said. A couple houses still sit empty, waiting for a potential federal buyout.
“It just brings back all those memories,” Golly said. “Things have recovered fine, we’ve moved on from it, but I think it sits in back of your mind when something like this happens.”
Golly said she believes she’s more prepared for the next emergency, if it occurs. The family has installed a berm in their backyard in an attempt to prevent any future flooding in their basement.
“We are going to be doing landscaping adjustments in that area toward the river to help further protect the house for the future,” Golly said. “We also didn’t install carpet in the basement this time.”
-- Michaela Ramm, The Gazette
VINTON/CEDAR RAPIDS — As the Cedar River threatened to overrun the NewBo District in September with an estimated 24 feet of water, vendors in the NewBo City Market evacuated their shops of merchandise and equipment while hundreds of volunteers sandbagged the building.
Carmen Legaspi, who owns of La Reyna in NewBo with her husband Carlos Legaspi, were among those evacuating from the City Market. They cleared out all supplies and equipment from their food stand, save for the countertop and range hood over his oven, and volunteers helped the couple move everything from their NewBo to their restaurant in Vinton — also called La Reyna.
Residents and business owners in Vinton and Palo, communities north of Cedar Rapids, also prepared for flooding from the Cedar River, which was expected to crest at 23 feet by Sept. 25. Crews installed HESCO barriers around the Vinton municipal electric plant while residents and business owners braced their property for the worst.
In an interview with The Gazette on Sept. 23, Carlos Legaspi said his Vinton restaurant was also at risk.
However, Carmen Legaspi said the restaurant remained operational throughout the flooding.
“We have the restaurant in Vinton,” Carmen Legaspi said. “For us it’s good that we have other things to do besides NewBo, and I feel sorry who really depended on the NewBo business. Three weeks to a month is a lot of loss.”
The Vinton La Reyna restaurant was not damaged during the flood, but Carmen Legaspi said they took on a financial loss during NewBo City Market’s closure.
“We lost a lot of profit from that,” she said. “Three to four weeks is a lot of money.”
Carmen Legaspi said the couple took out a $7,000 loan in order to move back into their food stand and purchase supplies. Despite this, she says the couple is optimistic La Reyna will bounce back.
“The experience in this is that we have to be prepared for anything. That’s what I learned,” Carmen Legaspi said.
-- Michaela Ramm, The Gazette
ELKADER -- The elevated Turkey River kept Brian Bruening’s restaurantclosed for much of August and September.
Bruening has owned Schera’s Algerian American Restaurant, 107 S Main St. in Elkader, for ten years with co-owner Frederique Boudouani. The building abuts the Turkey River. When the river crested at 22 feet at the end of August — 10 feet above flood stage — three feet of water seeped in. His restaurant was closed for about ten days.
“That one was kind of rough,” he said. “The problem is that it (the river) never went down.”
In September when heavy rains blanketed much of Eastern Iowa and the Turkey River swelled again, Bruening’s restaurant was closed for another week because the building lost gas and phone and internet access. Without gas, no food could be cooked.
“It was a really rough fall for us,” he said. “Traditionally, the fall is a busy time for us, but we were down for the count. It was a constant worry about what’s going to happen.”
Bruening said the restaurant was closed for 20 to 25 days throughout the season. He estimates the loss of revenue to be about $20-24,000. Spoiled food and damaged equipment cost as much as $10,000, not counting the amount of time it took to scrub out the freezer and refrigerator.
“It’s amazing how long flood cleanup takes,” Bruening said. “A tornado comes through, and it’s done. A flood is this slow build up. You see this steam train coming at you, but you can’t get out of the way.”
Though Bruening said he lost thousands of dollars in the “catastrophic” 2008 flood, and his building may flood in coming years, he’s not abandoning his restaurant.
“I’m not one to give up on something. We have roots in the community,” he said. “At least this time we were able to take actions to prepare for it. You try to move out what you can move out, but you just have to let it happen. There’s nothing you can do.”
-- Makayla Tendall, The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — Weeks after the flood of 2016 ended, Mad Modern owner David Owens said he’s still struggling to get his business back up and running.
“Half of the place is still a construction zone,” he said.
While Owens was able to move most of his merchandise out of the store and build a sandbag wall, water still made its way in.
“What I discovered pretty quickly with 10 inches of water is it might as well have been three feet,” he said.
Owens said the water damage forced him to rip out dry wall, toilets, sinks and insulation and replace electrical and plumbing. An insurance adjuster came and assessed the damage, but the money Owens was expecting to receive to put toward repairs still hasn’t come.
“I just ran out of money to continue,” he said. “Until the insurance thing clears up, I just don’t have the finances to do it.”
About four weeks ago, Owens started opening his store on Saturdays to bring in some additional income so he can stay in business.
“I wasn’t expecting this to be one of the hurdles I faced,” he said. “It’s been about the worst one.”
Still, Owens said his customers have rallied behind him and there have been other “silver linings.” He expects to be fully operational in 2017.
“I’ll make it back,” he said.
-- Lee Hermiston, The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — Tornado’s Grub and Pub — one of the businesses left on “wet” side of the flood barrier — is doing better than ever these days, owner Tom Slaughter said.
Slaughter said customers started coming to his restaurant in the days after the floodwaters receded and never left.
“They keep coming back,” Slaughter said, who estimates he’s doing twice the amount of business now compared with before the flood. “They’re blown away that this little dive bar is this nice inside and has this good of service and this good of food.”
But, Slaughter said he had to go through a harrowing experience to get to this point. One of a handful of businesses — including Mad Modern, Kickstand and Bo Macs — left on the wet side of a HESCO barrier, Slaughter said he and his sons had to contend with multiple pumps and carbon monoxide exposure to save the business.
“The rest of the city didn’t have to deal with anything like that,” he said, adding they were open the Saturday after floodwaters receded.
Slaughter said he still has a beef with the city over the placement of the flood barrier, but he’s happy to see more customers walking in the door.
“This is a nice place,” he said. “It might not be as nice as the million dollar places down the road ... but, you walk in this place, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”
-- Lee Hermiston, The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — The CSPS Hall, home to the Legion Arts music, art and film venue, has been running at full speed since the days after the flood.
“The galleries were open as soon as the building was open,” said Mel Andringa, co-director of Legion Arts. “It took a while for sandbags to disappear.”
Andringa said the flood prompted Legion Arts to move everything out of the first flood of both the CSPS Hall and neighboring fire station, which serves as a residence for visiting artists. Ultimately, water only reached the basement of the two buildings due to back ups and seepage, Andringa said.
Legion Arts only had to cancel one concert and reschedule another, Andringa said. Most of the $50,000 in flood-related costs were covered by insurance and a grant from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, Andringa said.
-- Lee Hermiston, The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — Months later, city officials are still working through appraisals, insurance claims and Federal Emergency Management Agency processes to figure out exactly how much the 2016 flood — the second worst in recorded history in Cedar Rapids — cost.
The short answer is, the city doesn’t yet know how much the flood cost.
“The city is currently working with FEMA to create project work sheets that will identify cost related to the 2016 flood event,” city spokeswoman Maria Johnson said in a statement. “City infrastructure damaged by the 2016 flood still is being appraised and the city does not have an estimate of those costs at this time.”
The 2016 flood crested on Sept. 27 at 21.9 feet, but the city warded off extensive damage through a series of hastily erected temporary flood walls, levees, sandbags and pumps. The countermeasures, while saving the city, were also costly.
Past estimates for emergency measures of $10 million remain the best guess, Johnson said.
On Dec. 14, Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, updated the City Council finance committee on flood costs. The city is coding flood expenses to keep track of them, and then working with outside agencies to see what is covered by whom.
“We are four months through with these reports, and everything appears to be on pace,” Drew said. “We are in line with where we anticipated we would be at this time.”
Because the flood of 2016 was declared a federal disaster, the city is working with FEMA to get 75 percent reimbursement on some items, Drew said.
The city is also working with TrueNorth Co., which handles the city’s insurance policies, to determine what of the rest will be covered.
“That is the big variable that is out there: what is going to be covered under the insurance policy,” said Kris Gulick, a City Councilman and chairman of the finance committee. “We are going to have to spend, from a city standpoint, for what is left.”
The money will come from the city’s reserves, Gulick said. The reserves have $38.3 million in fiscal 2017, which is 32 percent of the $120 million annual operating budget.
The city is moving forward with repairing some flood damage.
The City Council approved a $177,000 project in December for repairs to wallboards, sump pits, paint and a fitness area in the basement of City Hall, which took on floodwater and remains closed. The basement includes several meeting rooms as well as the heating and mechanical systems.
The city projects approximately $8 million was spent for protection measures, and the city staff still is reviewing what permanent work repairs will cost, according to minutes from an October finance committee meeting.
Another area the city has shored up is flood insurance, which was required to protect the $150 million the city accepted in federal funds to restore buildings after the 2008 flood.
In November, the city adopted a new policy, which covers from Dec. 1 2016, to Dec. 1, 2017, It costs $1.29 million, which is a little cheaper from the $1.38 million policy for the previous year.
A key component was upping excess flood insurance for property from $50 million to $100 million, for a $40,000 increase in premium. The city also has insurance on individual buildings through the National Flood Insurance Program.
The new excess insurance is blanket coverage for all buildings, rather than per-building. The policy includes actual damage as well as cost to prevent “immediately impending, insured physical loss or damage” to insured property.
The policy also upped coverage for:
• Valuable papers from $5 million to $10 million
• Fine arts from $7.2 million to $10 million
• Newly acquired property from $5 million to $25 million
• Earthquake from $25 million to $100 million
• Mold from $1 million coverage to $5 million
There is a per building deductible, though, of $500,000 and $250,000 for contents.
Gulick said doubling the coverage amount for slightly more money made sense, but it’s a lot of money the city spends on insurance, he said.
“It’s substantial, but we don’t have any choice,” Gulick said. “But, now we have a significant amount more coverage.”
Matt Evans, a principal and practice leader with TrueNorth, which is the managing agency for Cedar Rapids insurance policies, said two flooding disaster in Fargo, N.D. in nine years open municipal leaders to the risks cities can face from natural disasters. Cities have become more self reliant including installing physical protections or managing risk through insurance.
“I am not aware of many cities, municipalities or large organizations that had a clear understanding of their flood exposure or the costs associated with buying flood insurance,” Evans said. “Now cities are wanting to be more self reliant and not rely on FEMA or the natural disaster fund.”
Because Cedar Rapids has been effective protecting itself from flooding, as evidenced by the 2016 flood, they were able to negotiate a lower premium while getting more coverage, he said.
-- B.A. Morelli, The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — Three months have passed since the Cedar River’s near 22-foot crest forced more than 100 Cedar Rapids businesses and nonprofits to temporarily close their doors or relocate.
Funds are still being raised and a final flood report won’t be completed until February, but city officials estimate the recent flood to have cost area businesses and nonprofits more than $25.7 million in economic losses.
“There’s clearly work to be done, this was a big hit and it’s come late in the year when organizations typically didn’t have a lot of budget flexibility,” said Les Garner, president of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
The number could grow, as it only represents the 139 businesses that participated in the city’s 2016 Flood Recovery Survey, said David Connolly, Cedar Rapids economic development specialist.
"The final results could exceed that number,” Connolly said.
To assist small businesses, the Jobs and Small Business Recovery Fund, was created — with $75,000 in seed money from the Cedar Rapids Assistance Revolving Loan Fund — by the city of Cedar Rapids in partnership with the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation (GCRCF), the Small Business Development Center and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
"We definitely have to make the case for the donations. I think it’s because the costs that were incurred were largely hidden from public view."
- Les Garner
President, Greater Cedar Rapids
Approved applicants can receive up to $5,000 or up to 50 percent of lost sales, product and additional flood costs. Grants are awarded to businesses that needed a physical location to generate revenue and had at least one day of zero revenue as a result of flood evacuation.
Doug Neumann, president of the Metro Economic Alliance, said the program has awarded 44 grants totaling about $155,000 so far. All told, 95 businesses have applied for an estimated $250,000 in grants.
Garner said the grant program has raised $205,000 so far in donations.
In addition, Garner said a Nonprofit Recovery Fund also has been established and $90,000 has been raised for 19 local organizations.
As with the business fund, applicants were capped at $5,000 in grant funds and the actual economic cost to those 19 nonprofits was much higher — to the tune of about $390,000.
“We definitely have to make the case for the donations. I think it’s because the costs that were incurred were largely hidden from public view,” Garner said. “In addition, so many strong supporters of downtown incurred costs themselves.”
-- Mitchell Schmidt, The Gazette