Public Safety

'A wait-and-see game' with the river as Iowans brace for flooding

In Elkader, Maquoketa, it's familiar territory

Ice chunks flow down the Turkey River in Elkader on Thursday, Mar. 14, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Ice chunks flow down the Turkey River in Elkader on Thursday, Mar. 14, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

ELKADER — “Sometimes you live with the river, and sometimes the river lives with us,” David Bahls said as he boarded up his business Thursday.

Bahls’ business, Bahls Insurance Agency on Main Street, sits in a downtown building on the bank of the Turkey River, which is expected to crest well above the town’s 12-foot flood stage on Friday morning.

Thursday afternoon, when the river was just below 18 feet, Bahls and his son, Jason, were boarding up their basement to protect from oncoming floodwaters.

“When the gets to be about 18 feet, we’ll start to get some water sloshing in,” Bahls said. 

The National Weather Service issued flood warnings this week for much of Eastern Iowa, including Elkader, that are expected to remain in effect well into the weekend.

“Melting snow combined with periods of rain will raise the risk for flooding into late week,” the warning said. “Those residing near waterways are encouraged to closely monitor conditions and be prepared to act if flooding develops.”

In response, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation Thursday afternoon for 21 Iowa counties and activated Iowa’s State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the response to Iowa’s flooding.

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Counties included in her proclamation are Butler, Cerro Gordo, Clayton, Hancock, Harrison, Humboldt, Ida, Iowa, Kossuth, Mills, Monona, Montgomery, O’Brien, Pottawattamie, Sioux, Webster, Winnebago, Winneshiek, Woodbury, Worth and Wright.

Elkader is the county seat of Clayton County.

The proclamation clears the path for state resources to be used in response to severe weather and activates the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program for qualifying residents.

A flood warning is in effect for Cedar Rapids, but only moderate flooding is forecast. The river was just above 11 feet Thursday night and is predicted to crest at 15.8 feet by Monday, just below the major flood stage of 16 feet. Only low-lying areas and roads are affected, and the city is taking steps to mitigate flooding and closing roads as needed.

“Residents may see precautionary measures taking place in the Czech Village/Kingston Village Districts, as well as in the northwest Time Check neighborhood,” the city announced in a Thursday news release. “These measures include plugging underground storm sewer drains, and positioning concrete cones to cover low-lying stormwater inlets as needed. Impacts to homes/businesses are not anticipated.”

City boat ramps also will be closed starting at 7 a.m. Saturday as a safety measure an will reopen when the river falls below 13 feet, the city said.

Some low-lying areas in Johnson County also are seeing flooding, but there’s no threat to residents.

In Maquoketa, the Maquoketa River was just above 31 feet by Thursday afternoon and was expected to crest Friday morning at 32 feet.

“We can take flooding up to 36 feet before we have to worry about it affecting the city,” said Frank Ellenz, director of the city’s public works department.

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Between the city and the river is an earthen barrier Ellenz described as a levy, which keeps the water from flowing over the riverbank and into the town.

“In the past we’ve had the river flood up to just over 35 feet and we were fine,” he said. “So at the flooding level we’re at now, we should be OK.”

In addition to the levy, the public works team closed the city’s two underground floodgates that keep floodwater from back-flowing into the city’s pipes and sewer lines, and deployed a few portable, aboveground pumps to clear pooling water.

“I think the fact that we didn’t get much rain saved us this time,” Ellenz said. “We got a little bit of rain (Thursday) morning and then it just stopped, and the rest of the weekend’s forecast looks like it should work in our favor.”

In Elkader, the river is expected to crest Friday afternoon at 21.6 feet, just above the city’s 20-foot major flood stage.

“This is something we’ve been dealing with just about every year,” said Elkader Mayor Josh Pope. “And at this point, we’re expecting the flooding to affect low-impact places, mostly fields and parks.”

The city’s mayor since 2016, Pope said much of the town is built on high ground out of harm’s way.

“We’ll see some flooding likely on the town’s lower end, where there’s a football field and the city park is down there,” he said. “And some of the businesses that sit with their backs along the river might see some water flooding in their basement levels. But much of the city is built higher up, out of reach.”

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In preparation, Pope said he’s met with Clayton County Emergency Management, the sheriff’s office and Iowa State Patrol to coordinate responses and make sure everything is place. Additionally, he said, city workers are readying sandbags and other equipment so they are ready for rapid deployment if the time comes.

“Between the public works and the volunteer fire department, we work closely with them to address different aspects of preparation — getting the sand in place, getting the pieces of equipment that we might need in place, making sure we have enough sandbags, and making sure we have the things that we might need in place,” Pope said. “And a lot of our city workers have been through this before, many times, so I am confident that if conditions stay as expected, we will be able to weather this situation without any major problems.”

“Right now it’s kind of a wait-and-see game,” he said. “We’re watching the river levels here and upstream and the weather conditions very closely, and when we need to, we’ll be ready to respond.”

For Bahls, Friday’s crest is the third potentially big flood his business has endured since 2008.

Before 2008’s “Flood of Record,” Bahls said the building’s basement was complete with rooms, pool tables and even a hot tub.

“When the water came in, it filled the basement practically up to the ceiling,” roughly 16 feet, he said. “It lifted the hot tub off the ground and pushed it right up to the rafters.”

Bahls has since gutted the basement, leaving bare its concrete floors and walls and its metal support beams, and over the years, he said he has developed some protections that seem to hold up against the flooding he typically sees year to year.

On Thursday afternoon, Bahls and his son were installing ¾-inch wooden planks in front of the building’s basement-level folding garage door.

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Stacked on top of each other, the planks reached about 4.5 feet in height and they were anchored to the building’s outside walls on either side of the door with heavy bolts. The men then used spray-foam insulation to seal the cracks between the planks. Once closed, he said, the garage door is lined with sandbags to stop any seepage that sneaks past the boards.

It’s a method he said he employed in 2016 when the river crested at 22.57 feet, slightly above the anticipated Friday crest.

“It held up pretty good then,” he said. “That year the water came up about 4 feet on the building and we didn’t get much water leaking into the basement.”

l Comments: 319-398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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