DAVENPORT — The same kind of temporary sand barriers that helped save Cedar Rapids from calamity when the Cedar River crested in major flood stage in 2016 proved no match this week for the Mighty Mississippi, where their failure sent waters inundating a section of downtown Davenport and brought more calls for federal aid.
While acknowledging the situation was bad as officials closely monitored the integrity of the sewage treatment plant, Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch pointed out Wednesday the flooding was affecting only downtown’s southeast corner.
“The city of Davenport is not under water,” he told reporters.
Nonetheless, with some western Iowa communities still under water from Missouri River flooding in March and the majority of Iowa counties under a federal disaster declaration from the “bomb cyclone” that brought that disaster, more flooding on the eastern border brought more concern for Iowa.
“As we remember about five weeks ago, we had to talk about the catastrophe on the Missouri River with the drastic flooding in southwest Iowa,” Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement. “Today, and starting yesterday, the catastrophe hit Davenport in Scott County and surrounding areas as temporary barriers have broken. Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of need for money from the federal government under the FEMA programs to help this situation.”
The attention also brought second-guessing, and Klipsch and other officials found themselves defending the city.
The rising Mississippi River had been pounding the temporary barriers for weeks, and the surface that supported them may have become saturated and weakened,
“Unfortunately, they’ve had them up and the water has been up against it for over a month and it tends to make them more vulnerable when that happens,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds, who planned to head Friday to Davenport.
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Residents and business people in downtown Davenport got at least an hour warning that the temporary sand barriers were in danger of failing, officials said at a news conference Wednesday.
The sand barriers hadn’t been used there in a flood higher than 21.5 feet and there was a risk they wouldn’t hold as the river exceeded 22 feet, Public Works Director Nicole Gleason had cautioned a day earlier.
Public safety officers went door-to-door telling people they may need to move their cars or evacuate, Klipsch said, but because the barriers could possibly breach at any place, the city didn’t force evacuations.
“We were not sure yet, but we wanted to have precautions in place and be extra vigilant so they were told that,” Klipsch said. “In many cases, they left right away and some said, ‘Well, we’ll wait and see how this happens.’”
By Wednesday, crews had transported 30 people out of downtown floodwaters by boat.
For a time Wednesday, the city’s water pollution control plant — the sewage treatment plant — was of critical concern. But by afternoon the crisis eased, Gleason said.
The concern was that the amount of water entering the plant was reaching a point where it could overwhelm the plant’s ability to treat it according to regulations. In that case, the city would have had to close a gate that lets sewer water in, and that could have caused backups.
Businesses in that section of town saw water rush in quickly, a cap to a brutal winter and long-lasting road detours that already had conspired to make the business climate tough in the area.
“It’s a significant impact on everyone down here. I don’t know how else to put it. It certainly will hurt the economy,” said Kyle Carter, head of the Downtown Davenport Partnership.
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Faced with a rising Cedar River in 2016 — and with memories of the historic 2008 flooding still fresh — Cedar Rapids initiated an enormous effort over seven days in September that year to prepare for a major flood. The plan relied heavily on hundreds of the temporary barriers and an array of pumps.
When the Cedar River crested at 21.9 feet on Sept. 27, 2016, the harried effort paid off.
Davenport residents recall the historic flood there of 1993, where the Mississippi was above its flood stage of 15 feet for 85 days — and for 30 consecutive days of it, above the major flood stage.
As of Wednesday, the river had been above major flood stage for 39 consecutive days.
Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.