Public Safety

Rising river helps Palo test its new forecasting system

A USGS River Flow Monitoring Station on the Blairs Ferry Road bridge over the Cedar River in Palo on Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A USGS River Flow Monitoring Station on the Blairs Ferry Road bridge over the Cedar River in Palo on Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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PALO — Residents in Palo didn’t have to guess how high the Cedar River would rise during recent flooding. For the first time this flood season, they could see the forecast for their own town.

The city’s new river forecasting site went into effect Jan. 15, one of two forecasting sites that were added along the Cedar River this year. The second is on the Cedar River in Cedar Bluff, about 30 miles southeast of Cedar Rapids.

Located at the Blairs Ferry Road Bridge, which crosses over the Cedar River on the way into Palo, the forecasting site saw its first test with recent flooding events that sent rivers rising throughout much of Eastern Iowa.

Palo and Cedar Bluff already had gauges in place measuring the water level and flow, but having the forecasting sites meant the National Weather Service could provide forecasts specific to those areas, as well as watches and warnings if necessary.

Over the past week, Palo City Administrator Trisca Dix said she’s spoken with several residents and business owners who said they’ve used the forecasting site to keep track of the flooding activity in Palo and determine how that might affect them, their homes or their businesses.

“People get nervous when the river starts to rise,” she said. “So having that information available to them ... can give them a clearer picture of what to expect, and that’s valuable because they can then make informed decisions.”

In Palo, the Cedar River crested midday on Monday at 15.3 feet, which is considered a moderate flood stage for the city. The water level has since begun to drop, measuring in at about 15 feet on Tuesday afternoon.

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During previous flood events, Dix said the city had to rely on river forecasts from a gauge site in Vinton, more than 20 miles upstream. Now, with its own forecasting site, Dix said the city has direct access to the information needed when flood events arise.

“Previously, before the forecasting site, we would have to call the National Weather Service to get the current information,” she said. “And either we or Linn County Emergency Management Agency would have to check in regularly for updates. Now that information is readily available to us.”

Additionally, Dix said officials would “have to look at forecasting for Cedar Rapids and Vinton and use that information to kind of estimate what we might see here.”

That’s one of the reasons Palo needed its own site, Linn County Emergency Management coordinator Steve O’Konek told The Gazette earlier this year.

“The last chance we have to see what is going to happen is in Vinton,” he said in January. “It really didn’t tell us much.”

Now Palo residents have the information to react and respond without looking upstream.

“I’d say the forecasting site has been incredibly beneficial,” Dix said. “Now, with the forecasting system, we have direct access to the information we need about water levels and flood projections so that we can respond accordingly.”

Plus, the information is accessible to everyone.

“Anyone can get onto the site and see what’s going on,” she said. “And that’s helpful to residents and business owners because they can make better informed decisions about how to protect their homes or businesses.”

In addition to forecasts, Dix said the site also provides statistical information, historical data and flood impact statements, all of which can be helpful as the city continues to plan future mitigation projects.

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The weather service decided to add forecasting sites in Palo and Cedar Bluff based on requests from emergency managers and city officials, weather service hydrologist Jessica Brooks said. The gauges in Palo and Cedar Bluff had been collecting data for at least four years, which is necessary for being a forecast site.

“We have to have several years’ worth of data collected before they can set up a forecasting site, because we need to have a good sense of the river’s activity in that area and enough background data to paint a full picture,” she said. “After that, it’s only a matter of someone saying, ‘Hey I think we need this here because it could help up better prepare for a flooding event.’”

And though the new sites don’t change anything as far as data collection on the weather service’s end, Brooks said they do make a difference for the nearby communities.

“Once we have a forecasting site up and running, it allows (the weather service) to provide that area with more information,” she said. “And more information can help area officials to better formulate their response.”

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

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