River crests in Cedar Rapids; flood response holding

Crest at 18.23 feet ties for 10th highest crest in Cedar Rapids

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March 28, 2014 | 4:03 pm

UPDATE (7:30 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. 6/2): Updated to reflect crest of Cedar River which happened around 3 a.m. Sunday morning at 18.23 feet and to include new updated information from city officials.

CEDAR RAPIDS — It should be downhill from here.

The Cedar River crested before sunrise today at a forecast river height of 18.23 feet and started to drop, accompanied by what appears to be the end of an "excessively wet weather pattern," the National Weather Service said on Saturday.

The height of the crest -- while the 10th highest river elevation on the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids of all time -- was scaled back on Saturday from 19.8 feet after the U.S. Geological Survey discovered Friday that its river gauge in the Cedar River at Waterloo had been measuring a river level 0.9 feet higher than the actual river height.

The National Weather Service then reanalyzed its river data and lowered its river level forecast downstream for Cedar Rapids, Andy Ervin, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities, explained on Saturday afternoon.

Friday evening, the Cedar River had been forecast to crest in Cedar Rapids on Sunday afternoon at 19.8 feet, the fourth highest level in the city’s history and second highest level since 1929. The city’s flood disaster of 2008 saw the river climb to 31.12 feet.

By Saturday morning, the National Weather Service had lowered the Cedar Rapids crest forecast to 18.5 feet with the projection that it will arrive early Sunday.

Ervin said Eastern Iowa is experiencing significant flooding because of a wet weather pattern, which has included a wet March and April and "tremendously" wet weather during the middle and late May in the Cedar River watershed above Cedar Rapids.

"At this point, the excessively wet pattern appears to have ended," Ervin said.

"We're going to watch what we've got out there and make sure we're OK," said Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager said Sunday morning. “We’re very thankful that the rain did let up or else the peak would have been significantly worse.

As the river climbed on Saturday to its crest, Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager, was focused on two spots — Edgewood Road NW at Ellis Boulevard NW and a storm sewer drain at Third Street and 12th Avenue SE in New Bohemia

Early Sunday afternoon, the city opened the northbound lanes to the Edgewood Road bridge, which the city closed on Saturday afternoon after floodwater ran over Edgewood Road NW at the south end of the bridge. Southbound lanes of the bridge also will open on Sunday, the city reported.

“We fully understand the significance of having the bridge open,” Hanson said.

In New Bohemia, city crews were watching to see if a plug in a storm sewer held or not. At worst, four to five inches of water might end up on some streets, Hanson said. He said some water also had come through B Street SW below the Czech Village commercial district, but was being pumped back into the river.

City workers are beginning removing flood protections needed to protect above 19 feet, Hanson said, though the full efforts for removal won’t start until Monday. The crews will be moving some of the barrels installed for protection at 20 to 21 feet out of the way

Hanson on Sunday once again thanked local volunteers who converged on three portable sandbagging stations set up by the city to make sandbags for use in New Bohemia and Czech Village. Those 60,000-plus sandbags can be returned to the stations, he said. The city, he added, will use the sand next winter when snow falls on city streets, he added.

“They certainly had value even though they weren’t needed,” Hanson said of the sandbags, noting the bags will take a while to clean up.

Hanson’s quick calculation put the cost of the city’s flood response at over half-a-million dollars, and he said a better accounting will be provided by the city on Monday.

There were some plug failures, and if the failure occurred one block over, the sandbags would have been needed in the Czech Village area, Hanson said.

“This is the best we’ve ever done in New Bo for the stormwater system, and one of the best ever – so far – in Czech Village from a stormwater perspective,” Hanson said. “The strategy of the plugs worked.”

Crews will knock some of the plugs needed for highest levels of flood protection out of the way so that any rain received can drain, Hanson said.

Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids Fire Department special projects coordinator, said the city still wants people to "flush wisely" to ease pressure on the wastewater systems.

One surprise on Saturday came at the city’s new City Hall — the renovated former federal courthouse alongside the river at 101 First Street SE. Water began entering the courthouse’s finished basement, prompting city employees to scurry to move conference room furniture and equipment from the building’s exercise room to safety.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said he discovered the water at 7:30 a.m. Saturday when he arrived to exercise in the city employee exercise room.

"We’re working to contain the water," Pomeranz said later Saturday.

Sandbags were in place to try to keep the water away from conference rooms on one side of the basement level and workers also were vacuuming up water.

Pomeranz noted that the city’s renovation of the former courthouse building was done with the thought that the building’s basement could take on floodwater. City offices are located on the three floors above the basement, he noted.

Aside from the water problems at City Hall, Pomeranz said he was "optimistic" that the city, its residents and businesses would be coming through the 2013 flood safely and with little damage.

"I think our workers have done a phenomenal job," the city manager said. "We have employees who are knowledgeable and skilled and have a willingness to work around the clock."

The city’s flood response also brought out the best in volunteers and private businesses who filled sandbags to make sure businesses in New Bohemia and elsewhere were safe, he said.

Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center in Iowa City, on Saturday said the current bout of flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and elsewhere in Eastern Iowa fits it with recent studies that have shown "an increasing trend of heavy rainfall in the Midwest and in particular in Iowa."

But he said he "would be hard pressed" to conclude that Eastern Iowa, which was hit by flood disasters in 2008, should be expect significant flooding every five years.

"I don’t want to go there," Krajewski said.

The Iowa Flood Center, he noted, is working with NASA on a project to map global rainfall patterns, a collaboration that prompted NASA to bring a large amount of instrumentation into Eastern Iowa in time to collect data on the current flooding.

"From a scientific standpoint, it’s been a gold mine," Krajewski said. "So they’re very excited. And I would like it to stop. They got great data, but we don’t need any more great data."

Out along the Cedar River near Ellis Park, Craig Augustine is among a group of homeowners hit hard by the 2008 flood who rebuilt because they are in the 500-year flood plain and out of harm’s way until the river gets a few to several feet above 20 feet.

Augustine on Saturday said he wasn’t worried this time, though he said he watched the National Weather Service’s radar as well as its online hygrograph of the Cedar River that showed the changing river-level forecast, hour by hour.

"Anybody who was flooded in 2008 would have in the back of their mind, ‘If it keeps raining, we’re going to have troubles again,’" Augustine said. "But this time it didn’t keep raining all day every day for a long time."

On Saturday afternoon, the Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association’s third-annual "Crusin’ the Boulevard" car show and fundraiser went off without a hitch along Ellis Boulevard NW even as the Cedar River was rising just seven blocks away.

Linda Seger, president of the neighborhood association, said veterans of the neighborhood like her took the rising river in stride because it has risen to high levels in the past but only once, in 2008, to the level of a flood disaster. Newer residents of the neighborhood were a little more unnerved as were her grandchildren, she said.

"This river height has happened before we had the big flood, and this time, the city sprung into action so quickly," Seger said. "I felt more confident than ever that they would do everything they could. I felt we were getting the straight story."

She said the city did the right thing by having the city manager and mayor speak publicly earlier this week about the city’s flood response.

"Most people need to hear from somebody who seems to have it all under control," Seger said.

Dale Todd, president of the business group Southside Investment Board in New Bohemia, late Saturday afternoon said the city’s Public Works Department displayed a show of force on Thursday after a heavy rain left water in the street in New Bohemia for a time because storm sewer outlets had been plugged to keep the river from backing into them.

"Things got serious after that," Todd said. "Public works employees ramped up the execution of their response plan and provided sand and equipment for volunteers to sandbag. It was a great exercise for the district. The volunteers were fabulous."

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