Cedar Rapids Mayor: "It's Crunch Time"

Sep 26, 2016

Cedar Rapids city leaders say they’ve done everything they possibly can to prepare for this week’s flooding, and that the next couple of days will be the most critical and dangerous period.

The Cedar River was at 20.8 feet late this afternoon, and is expected to crest at about 23 feet by tomorrow afternoon.  That would make this the second-highest to 2008’s historic flood of 31 feet.

Mayor Ron Corbett says in the last couple of days, 9.8 miles of sand-filled Hesco barriers and earthen berms had been constructed to hold back the river, and more than 250,000 sandbags had been piled around and against homes and businesses. 

“We’ve done our very best,” said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz at a news conference this morning.

“It’s crunch time,” said Mayor Ron Corbett.  “We need 100% cooperation from everyone in and out of the evacuation area.”

The city has been urging residents of about 5,000 homes to evacuate ahead of the flood.  Mayor Corbett says about half the people in the evacuation zone did leave before last night’s 8pm curfew, and a few others left their homes this morning.  He is urging others to “use common sense” and leave their homes during the worst of the flooding.

Officials say that while they’re confident that the temporary barriers will do their job, there is always the possibility of a breach, which could send floodwaters rushing into nearby streets and neighborhoods.

“Anyone on a bike or in a car doesn’t stand a chance,” said Corbett.

Public Works Director Jen Winter said it was critical that people not climb on the barriers.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman says officers from the Iowa State Patrol, Mt. Vernon Police, Department of Corrections, and Eastern Iowa Airport Police are assisting city officers.

He also urged people not to be taken in by a couple of scams that have been reported.  In one, residents are being told not to secure their properties if they evacuate.  In the other, a person calling offers a free hotel room for those who want to evacuate, and asks for a credit card number to secure the room.  Jerman says both of these cases are examples of people trying to take advantage of others.

Jerman also said this morning that the left lane of I-380 has been reserved for emergency vehicles needing to travel through the city.  He says IDOT’s electronic message signs are instructing other drivers to stay out of those lanes.  Jerman is also asking drivers on I-380 not to slow down or stop to take pictures of the flooding.

The city's public schools will be closed through at least Wednesday.  The U.S. District Court and the federal bankruptcy courts will be closed at least Monday and Tuesday.

The city still needs volunteers to help fill sandbags at the old K-Mart location on 16th Av SW.  The bags are no longer for personal use, though.  They will be used as needed to shore up the city’s flood barriers.   

Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Mark English said that safety will be the top priority this week.  He urged people not to walk to drive through any floodwaters.

“Six inches can knock you over,” he said. “Two feet can sweep a car away.”

Several city officials pointed out that there were no fatalities in the 2008 flood, which devastated parts of Cedar Rapids.

“We’ve worked too hard over the last four days,” said Mayor Corbett. “We don’t want to see any loss of life.”

Meanwhile, the Cedar River continues to drop in both Cedar Falls and Waterloo. The crest in both cities was ten feet above flood stage this weekend, and officials say it could be at least Thursday before water levels drop below flood stage again.  In Waterloo, river levels this morning had already dropped three feet from Saturday afternoon’s crest. Water levels need to drop another seven feet to get below flood stage.

Cedar Falls officials say they are now in "flood recovery" mode, and have begun inspecting buildings that took on water today.  The city is asking people to stay out of North Cedar Falls unless they are a resident of the area, or helping a resident with cleanup.  The city says permits will be needed for repair work, although permit fees will be suspended for flood-damaged properties.

Black Hawk County Emergency Management Coordinator Lorie Glover says some residents who have flood damage may also quality for financial assistance.

“We have the governor’s declaration here which puts us in line for the Iowa Individual Assistance program and folks that may need help that are 200 percent of the poverty level,” she said.

Governor Branstad signed a disaster emergency proclamation for 13 counties last week.  Four more counties were added to that proclamation today.

The state is also watching I-80 east of Iowa City, where the Cedar River flows beneath the highway.  Officials are worried that water levels in the area could climb enough to creep onto the highway.  Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino says it won’t be clear until probably Wednesday morning this will be a problem.

“A lot of these areas, where the water tends to move into the ditches along the sides of the routes and then will creep into the roadway,” he said.  “So the bridge is not of concern, it’s the water that moves up and then tends to get into the shoulder and then potentially get into the lane.”