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Cedar Rapids Prepares As River Approaches Major Flood Stage

Kate Payne / IPR
As of Tuesday, the Cedar River was approaching 14 feet in downtown Cedar Rapids. Meterologists expect the river will hit major flood stage on Thursday.

The city of Cedar Rapids is preparing for another flood. The Cedar River is forecast to crest at 16.5 feet this week, after days of rainfall saturated eastern Iowa.

The National Weather Service is predicting the Cedar River will crest at 6 inches above major flood stage in Cedar Rapids on Thursday. But with more rain expected this week, and potential impacts from Tropical Storm Gordon's path north from the Gulf Coast, forecasts may change.

At a press conference with reporters Tuesday, Mayor Brad Hart said the preparations are all too familiar to the city. Cedar Rapids' last major flood came in 2016, when waters crested at 22 feet. Floodwaters devasatated the city in 2008, cresting at a record 31 feet.

"I'm confident that no matter how high the river gets this week, that we'll rise above it and protect the community as best we possibly can," Hart said.

City workers are preparing for at least 18 feet of water, just to be safe. They're closing parks, boat ramps and some roads in low-lying areas, including near Czech Village and in the southwest and northwest parts of the city. They’re also plugging manholes and drains to prevent backflow impacts from river water rushing into the city's storm sewer system.

"I'm confident that no matter how high the river gets this week, that we'll rise above it." - Brad Hart, Cedar Rapids Mayor

At this stage, city Public Works Director Jen Winter says any impacts would likely come from underground flooding.

"The majority of the risk is from water coming back into our storm sewer system and backing up,” Winter said. 

At this point, Winter says she doesn't expect any significant impacts.

“Unless something fails, we anticipate that no, that there would not be damage," she said. "In some cases, depending on the age of a building, some people do get water in their basements despite the fact that we have kind of plugged off the river from backing up.”

Winter expects city crews will complete their preparations by Tuesday evening. As the National Weather Service updates their forecasts, the city will adjust and consider rolling out more extensive protections.

More extensive use of temporary HESCO barriers and the opening of public sandbagging locations will be on standby mode unless the river is projected to crest above 18 feet.

In the meantime leaders are urging residents to stay away from the river and let workers finish their preparations.

"The majority of the risk is from water coming back into our storm sewer system and backing up." - Jen Winter, Cedar Rapids Public Works Director

At the Tuesday press conference, city officials said it's not yet known how much these additional temporary flood protections will cost. With floodwaters reaching 22 feet in 2016, city Finance Director Casey Drew said that year's preparations cost the Cedar Rapids millions of dollars.

"In 2016 the city spent a little over $10 million to do flood protection for that period time. So it just kind of depends on how much the river rises," Drew said.

With mounting costs to city taxpayers, residents and business owners, Mayor Brad Hart took the opportunity to once again call for public support to fund a permanent flood control system. Cedar Rapids can't afford to keep watching the clouds, he said.

"This is another sign that we need to complete our permanent flood protection so we can stop worrying every time it rains hard. And so businesses and homeowners can stop worrying about this. And we can not spend money on temporary fixes," Hart said. "We've done this way too many times."

Updates of the City of Cedar Rapids' flood response can be found here.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter