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Downtown Burlington Tries To Dry Out After Temporary Flood Wall Breaks

Some business owners in downtown Burlington are pumping out river water after a temporary floodwall broke Saturday. It’s the second such breech this year for Iowa cities on the Mississippi.

Monday afternoon, a series of generators pumped water continuously out of the basement of the Frank Millard & Co. contracting firm on Valley Street in downtown Burlington.

Owner and President Mac Coffin says the company has been pumping since Saturday afternoon, about 30 minutes after the HESCO barrier broke, sending water rushing up through the basement. He estimates that the water is about 4 feet deep now, a level he says is manageable. There’s no critical infrastructure down there he says; it’s just a mess.

“We’ve had our share of these so we kind of know what to do. I mean we’ve been through it so many times," Coffin said. "But our building is high enough we don’t get hurt super bad, just inconvenienced.”

The river rushed into basements like that of Frank Millard & Co. and swamped the city’s Memorial Auditorium and Port of Burlington building when the temporary floodwall broke. The damage seems to be less extensive than when another HESCO barrier broke in downtown Davenport a few weeks ago.

Anecdotally Coffin says flooding has become more of an issue since about the 1970s or so, but at this point he says it’s more of a nuisance than a crisis.

“If it was up another…say another foot and a half from where it was, then we’d be having a whole different conversation," he said. "But we don’t really…as far as this building goes…have to be super concerned until it gets up to over 25 feet. Then…then we got to start worrying.”

A handful of businesses have closed up shop until the waters recede a few feet. Others are pumping out their basements continuously, hoses snaking out doors, generators running hours on end.

While other businesses remain open, some face inconveniences that may discourage shoppers or diners. Parking lots are underwater and some streets remain closed. Local businesses could see a dip in revenues, says Kay Breuer, Vice President of the Greater Burlington Partnership.

“It doesn’t sound like too many have water in their first floor, their main floor,” Breuer said, adding what damage there is seems to be largely confined to basements. “They’ll have some impact with that as they continue to clean up.”

Breuer credits the city’s flood protection for insulating the community from further damage. Burlington is in the process of building out a permanent flood wall, with more portions of the barrier slated to be built through 2020. Breuer says she’s thankful that much is already in place.

“We’re very glad that we had our actual floodwall intact and that is still going strong. It’s the temporary barriers that gave way,” she said.

Up the river a couple blocks, electrician Gregg Koestner pulled over near a boat launch by the flooded Riverside Park to inspect the damage. Other onlookers took photos of the flooded Mississippi. Some brought young children along or walked their dogs.

As a lifelong resident of Burlington, Koestner remembers the 1965, 1993 and 2008 floods. He figures the city did everything they could to protect downtown, but after more than two months at flood stage, it was a matter of time before the sand-filled HESCO barriers gave way.

“It held on as long as it could but the barriers are not made to last that long,” Koestner said, adding he’s looking forward to the permanent flood wall being completed. “If we can ever get the river to go down to where we work on the walls. That’s the whole problem.”

Some researchers are pushing local and state officials to give more "room for the river", a Dutch concept that limits urban and agricultural development in certain floodprone areas.

In the meantime, Koestner says he’s not sure what else the city government and businesses can do to insulate themselves, apart from moving critical infrastructure and electrical components out of basements and other low-lying areas. 

“This is going to do what it wants to do,” Koestner said, referring to the Mississippi. “There’s no stopping it. It’s Mother Nature.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter