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Urban Issues with the Iowa Floods

posted on June 2, 2009 at 2:03 PM


Nearly a year after the flood, protection of homes and businesses is still the main focus of communities. City officials know however that much of the flooding they received knows no boundaries ... and came downstream from points outside the city limits. What have towns been doing to help develop long-term strategies to improve the riverfront and help mitigate future floods?

April, 2008 … flooding hits a few urban areas. But confidence is high that other towns are … "safe."

April 29, 2008, Cedar Rapids, Governor Chet Culver: "The good news overall is that we're certainly well below '93 levels in most of these places. Here in Cedar Rapids, we're fortunately two feet below the 93 flood levels and the river has already crested."

That confidence would be shaken about 1 1/2 months later. June 13, 2008 the Cedar River crested five feet above the 500 year flood level. It inundated nearly 10 square miles of Cedar Rapids. By late August, the flood damage had resulted in nearly 75-thousand tons of debris, caused $500 million dollars in infrastructure damages and impacted nearly 54-hundred homes. That's just one Iowa city.

Cedar Rapids is one of several Iowa communities settled along a river bank … right smack in a floodplain. Many towns continued to grow and expand at river's edge… even when warned of a possible catastrophic flood in the future.

A 1967 Army Corps of Engineer study showed such a threat for Cedar Rapids. The report surfaced after the 2008 flood, and upset many – including a state senator who lives in Cedar Rapids.

Senator Rob Hogg, (D) Cedar Rapids: "I would say billions of dollars in investment was made in Cedar Rapids that had this study been taken seriously, that investment still would have been made, but we could have designed it, that investment, a way that the flood wouldn't have been so devastating."

If not serious before, Cedar Rapids certainly is now. City leaders hired a Massachusetts consulting firm to help develop long-term strategies to improve the riverfront and help mitigate future floods.

Jason Hellundrung, Sasaki Associates, Inc., Watertown, MA: “We ultimately looked at around 25 different options. And so that included flood structures along the river right through the downtown, those affected areas, and that’s a combination of levees and floodwalls. We established some new flood plain or actually restored some of that original flood plain."

To establish new floodplain becomes an issue of "planning and zoning". Existing homes near the river may need to go. But it’s not that easy ... even if the federal government offers to pay homeowners to move.

Pat Shay, City Council, Cedar Rapids: "We cannot force somebody to take the buyout. Now they, they can choose to rebuild and some have, but they do so at a considerable risk."

A similar story unfolds in Cedar Falls… where a subdivision was built in the Cedar River floodplain. It flooded -- and homeowners returned when the water receded.

Kamyar Enshayan, City Council, Cedar Falls: "We're standing right here at a subdivision that was built according to the city specs. They raised it one foot over the 100 year flood levels and all of these homes received 3 to 4 feet of water in their first floor. They didn't have flood insurance because they had already raised their homes."

Cedar Falls 4th ward city council member Kamyar Enshayan would like to see any future development banned from the floodplain entirely. He would also like to see construction banned from the so-called floodway -- which is the river channel and adjacent shore.

Travis Barnard, Cedar Falls: "You're a hundred percent right. We are definitely in the floodway out here. “

But river residents are persistent.

Travis Barnard, Cedar Falls: "We've elevated the house just shy of 12 feet. So our main living area will be 12 feet higher than the current elevation of the home now. And that puts us approximately 6 feet above the 102 foot crest that we had in June. Originally we had looked at buying this property after the flood. So I went down and talked to the city of Cedar Falls...”

Cedar Falls has an ordinance prohibiting reconstruction in the floodway if damages reach a certain level. Still, Travis Barnard was able to seek and receive a variance.

Kamyar Enshayan, Cedar Falls council member: "The residents have the right to go to what is called a Board of Adjustment to get a variance to go around, and the Board of Adjustment, unfortunately in my opinion, have been granting variances to the residents to allow them to live in an area that is dangerous. We made hundred sixty or so rescues to help people out of their homes and some of them were done in the middle of the night, very dangerous rescue operations. We were lucky none of our firefighters fell in the water, very fast moving water."

While the Cedar Falls councilmember wants no new construction in the floodway and floodplain … just up river, Waverly is taking a different approach. This concrete dam will be replaced by an inflatable one. With it, officials could control the water flow to better protect the city. In addition, when funding becomes available, this dry-run creek through town, will be widened and deepened. By accommodating greater waterflows, chances of flooding are lessened -- so the city hopes the federal government will remove certain neighborhoods from floodplain status.

Richard Crayne, City Administrator, Waverly: "With that in mind, this will be a great benefit to property owners to, to tell them, I won't say not to buy flood insurance, but if you do buy flood insurance in an area that is not 100 year floodplain then your premium rates will be substantially lower. So uh that is our, our long term-goal for the community, protection of those homes and the businesses."

Nearly a year after the flood, protection of homes and businesses is still the main focus of communities. City officials know however that much of the flooding they received knows no boundaries ... and came downstream from points outside the city limits.

Richard Crayne, City Administrator, Waverly: "It's coming down from rural areas. We as the city of Waverly want to know what we can do, what is our role in the regional perspective of the Cedar river Basin."

Pat Shay, City Council, Cedar Rapids: "When we look at the size of the watershed, we can't force anybody upstream to do something so we have talked about is it possible to create a Cedar River Valley Authority where we have cross-jurisdiction with the counties and the cities to look at broader floodplain management."

Senator Rob Hogg, (D) Cedar Rapids: "Obviously farming is very important in Iowa, but if there's a way we can arrange to hold water up on farmland and keep it out of our downtown urban areas, I would much rather pay a farmer to do that than try to deal with cleaning up downtown Cedar Rapids ever again."

Tags: floods global warming HEAT Iowa rural water water quality

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