Next 48 hours crucial as Cedar Rapids braces for second biggest flood in its history

Sandbags were piled in front of Lion Bridge Brewing Company and  the Copper Alligator on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 in the Cedar Rapids Czech Village. -- photo by Lauren Shotwell
Sandbags were piled in front of Lion Bridge Brewing Company and the Copper Alligator on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 in the Cedar Rapids Czech Village. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

With the Cedar River already above major flood stage on Monday morning, Cedar Rapids is facing a dangerous period — watching the waters rise and eyeing temporary flood protections for any potential weaknesses needing repair or reinforcement.

“If it works, we will have saved the city,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said during a Monday morning press conference.

Corbett said the city had done everything possible, constructing 9.8 miles of temporary HESCO barriers and earthen berms over the past few days and creating a secondary line of protection in the form of roughly 250,000 sandbags around the city to protect homes and businesses. Recent estimates from the National Weather Service put the expected crest at 23 feet, slightly lower than previous estimates.

Officials at the morning press conference focused on public safety efforts during the flood — including keeping people out of the evacuation areas — and plans for longer term flood protection that have stalled.

Workers add dirt to a levee on the riverfront near the Penford Products plant on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. -- photo by Lauren Shotwell.
Workers add dirt to a levee on the riverfront near the Penford Products plant on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. — photo by Lauren Shotwell.

If an area of the earthen berms or other flood protection efforts are breeched, water could flow in quickly and create a dangerous situation for anyone caught in the rushing waters. Corbett noted that although approximately 50 percent of the people in the evacuation areas have left their homes, half still remained overnight. He stressed that anyone in those areas should move to higher ground for their own safety and that of rescue workers. However, he added that the city is not going to force anyone out of their homes.

Officials highlighted safety concerns, advising individuals to avoid any flooded areas due to concerns about electrocution and the dangers of moving water. Cedar Rapids police, other area law enforcement and National Guard members are working to secure check points in the flood zone and to patrol the evacuated area. Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said that some scams have been reported, including one in which property owners were advised to leave residences unsecured and another where residents were called and offered free hotel rooms if they would provide a credit card number. He advised people to lock their doors before leaving their homes and not to give out credit card information.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said that the temporary flood protection system was constructed over the past few days at an estimated cost of $5 to 6 million. Permanent flood protection would exceed about $500 million.

“Permanent flood protection is critical to our future,” Pomeranz said.

A proposed permanent flood protection system was authorized in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, but the money hasn’t yet been appropriated. The project would cost $600 million, with $73 million from federal sources. Although congress authorized funding for the project, it was given low priority by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers based on its cost-to-benefit analysis.

Rick Yoerger and Sauce co-owner Chris Robinson work on building up the wall of sandbags surrounding the restaurant in Cedar Rapids' Czech Village on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. -- photo by Lauren Shotwell
Rick Yoerger and Sauce co-owner Chris Robinson work on building up the wall of sandbags surrounding the restaurant in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

For some business owners in the current flood evacuation area, the slow-moving progress on permanent protections following the 2008 floods has been a frustration.

“Flooding was the whole trepidation with building down here. I thought there’d be a flood wall. But no one thought this would happen again this quickly,” said Chris Robinson, the co-owner of Sauce Bar and Bistro in Cedar Rapid’s Czech Village.

Robinson was busy sandbagging around the restaurant on Saturday with the help of his parents and friends. Sauce has been open for a little over a year after the owners worked to gut and refinish the building, which was damaged in the 2008 flood. Robinson said when he first heard the news about the forecasted flooding, he was numb. Then he went to work moving things out of the restaurant and up off the floor.

“In the face of something this disheartening, to see how many people want to come out and help fosters faith in humanity, and I look forward to having them back in the restaurant and feeding them some good food,” he said.

For up-to-date information about road closures, shelters, volunteering and more, visit the City of Cedar Rapids website or the city’s Facebook page.

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