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Iowa Reels From Bout of Severe Flooding

June 16, 2008 at 2:10 PM EDT
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Flood fears eased in Iowa City Monday, as a string of towns along the Mississippi River prepared for new problems after recent torrential rains spurred heavy flooding. A reporter from Iowa Public Radio provides an update.

GWEN IFILL: We begin with the latest on the historic floods in the Midwest and what residents are bracing for after the waters recede.

As the record flooding moved into a second week, towns throughout the Upper Midwest bore the brunt of seemingly unending rainfall and rivers swollen by the deluge from Wisconsin through Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa.

FLOOD VICTIM: There’s just total devastation. I don’t know really what to say.

GWEN IFILL: In hard-hit Iowa, five people have died in the flooding, and tens of thousands are now homeless; 83 of the state’s 99 counties are disaster areas.

Waters that crested over the weekend began to recede Monday in the state’s largest cities, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and the capital, Des Moines.

But the University of Iowa, which is bisected by the Iowa River, still had waters running through its campus today. Sixteen buildings were flooded, including the art museum. The collection, which includes works by Picasso, Miro, and Matisse, was moved to Chicago.

The floodwaters could be a menace for the foreseeable future.

SCOTT LARSON, Assistant City Engineer, Coralville, Iowa: We’re looking at sustained flooding levels for probably upwards of two to three weeks.

GWEN IFILL: In Cedar Rapids, where power and clean water service may not be restored for weeks, some residents were allowed back in to survey the damage.

FLOOD VICTIM: Everything’s ruined. Everything we worked so hard for is just gone.

GWEN IFILL: But elsewhere in the ravaged city, officials set up checkpoints to stop homeowners from visiting their ruined properties. Nerves were frayed.

FLOOD VICTIM: You give me 10 minutes, and I can get a ride going here, and we’ll all be down there.

FLOOD VICTIM: This is frustrating. This is just too frustrating.

GWEN IFILL: A city spokesman asked for more time.

DAVE KOCH, Cedar Rapids Spokesman: I mean, we realize people want to get back in just as soon as possible. We’ll do everything possible to do that.

GWEN IFILL: While residents took stock of the damage in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere, much of the flooding focus moved to the southeastern reaches of the state, as waters flowed toward the Mississippi River.

Towns along that route are trying to avoid the same fate as Cedar Rapids. In Hills, Iowa, a sandbag wall a mile long has been built.

Mayor Russ Bailey.

MAYOR RUSS BAILEY, Hills, Iowa: We’re going to stay and fight, and we believe we can save our community and protect the residents and the citizens of Hills.

GWEN IFILL: The floodwaters empty into the Mississippi, and the towns along the river expect high water throughout the week. At Keokuk, Iowa, the river will be at 28 feet Wednesday. Flood stage is 16 feet.

At Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s hometown, the river will reach 32 feet Thursday. And at St. Louis, the Mississippi will hit 39 feet on Friday, nearly 10 feet above flood stage.

The massive flooding is already making commercial river traffic difficult or impossible. Nearly 300 miles of the river in Illinois and Missouri is shut down because a dozen locks are closed.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Wisconsin towns along Lake Michigan slogged through another set of storms.

In Wisconsin, the Rock River is close to inundating towns where residents have been furiously sandbagging.

DOUG ADKINS, Flood Victim: We think we can save our place. We don’t want to give up.

I brought a bunch of friends of mine from Illinois up here. There’s probably 30 friends of mine. And then we have all the neighbors’ friends and family.

GWEN IFILL: The Fox River is swelling at flood stage in Kenosha County, south of Milwaukee, and is flowing over the border into Illinois, already past flood stage. Homes in the Chain O’ Lakes and Antioch areas of Illinois also flooded, as the river crested there today.

Iowa, Cedar Rivers to blame

GWEN IFILL: For more, we are joined by Dean Borg, senior correspondent at Iowa Public Radio. He's been traveling throughout the state to cover this story.

Hello, Dean.

DEAN BORG, Iowa Public Radio: Hello, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: You've been in Cedar Rapids. You've been in Iowa City. From what you've seen in your reporting trips, are things getting better now or worse?

DEAN BORG: It depends upon where you are. The surge that came down the Cedar River and in Iowa City, where I am right now, Iowa City, Coralville, out of the Coralville Reservoir, that has already occurred. And in Cedar Rapids, the river has crested. It's now very quickly receding.

It's not receding so quickly here in Iowa City. This is the Iowa River. And the flooding here is a result of the Coralville Reservoir just upriver from Iowa City in Coralville being filled to capacity.

And so when that water comes over the spillway, uncontrolled by the Army Corps of Engineers, this is what happens. And this is downtown Coralville, Iowa, adjacent to Iowa City.

The waters here are going to recede much more slowly, because they're being fed by an overflow from the Coralville Reservoir. The Cedar River bulge that affected Cedar Rapids during this past week, that is moving downstream now.

So, Gwen, it depends upon where you are. The communities downstream, they're preparing for that big surge that just about wiped out downtown Cedar Rapids.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you say -- you talk about wiping out whole downtowns. How extensive is the damage? We've seen aerial pictures of barges -- what look like barges, but which are really houses and debris stuck under bridges. How bad is that?

DEAN BORG: Yes, it's very bad. The people in Cedar Rapids have never seen anything like this. In fact, a week ago today, I talked with a National Weather Service meteorologist, and he gave a preview that I didn't really believe, but he said the words, based on our measurements upstream, the water that's coming in Cedar Rapids, this is going to be a hydrologic event of major proportions. He called it epic proportions. It's off our charts, he said.

Well, that came to pass. And people here in the Coralville area, while I was waiting here this morning and this afternoon, have come down to record where the water is now.

Many of them said, "We did the same thing in the floods of 1993." That's the flood that everyone here remembers. They said the water was never this far up in 1993.

As to how extensive the damage is in Cedar Rapids, it's very extensive, extending seven blocks beyond the river to the east, 12 blocks beyond the river to the west in Cedar Rapids.

Economy, infrastructure mauled

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to put a price tag so far on this damage? And the number of people homeless, we've heard, at tens of thousands. And, also, when you look at the agriculture industry, how is all that affected?

DEAN BORG: The agriculture industry, farming, has had a tough spring. Persistent rains -- and the result what you see right here -- persistent rains through April and into the May planting season delayed farmers from getting into the fields and getting the crop in the ground in the first place.

There were a few days where it was dry and they moved quickly, got most of the crop in, but then came the torrential rains that resulted in the flooding that you see right here.

Well, that means -- and I just got these statistics from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. They're quantifying at about 1.3 million acres of corn in Iowa destroyed and underwater, 2 million acres of soybeans drowned out. And so that translates to about 20 percent of Iowa's corn and soybean crop.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the 1993 floods. They were supposed to be 100-year floods at the time, I guess. How many improvements have been made since then?

DEAN BORG: Well, in Iowa City, for example, they moved their water treatment plant. They reinforced the areas around the water treatment plant and the sewage treatment facility so that what happened in 1993 wouldn't happen again.

Well, now, that was a 100-year flood. This is a 500-year event. And, thankfully, though, what those preparations did in Cedar Rapids and in Iowa City, in Coralville, it did protect the water supply.

Cedar Rapids' water supply is somewhat tenuous. They are having drinking water only in Cedar Rapids. And people in Cedar Rapids are moving to the outlying areas. High schools and other public buildings in surrounding communities have signs up, showers, and directing the people to where they can come and take showers and other hygienic activities in the public buildings.

But the water supply in Cedar Rapids is going to be tenuous for quite a time. And that means, also, that businesses that want to re-establish, restaurants that want to re-open and things like that, aren't going to be able to until that water supply comes back up.

And so we see major law firms and other businesses that are in high-rise downtown Cedar Rapids buildings, they're unaffected because they're on the upper floors, but they're moving out of the downtown into suburbs and surrounding communities, taking over vacant high school buildings in one instance, just to make sure that they can continue, because they know it's going to be a long time before they can resume normal business in downtown Cedar Rapids.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like quite a mess. Dean Borg, from our partners at Iowa Public Radio, thank you very much.

DEAN BORG: Thank you, Gwen.