Last year’s disastrous flood could not have seemed farther away: The spring sky on Wednesday was blue, the sun warm, the nearby Cedar River lazily gliding by.
Yet a burly force of city Public Works Department employees were preparing for the worst.
They unfurled several 50-foot sections of orange bladders in a parking lot at Ellis Park, guided the bladders into place — two next to one another and a third on top — and filled them with water from a nearby fire hydrant.
This system of water-filled bladders, trademarked Tiger Dams, will be the principal piece of additional, new, temporary flood protection for the Time Check Neighborhood should the Cedar River threaten once again to spill into the neighborhood.
After Wednesday’s trial run, Mike Kuntz, the city’s sewer superintendent, said he was confident city crews could set up a line of Tiger Dams without difficulty for the 1,900-foot stretch in which they will be used at this spot in the city. The city will use a system of metal baskets filled with dirt elsewhere to temporarily protect the downtown and Czech Village.
“I was skeptical if we would be able to do it as rapidly as necessary,” Kuntz said of setting up the Tiger Dams. “But I’m pleased how well this has gone. I have no doubt we will be able to do it and do it well.”
As if to intentionally make the point, the maker of the Tiger Dams, U.S. Flood Control Corp., Carson City, Nev., sent Cheryl Witmer, company business developer and product trainer, to Cedar Rapids to train Cedar Rapids’ city crews in the use of the system.
Witmer is sufficiently petite that she was hard to spot amid the 30 or so sturdy city crew members.
“Don’t pull it by the edges,” Witmer instructed the crew members. “If you pull it by the edges you’re just going to make it ugly and wrinkly.”
Her central point, the city’s Kuntz said, was that the bladder that sits on top of two others needs to be positioned correctly as it starts to fill with water.
But Witmer said having her lead the demonstration helps to drive home the message that installing the flood barriers is so simple “a girl can do it.”
“That’s the beauty of it. It’s light, it’s easy and you don’t need any heavy equipment,” Witmer said.
Each 50-foot section of bladder weighs 65 pounds, but when each is unfolded and filled with water, they weigh 6,300 pounds. “That’s a great deal of weight and a great deal of security,” Witmer said.
The city has purchased 282 of these 50-foot sections, at a cost of $375,000. They will provide 1,900 feet of protection from the existing earthen levee at Ellis Lane NW down Ellis Boulevard NW to Penn Ave. NW. At that point, the Tiger Dams will tie into the existing levee along First Street NW in a way that should protect this part of the city to a river height of 24 feet.
That is four feet higher than the city’s previous record flood, but still seven feet below the historic flood of 2008. Providing temporary protection to the 2008 flood level is far too costly. A proposed permanent flood protection system, which could cost $1 billion, is the long-term solution for the city’s flood-protection needs.
Witmer said the Tiger Dams have been used in hurricane country in Louisiana, Florida and Texas as well for flash flooding in Nevada and river flooding in several states and Canada. Private corporations also use them. She said Walmart used the product to protect a store in Ames, Iowa.
Once set up, the Tiger Dams can remain in place for a couple months and can be reused. They also can be filled with a saline solution so the water in them freezes at a lower temperature than 32 degrees, though Cedar Rapids’ flood season usually comes later.
In purchasing the Tiger Dams and the second system, called Hesco Concertainers, the city acknowledged that it might never have to use them between now and the day, perhaps eight to 10 years from now, when a permanent system is in place.
“That’s the hope,” the city’s Kuntz said. “We hope we never have to use them.”