The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

A too-long, first draft of the flood arrival story: thank you flood victims Frank King, Dale Snyder, Frank Stephen, Jim Macek for sharing stories

In City Hall on June 17, 2008 at 7:28 pm

Nothing provided better notice, greater comfort and, ultimately, more misplaced hope here last week than the automatic gauge near the Eighth Avenue bridge — at a spot where the U.S. Geological Survey has operated a Cedar River monitoring device since 1903.

From his two-story house near Ellis Park with a back yard as long as two basketball courts stretching to the Cedar River, Dale Snyder certainly was watching the river crest forecasts, which were based on the gauge’s readings of the river’s rise.

So, too, was Frank Stephen from his Dostal Catering business, which has been in place in Czech Village along the riverfront since 1924.

In fact, most everyone knew what the National Weather Service was predicting based on the river gauge’s readings.

News accounts constantly referred to the readings and river-level forecasts, city officials quoted them at every turn and the public could track the forecasts via computer right along with City Hall.

Then the gauge stopped working. First power was cut to it, then a battery backup didn’t work, and then an effort by the U.S. Geological Survey to fix it was turned back by the rising water.

As Wednesday morning turned to afternoon and evening, it wasn’t clear what anybody knew for sure.

Sure, on Monday and for nearly every day until Friday, rain was still pounding in Cedar Rapids and up north in the expansive Cedar River watershed. And the cities of Cedar Falls and Waterloo above Cedar Rapids were readying for record flooding there and reaching it by Wednesday.

All the while, too, the Eighth Avenue bridge gauge at the edge of downtown Cedar Rapids was doing its part to sound an alert.

After all, the gauge on Monday and into Tuesday was helping to forecast a historic flood crest in Cedar Rapids of 22.5 feet — 2.5 feet above the all-time crest for the city and more than 3 feet above the level of the damaging, well-remembered flood of 1993.

But Dale Snyder out on Ellis Boulevard NW and Frank Stephen, his business sitting behind an earthen levee protecting Czech Village, hardly flinched.

Just three doors up from Snyder, at Jack Henry Salon & Spa, Racquel Pfeiler had just given a facial, hardly noticing the river’s rise out the riverfront salon’s giant windows. High water rising to an electrical box in the salon’s basement had closed the salon before, and as recently as April. But just for a day at a time.

Standing sturdy, too, was the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, which opened in 1995 at its riverfront perch at Czech Village. It needed a flood in the 500-year range – 26.5 feet in Cedar Rapids — before water would run in on the building’s floor, a floor which Gail Naughton, museum president/CEO, called “nearly indestructible.”

If anything distracted from the river-level forecasts and brought its own level of comfort, it was the city crews, who had kicked into high gear, working around-the-clock, implementing the city’s flood-action plan, born out of a damaging flood in 1993 and refined at river rises ever since.

Crews were placing pumps in many flood-prone locations and sandbags around storm sewer outlets and manholes to prevent rising river water pushing back through the sewer pipes.

More than 225 dump truck loads of dirt had been brought to shore up some low spots on the vital earthen levees protecting the Time Check Neighborhood, Czech Village and the Osborn Park area across the river.

Public Works Director Dave Elgin thought the Time Check levee, protecting more than 1,000 mostly working-class homes and an assortment of businesses, would do its job if the river, as forecast into Tuesday, climbed to 22.5 feet.

But even then, Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager, was scratching his head. Veterans of the city’s public works operation, he reported, had come to learn over time that the Cedar River crest historically meant a river level in Cedar Rapids one to two feet below the crest up north at Waterloo. But the projected Waterloo forecast would put the Cedar Rapids crest higher than 22.5 feet, maybe a couple feet higher than the level the gauge under the Eighth Avenue bridge was still helping to forecast.

“We’ll see. We’ll see,” Hanson said.

By Wednesday, the Eighth Avenue bridge gauge was recording higher river stages, and the crest forecast suddenly jumped to 24.5 feet – 2 feet above the city’s 100-year flood level, but 2 feet short of the 500-year level here — with the crest’s arrival expected by Friday morning.

By the middle of the morning on Wednesday, the City Council hadn’t yet called off its regular Wednesday evening meeting at City Hall. Then the council did. At 2 p.m., it convened in emergency session and issued emergency powers to city leaders. City Hall was closing at 4 p.m.

The council learned, too, that evacuations were underway for those in the Time Check Neighborhood and elsewhere who were living behind protective levees in the city’s 100-year flood plain. Overnight, leaks in temporary additions to the levees just below Czech Village and across the river in Osborn Park, had prompted evacuations there.

With the river gauge helping forecast a 24.5-foot crest, much of City Hall’s optimism of besting the river seemed to have waned Wednesday afternoon. The city’s Elgin said crews would focus on beefing up temporary levees in the Time Check area, but he conceded it was getting late. He had all but given up helping levees elsewhere.

Out along the river, Dale Snyder and a couple neighbors, whose houses were among a group along Ellis Boulevard NW upstream from the earthen levee protecting the Time Check Neighborhood, had taken note, too, that the river-level forecast had climbed to 24.5 feet.

Snyder said he and his neighbors employed a laser-light measuring device to determine just where the river had to climb before they needed to start to worry.

Despite the city’s call for evacuation, he figured the river would need 28 feet to get in the back door.

“I wasn’t too concerned,” said the 69-year-old Snyder, who continues to run a small fabricating company and said he stayed put to protect business records and personnel items.

At Dostal Catering in Czech Village, Frank Stephen said a city public works supervisor was telling him that the river was coming at the city harder than expected.

Even so, Stephen had been through the city’s flood of 1993, and he had a sense of the river’s reach. At worst, he said he expected a foot or two of flood water in the building on Thursday when he closed up Wednesday evening.

But by then, the city was in a flurry of activity. City officials had ordered the closing of all the downtown bridges, because they knew the coming river, unbelievably, would overtop the spans. The river forecasts, based on manual readings of river flow, now were fearing water in the 28-foot range.

Those in the 500-year flood plain were told late Wednesday afternoon to get out now.

Even then, Jim Macek, owner of Reliable Machinery & Manufacturing, at 415 H Ave. NW in the 500-year flood plain, said he expected just a little water. Deeper into the Time Check Neighborhood at 816 E Ave. NW, Frank King, the neighborhood association president, was moving items from the basement to his garage. That’s all he figured necessary.

Clearly, though, river gauges and forecasts didn’t matter when night turned to day Thursday morning and rain continued to pour into the Cedar River and its already-overflowing tributaries as the flood crest approached from the north.

Between rains, Dostal Catering’s Frank Stephen and his wife, Barb, walked out onto the 12th Avenue bridge just upstream from Czech Village with a camera. With it from there, they got a spectacular photo of the CRANDIC rail bridge, lined with rock-laden hopper cars to keep the bridge deck in place, twisting in the center before dropping into the river.

Dostal said he then turned to look downstream at Czech Village and saw the roof of his business sticking out of the flooded river.

By Thursday afternoon, the heart of the downtown was deep in flood water, too, with the flood crest nearly a day away. It arrived at 10:15 a.m. Friday and hit 31.2 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

By Friday, power was out in the flooded areas; the city’s water supply was running at 25 percent of capacity; people were told not to shower or bath; Mercy Medical Center, between Eighth and 10 streets SE, had been evacuated; and but for Interstate 380 through the city, most major routes were closed because of flooding.

By Friday morning, too, meteorologists from ABC News’ Good Morning America and the Weather Channel were in town as was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The damage estimate was put at $700 million-plus.

Mayor Kay Halloran called the flood “devastating,” and council member Brian Fagan, “unforgettable.” And City Manager Jim Prosser began talking of the three “Rs” – reimbursement, recovery and reinvestment.

On Friday, Cedar Rapids native and city historian Mark Hunter, said he was still dazed about what had come at the city that over the years he had come to learn so much about.

“How could we prepare for this?” Hunter said. “Forty-eight hours ago, we thought, at best, it was going to be 22 or 23 feet. And now, wow, we’re 10 feet higher.

“I look around and I can’t believe it. I don’t think anyone can. It’s like the dam broke and all hell broke loose.”

Hunter said the water had overtaken much of the city’s historic landscape and many of the symbols and areas the city holds near and dear to it.

He began to list the places and buildings, and then trailed off – City Hall, Czech Village, New Bohemia, the Czech & Slovak museum/library, the Louis Sullivan-designed bank on First Street SW, the Time Check Neighborhood.

“It’s literally ‘the’ historic event of Cedar Rapids,” Hunter said. “It’s going to surpass any history in the past and most any that will come in the future.

“This is the big, big story of the history of Cedar Rapids. This is the big one.”

Hunter, who lost his job at The History Center here when financial hardship overtook the museum in the last couple years, nonetheless has continued as a presence, leading regular historical tours through all the spots in the city now under water.

“Every site that has been affected by the flood water has a personal story to go with it,” he said. “And I’ve researched those stories. And I tell those stories when I give tours.

“It’s just very personal. I know some much about every site,” he said. “They’re like my friends, and they’ve all been deluged by water.”

At the river’s crest at about 11 a.m. Friday, 149,500 cubic feet per second of water was flowing by the river gauge under Cedar Rapids’ Eighth Avenue bridge, David Eash, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Iowa City, said Friday.

By comparison, he reported, the highest flood flows ever previously recorded at the bridge were 73,000 cfs in 1961; 71,000 cfs in 1993; 66,800 in 1965; 64,000 in 1929 (the 1851 flood was thought to equal 65,000 csf).

(The previous record river stage at Cedar Rapids of 20 feet was recorded in 1929 and 1851, though Eash was not sure why years for the previous record flows were different from the year with the previous record stage levels in the city.)

Eash said none of the previous flow levels in Cedar Rapids ever reached the 50-year flood level (one-in-50 chance of a flood in any given year) in the city, which he put at 75,500 cfs passing the river gauge, let alone the 100-year level, which is 109,000 cfs, he said.

“We’re way off the chart,” Eash said of the flow rate of 149,500 recorded Friday morning in Cedar Rapids. “I think we’re just going to have to look at this and try to make sense out of this the best we can.”

As confounding, he said, is what didn’t hold true on the river between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. Historically, he said, the flow rate passing the city of Waterloo to the north is larger than the flow rate at Cedar Rapids once flood waters get to Cedar Rapids from Waterloo. This time, Cedar Rapids’ flow rate is higher than Waterloo’s, Eash said.

He called it “shocking” and “amazing.”

On Thursday, the day the river roared into the city and the city lost the battle, Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director, pointed to the downpours in and above Cedar Rapids even as the Cedar River crest was approaching Cedar Rapids. Elgin suggested that the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids was hit with “a couple of flash floods” even as the crest was coming down the river toward the city on Thursday morning.

The Geological Survey’s Eash said an explanation like that makes sense.
“It’s all about timing,” he said. “If the tributaries into the Cedar River got to their peaks as the (Cedar River) crest was coming down, that just all adds up to a bigger flood at Cedar Rapids.”

There is no disputing that there has been a lot of rain in Eastern Iowa and the Cedar River watershed.

Bob Libra, state geologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, noted Friday that it really hasn’t stopped snowing or raining in Eastern Iowa since December.

“We’ve overloaded the system with water,” he said.

It is difficult in the short run, Libra added, to put the flooding now underway into a bigger picture like climate change, which some suggest may be causing greater variations in weather, he said.

At the same time, Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, on Friday said that Iowa farmers, who are now seeking attractively high grain prices, are tilling only a very small amount of additional land this year. He had been asked if more water is running off fields than before because less land is in conservation programs.

Northey said only 80,000 acres out of 1.8 million came out of the state’s conservation reserve program this year to be farmed in a state that he said tills 24 million acres.

Even so, Northey was up in Delaware County on Friday inspecting conservation practices like the use of terracing and grassy waterways. And he said it was apparent how well the practices performed in holding back runoff and preventing erosion compared to fields that are not using such practices. Heavy rains can “surge” from fields and end up in places like Cedar Rapids, he said.

No one had a better view than Dale Snyder of what it looked like early Thursday when all the forecasts, all the hope and all the effort by city crews and troops of volunteer sand-baggers was coming to nothing.

By Wednesday afternoon, city crews had built a make-shift sandbag levee through Snyder’s back yard at 1867 Ellis Blvd. NW, extending the permanent Time Check levee upstream from where it stops at Penn Avenue NW. City crews then came back and added more sand bag, he said.

But by 11 p.m. Wednesday night, Snyder could see river water seeping through the sand bags when he walked the 200 or so feet of his back yard from the river to his house to sleep. He was back up at 6:10 a.m., to see the wall of sand bags collapse.

“I knew I was in trouble then,” he said.

At 7 a.m., he said rain was pouring, lightning was cracking close to the house and water soon after was pouring into his basement.

In no time it filled the basement and was running in the back door. About 8 a.m., he went to the front door in time to see river overwhelming the temporary levee built across Ellis Boulevard just upstream from his house. The boulevard instantly turned into the river. “It was boiling,” he said. The river water that had been headed through his house toward Ellis Boulevard, suddenly reversed and headed back through his house toward the river.

Snyder retreated to his second floor, going up and down moving what he could to higher ground. Out his window, he watched as boat houses, broken loose from the Ellis Boat Harbor, floated by on the river. He saw the river engulf his pickup, and fill up his motor home up the windshield.

Without electricity, exhausted and at the urging from family and friends, he conceded late Thursday and let the family called the Fire Department.

“I couldn’t do any more,” Snyder said. “I just gave in.”

Firefighters plucked him from the roof of his front porch about 11 p.m. By then, windows in his house were breaking out, he said.

Frank King, who only recently has reassumed the mantle of neighborhood association president, said he stood on the levee protecting the Time Check Neighborhood and saw that things were looking iffy as early as Tuesday.

And he began to move things from his own basement at 816 E Ave. NW at the edge of the city’s 500-year flood plain on Wednesday. “Did I think it would get five feet in front of my house? No,” he said.

But the floodwater arrived fast there, too, overtaking his vehicle as he and his wife tried driving off at 1 p.m. Thursday. They had to walk in water the last block or two to safety.

In short order, King went out and bought a new 10-foot johnboat and paddles and, on his own later Thursday, he paddled back to his house.

It was that boat tied to the front door of his house that a local TV news station captured on videotape.

He said he must have made 100 trips, carrying items from his flooded first floor of his home to the second floor. “My life is here. This house was full of treasures you can’t put a price on,” he said.

But by 3:30 a.m. Friday, he said, “I thought I was going to lie down and die. I was physically exhausted. And the house was creaking and groaning.” Firefighters rescued him, too.

By Friday afternoon, King and a friend had paddled back to the house, where they found the water near the top of his front-yard bushes, six-and-half feet off the ground. A rabbit was sitting on the top of the bushes.

King, like Dale Snyder, does not have flood insurance, which is required, generally speaking, only if have a mortgage and you live in the 100-year flood plain. Both men put their losses in six-figures.

But King was looking past his personal losses, too, and imagining that much of the old, working-class Time Check Neighborhood will be lost forever. Any federal assistance on homes that had been valued, say at $50,000, wouldn’t likely be close to what it would cost to rebuild the homes, he said.

For his part, King, 59, was expecting to stay in the family home.

Dale Snyder, 69, meanwhile, said he certainly would return to his riverside property as quickly as possible. Unless, he said, the city built a levee like the one now in place just downstream from him. A levee would ruin everything for him, he said.

Dostal Catering’s Frank Stephen, 57, who was still operating on Friday from a new spot, said he wasn’t about to call it quits.

“There’s too much of a history with Dostal Catering just to walk away from it,” he said.

Jim Macek, 64, spent Friday buying supplies to begin the clean-up effort at his 30-employee Reliable Machine & Manufacturing Co. in the Time Check Neighborhood.

“It’s going to be expensive, but it’s recoverable,” said Macek, who is an engineer as well as a plant owner and operator.

He, too, had been following the forecasts based on the river gauge just like everyone else.

What he said he most wants to know in the days and weeks ahead – after he cleans up “a real mess” left by up to six-feet of water in his plant – is what mix of forces came into play to make the river get to where it got.

“That would be interesting to me,” Macek said. “It would make me feel a lot better about the projections.”

  1. I think this is a very nice article. There is something exceptional about it but I can not find the appropriate words.

  2. Hi Rick:

    My mom sent me your link. I’ve been watching the news this week about the flood. I’m so sad to see our town float away. Really sad.
    I’m adding you to my blogroll. Come visit me.

    Best, Doc Casten’s daughter. Also known as Mother Jones, RN.

  3. Yah Rick — Great read. I shared it with most of my co-workers and friends. I agree with Concerned Citizen, there is something exceptional about it.

  4. A sobering article written with feeling and insight.This truly showcases a special talent only a very few have.
    Regards from an old neighbor in Pennsylvania.

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