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

Archive for the ‘Floods’ Category

Loebsack and Army Corps of Engineers say they can think of at least two things at once: flood protection and watershed management

In City Hall, Floods, Rep. Dave Loebsack on June 1, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Congressman Dave Loebsack and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say they can think of more than one thing at the same time when it comes to flood control and water management.

Actually, it’s the ability to think of two or more parts of the same issue — in this case, flood protection and watershed management as part of the larger issue of water management — at the same time, Loebsack and Corps officials say.

The issue was the topic of discussion Friday as second-termer Loebsack, D- Mount Vernon, plied the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids in a small boat with Lt. Col. Michael Clarke, district commander of the Army Corps’ Rock Island, Ill., district office, Dennis Hamilton, the Corps; district chief of project management, and Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer.

Loebsack and the others were taking a look from the river back toward shore to get a feel for the damage caused by the June 2008 flood and a feel for how a new flood-protection system in the city might change the river and the shoreline.

There were a couple other small boats in the mix, too, so that TV news crews and a newspaper photographer could better get photos and video of Loebsack and the Corps officials and Elgin getting a look around.

Of course, this was something of a dog-and-pony show, but it is one that might help bring the cows home sooner than otherwise would be possible.

Loebsack made a little news just by questions he asked. What would happen if Congress quickly appropriated funding to build a flood-protection system even before the necessary feasibility study was completed? he asked.

In that one question, the Congressman gave the impression it might be possible to secure money within the two years it is supposed to take for a feasibility study. Local officials have been preparing for the fact that it could take eight to 15 years to get a flood-protection system in place.

In the 40-or-so minute river trip, Loebsack and the Corps officials were asked if it might not make sense to set aside plans on a flood-protection system for Cedar Rapids for now and focus on what changes can be made in the vast Cedar River watershed above the city.

Loebsack said it was necessary to establish a watershed management program over time to make sure flood mitigation works.

The Corps’ Hamilton noted that, in fact, the Corps has now begun a watershed study on the Cedar and Iowa rivers as part of the Corps’ Upper Mississippi River Comprehensive Plan.

Such a study won’t result in the call to build a new, giant reservoir upstream someplace, which he said require the flooding of too much land at too great a cost.

Hamilton also said improving the management of the watershed was needed, not just to help with lessening the risk of flood, but to improve water quality, enhance natural habitats and to help better use recreational resources.

Hamilton said improvements in the watershed above the city can only do so much for flood protection.

“It’s not realistic to expect flooding in Cedar Rapids to be preventable solely due to watershed changes,” Hamilton said.

“It’s an important aspect” he said of watershed management. “It can reduce flooding in the future, and we certainly want to make sure that the watershed is properly managed so flooding doesn’t ever get any worse than it is now, and hopefully it gets even a little better.

“But to expect watershed improvements by themselves will prevent flooding in Cedar Rapids, we don’t feel like it is a realistic plan.”

Better watershed management is one piece of the larger approach to flood prevention, which also includes moving people out of flood plains and building levees and floodwalls where it makes sense, Hamilton said.

The Corps’ Cedar Rapids flood-protection feasibility study, as now conceived, will be complete in draft form by the summer of 2010 and in final form by February or March of 2011.

Estimates have been as high as $1 billion to build a system of levees and floodwalls to protect Cedar Rapids against a flood the size of the 2008 one.


City readies to take down 71 more flood-damaged homes, but not before councilman Wieneke questions costly caution over asbestos

In City Hall, Floods on May 29, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Seventy down, the next 71 or so at the ready, 1,150 or so to go.

The City Council this week gave the go-ahead to demolish 71 more flood-damaged properties.

The demolition of a first group of 70 properties, most of which were homes, was completed at the end of April.

This next group of properties is part of a group of homes tagged with red placards in the city’s worst-to-best system of purple, red, yellow and green placards. The purple-placarded homes came down first.

The decision this week to go ahead with 71 or so more homes did not come with some disagreement.

Council member Chuck Wieneke took great exception to the city’s plan to – as it did with the purple-placarded homes – treat the next 71 homes as too unsafe to enter. With that status, the city plan is that the properties can’t be checked for asbestos and the asbestos, if found, can’t be removed before demolition.

As a result, the entire property is considered to be asbestos-containing material, which requires special handling and increased costs during demolition.

Wieneke said he had “real heartburn” with the idea that the city would be paying what he said would be five times the regular demolition cost because of the decision about asbestos. He estimated the cost to demolish each house as it it had asbestos at $35,000 to $37,000.

He noted that many of the red-placarded houses have been entered by the homeowners with the assistance of city staff since the flood, and he didn’t see why city staff couldn’t do the same now to identify and mitigate any asbestos.

Wieneke said he’d be willing to walk into the homes.

City Manager Jim Prosser and Tim Manz, the city’s interim manager of code enforcement, countered, telling Wieneke that the city’s latest round of inspections found these 71 properties to be the worst of what is left standing and too unsafe to enter.

Manz said the structural instability of the 71 properties was similar to the purple-placarded homes that have now been demolished.

He noted that the city has another 140 homes that it has received permission from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take down, and he said that group of homes likely will allow for asbestos assessment and removal before demolition.

Council member Justin Shields said it was best to err on the side of safety. Manz assured council member Tom Podzimek that the owners were being notified before the demolitions.

Bids for the work must be submitted to the city by 11 a.m. June 11.

The contract calls for an estimated 71 structures to be down by Sept. 25.

The city continues to await additional federal Community Development Block Grant funds, which it plans to use to pay for buyouts and demolitions of most of the 1,300 flood-damaged homes and other structures it expects to buy out.

FEMA has agreed to pay for demolitions of a few hundred of the worst-damaged properties.

Steam committee suggests splitting $21 million this way: $8 million for five of eight big users; $8 million for little users; and $5 million to lower bills

In City Hall, Floods on May 26, 2009 at 6:36 pm

The City Council this week will decide how it wants to dispense $21 million in federal and state dollars to help users of the downtown steam system convert to their own replacement systems.

A city review team — which includes city staff members, downtown business representatives, state leaders and large and small steam customers — is proposing a reimbursement program that devotes $8 million of the $21 million in aid for large customers, $8 million for smaller customers and $5 million to help “buy down” the cost of higher steam bills.

Of the $5 million, 70 percent will go to big users, though they represented 86 percent of overall steam usage from Alliant Energy’s flood-wrecked Sixth Street Generating Station, according to a memo to the City Council.

The plant, which had provided cheap steam for eight large customers and about 200 smaller ones, won’t be rebuilt because of cost. One plan to try to find federal and state money to rebuild the plant as it was — as a coal plant — was nixed by the City Council as spending too much public money on an old plant and an old technology.

According to this week’s council memo, the assumption is that a portion of the $8 million designated for the large customers — the Quaker and Cargill plants next to downtown are among the eight — won’t go to customers Coe College and the two hospitals because it is anticipated they will receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

City hires OPN Architects for $400,000 to help with open houses to determine future of flood-damaged city buildings; county, schools dropped out of process

In City Hall, Floods on May 26, 2009 at 5:57 pm

The much-anticipated series of public open houses will start June 23 to help the city determine the future of flood-damaged city buildings.
And Wednesday evening, the City Council hired OPN Architects Inc. of Cedar Rapids for $400,000 to help lead the several-month process.

OPN not only will help conduct the public open houses, but the firm also will provide design and planning options and an analysis of the costs involved in renovating buildings or building new ones.

OPN’s contract runs from May 28 through Oct. 31 and may be renewed in 60-day increments.

Among the key flood-damaged buildings under discussion will be the library, the Paramount Theatre, the Ground Transportation Center bus depot, the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, the Public Works Building and the existing federal courthouse, which the city is scheduled to assume ownership of once the new federal courthouse opens in the fall of 2012.

Sufficient damage was done to the library that it will be rebuilt not renovated, and the city’s library board already has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to allow the city to rebuild the library on a different site.

The council also will be interested in hearing about proposals to build a new City Hall, called a community services center, a new Public Safety Training Center and a new community operations center, which would house city departments like fleet maintenance, streets and solid waste.

Only city government is left to participate in the lengthy process to get public input on facilities.

Some months ago, both Linn County government and the Cedar Rapids school district were involved in the facilities process when the idea was that the differing jurisdictions might “co-locate” in a shared facility.
The county dropped out a few months ago, saying they wanted to move faster than the city. The school district dropped out this month.

Flood-recovery milestone reached: All 70 purple-placarded properties now demolished and off to the dump

In City Hall, Floods on May 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

One flood-recovery landmark has been reached.

All 70 of the worst-damaged properties – the ones with purple placards signifying they were too unsafe to enter – have now all been demolished, City Hall reports.

The last of the properties, most of which were homes, came down at the end of April.

The demolition effort took some months to start after a couple false starts over bidding.

Some of the job was done by winter, when it then had to take a break because water used to control possible asbestos dust from the properties would have frozen. The properties were so unsafe that crews couldn’t enter to assess asbestos materials inside. As a result, all the demolition debris had to be treated as asbestos-containing material.

In recent months, city officials successfully lobbied the Federal Emergency Management Agency to have the agency pay for the demolition of another 200 or 300 or so homes. Those are the ones, also considered too unsafe to enter, with red placards in the city’s best-to-worst system of green, yellow, red and purple placards.

Those demolitions are expected to begin in July once paperwork requirements are satisfied, city officials said this week.

In total, the city estimates it may buy out and demolish 1,300 homes and other properties at a total cost of $175 million.

Much of the buyout money will come from federal Community Development Block Grant funds, and the city is expecting word any time from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development of the next large release of CDBG disaster money.

In the meantime, the city has set up a buyout assessment system and is in the process of interviewing those wanting a buyout whose homes qualify.

Council rejects push for special new committee in fight for $118.5-million in I-JOBS money; it says established flood-recovery committee is already there to help

In City Hall, Floods on May 21, 2009 at 8:10 am

The business community apparently continues to want to create new entities to try to help the City Council.

This time, City Council member Justin Shields told his council colleagues Wednesday evening that a noontime meeting Wednesday of some local business and other leaders led to the suggestion of a special new committee to help the city decide which projects it should get behind in the competition for $118.5 million in state I-JOBS stimulus funds.

Backers of several local projects are interested in a piece of the $118.5 million in state-distributed funds, including, no doubt, those eager for a new community center/recreation center and also those who want to upgrade the U.S. Cellular Center and add a convention center to it.

At the suggestion of new help, the council, though, decided it didn’t need to create something new to decide how best to compete for the state I-JOBS money.

The council will use the City Hall-based Recovery and Reinvestment Coordinating Team, which has been in place and providing advice to the council since the early days of flood recovery.

Shields and council member Chuck Wieneke both noted that the RRCT has representation from a wide sector of community interests, including the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown District as well as leaders in housing, arts and culture, non-profit agencies, neighborhoods and government.

Council member Monica Vernon and Shields said it was important that the council pick a couple of quality projects and get them submitted to the state I-JOBS competition quickly.

Forget the “wish lists,” Shields said.

As for getting pushed by outside forces, the council currently is in the process of hiring a flood recovery manager, the majority of whose salary will be paid for by the private sector. This was a private-sector idea pushed by Rockwell Collins.

The council also is contributing some money to a private-sector creation, the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp., which came to be, to a degree, from some private-sector frustration with City Hall over the pace of flood recovery.

Shields last night said there is a sense in the community that Cedar Rapids never fares very well in competitions for money that the state hands out. So, he said, it was important to make a good case.

At the same time, the state already has earmarked other I-JOBS money to Cedar Rapids and Linn County in the tune of $45.5 million. Proposals to secure these funds must be submitted by Sept. 1.

Of that money, $5 million goes to each of three flood-damaged city buildings, the library, Public Works Building and Paramount Theatre, with another $5 million to provide steam replacement assistance for those who have been on the flood-wrecked downtown steam system. The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library is receiving $10 million as are backers of a new human services building. Options of Linn County is getting $5 million the city of Palo’s fire station, $500,000.

Organized group of local spin-doctors and flak-catchers didn’t get NBC News here; hope still alive they’ll land Katie or Charlie Gibson

In Floods on May 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

The local cadre of public relations pros isn’t responsible.

In any event, NBC News’ national operation is in Cedar Rapids to work up a news piece on Cedar Rapids’ flood recovery.

SanDee Skelton, a flood victim still in a FEMA trailer who expects to return to her renovated home at 1125 10th St. NW within a month, reports that she is one of a few slated for an interview.

NBC News’ Dallas-based coordinating producer Al Henkel has set up the interview with her, she says.

Which is perfect.

Henkel, who was in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, grew up in Cedar Rapids, is a 1977 Jefferson High School, and lived in the Cedar Hills neighborhood, which stayed high and dry in the 2008 flood. He went on to graduate from Iowa State University in 1982, and worked at KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids from 1982 to 1983. He won an Emmy award for his coverage of the 1993 flood in Des Moines, and he won Emmy, Peabody and Murrow awards for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Skelton says Henkel wants her to talk about the group of retired electricians, plumbers and pipefitters who worked on her house and who were covered in recent local stories.

Henkel, she says, got her name from Liz Mathis, spokeswoman for the Four Oaks family-services agency.
Mathis on Tuesday said that the push in the last 10 days by local public-relations professionals to attract national media to Cedar Rapids to report on the city’s one-year anniversary of flood recovery is not what got NBC News to town.

Mathis says local news coverage by The Gazette and KCRG-TV of local retired electricians and plumbers helping flood victims captured NBC’s attention.

By the way, Mathis, a former long-time TV news anchor, was the one who convinced the local media to cover the story in recent weeks.

Tuesday morning, Henkel said via e-mail he wasn’t sure when the NBC piece might be broadcast.

Mr. $475-an-hour — who became Mr. $225-an-hour — still a vital cog in the city’s drive to get all it can from FEMA

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods on May 14, 2009 at 9:58 am

The City Council approved a contract extension last night for John Levy.

The extension takes Levy’s contract through June 30, adds $186,400 to the cost of it and brings the total cost to $786,400. The contract began Oct. 1.

Levy showed up at City Hall even as flood water was receding last June. He came with disaster experience from Hurricane Katrina and a message: Experience makes all the difference for cities if they are to make sure they get all they deserve in flood-disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Levy was then an executive with an entity called Globe Midwest, and after the city hired him, he achieved a measure of celebrity when it became noted that the city was paying the firm $475 an hour for Levy’s services.

In the first three months after the flood, the city paid Globe Midwest $691,000.

The city had a parallel contract for other flood-recovery duties with a second disaster-services firm, Adjusters International, to which the city had paid $645,000 in the first three months of recovery.
Last September, the city put the contracts up for new bids. Several firms competed, but Adjusters International won one contract, and Levy, who created his own company, Base Tactical Disaster Recovery, won the second contract. The new contract, at least at its inception, called for Levy’s new firm to get paid $225 an hour for his services.

In a memo this week to the City Council, city staff members note that Levy’s current contract extended through Jan. 9, 2009, and had been extended twice, through May 9, at no additional cost.

The city says Levy matters.

At a Veterans Memorial Commission meeting earlier this week, Levy was center stage as commission members challenged City Manager Jim Prosser about why renovations to the city’s flood-damaged Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island hadn’t yet begun. The city has suggested the building has had $25 million in damage.

Prosser called on Levy.

Levy explained the negotiation that cities and FEMA engage in as they come to some agreement on how much damage has occurred to a building. The city has weighed in with its “worksheet” on the damages, while FEMA is still working on its worksheet. FEMA was preparing for a fourth visit to the building, he said. Negotiations then would follow. After that, a second process takes place in which the city presents its plan on how it will mitigate against flood damage to the building in the future, Levy said.

Prosser noted that the city estimates it may have as much as $500 million in damage to its public buildings and facilities. Moving FEMA by a few percentage points on the size of damages is worth millions of dollars to the city, he noted.

Council members weren’t kidding about killing a downtown coal plant; they now put their support for federal bucks behind a better U.S. Cellular Center and a new community/rec facility

In City Hall, Floods on May 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The chase continues for federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Commerce that the Cedar Rapids community never really knew much about until it started trying to recover from last June’s flood.

A line of local projects is lined up for a shot at this pot of federal funds, and each of the project sponsors has come to City Hall asking the City Council to provide the required council endorsement of their projects.

A few weeks ago, the council decided to prioritize the requests so the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration might use that information to help it make a decision on what to spend money on in Cedar Rapids.

And a few weeks ago, the council put the concept of some kind of new downtown steam plant at the top of its list.

But that was then. Last week, the council pulled the plug on any plans to rebuild Alliant Energy’s flood-damaged Sixth Street Generating Station using public dollars because the plan called for the plant to burn coal. The council can make such a decision because federal funds have to come through the city. They can’t come to privately owned Alliant.

The council is now ready to pass a new resolution with new priorities for how it would like to see Commerce Department funds spent in the city.

There no longer is any mention of a community steam plant.

At the top of the new list is a plan to upgrade the city’s U.S. Cellular Center and add a new convention center to it. Next in line, is a plan to build a new community center/recreation center to replace the flood-damaged Witwer Senior Center and Time Check Recreation Center and the aged Ambroz Recreation Center and outdated Bender indoor pool.

Both projects are among the fifteen projects in the Fifteen in 5 community planning initiative, which was conceived in 2005.

Below the U.S. Cellular Center and community center/rec center on the priority list: a new Economic Commerce Center; steam systems for Coe College and the two hospitals; planning to remedy freight train traffic in the downtown; and funding for a joint communications network now being built to connect city, county and school facilities.