Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Floods force mandatory evacuations in Iowa – USA TODAY

Floods force mandatory evacuations in Iowa – USA TODAY

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USA Today Network
Kelly McGowan and Tony Leys, The Des Moines Register
9:27 p.m. EDT September 24, 2016

  • Aerial view of flooding on Cedar and Shell Rock rivers

    Aerial view of flooding on Cedar and Shell Rock rivers

  • Emotional video shows Iowan resiliency amidst destructive floods

    Emotional video shows Iowan resiliency amidst destructive floods

  • Raw video: Deck rams USGS monitoring station in Shell Rock

    Raw video: Deck rams USGS monitoring station in Shell Rock

  • Evacuees compare flooding in Waverly to 2008

    Evacuees compare flooding in Waverly to 2008

  • Flooding overtakes Northeast Iowa

    Flooding overtakes Northeast Iowa

  • Branstad and Reynolds update Iowa on #Flood2016

    Branstad and Reynolds update Iowa on #Flood2016

  • Sandbagging in Greene

    Sandbagging in Greene

PALO, Iowa — In 2008, quite a few folks around here balked when authorities told them they needed to flee their homes because floodwaters were coming. That’s less likely now, residents and officials said Saturday.

“There was a lot of resistance last time. People were like, ‘Really? It’s not actually going to get that high, is it?’” Palo resident Kim Hutchins recalled.

But it did get that high, and then some. Cedar River water poured into homes, trashing belongings and leaving residents to scramble for high ground.

This time, when authorities starting ringing the alarm after last week’s upstream deluge, residents started piling their belongings into trucks and trailers and preparing to leave.

About 25 Palo homes were evacuated Saturday as thousands of eastern Iowa residents continued to brace for the rising floodwaters of the Cedar River. Sandbagging operations continued in Cedar Rapids, where evacuations are expected to begin at 8 p.m. CT Sunday.

Cedar Rapids officials are helping with sandbagging and evacuation efforts in Palo, and encouraged anyone who is not volunteering to avoid all affected areas.

“We’re just trying to be more proactive than we were in ’08,” said Palo Mayor Tom Yock, “trying to save as many homes as we can.”

Hutchins’ Palo neighborhood is near the Cedar River, and it’s right next to a creek that feeds the river. She and several dozen neighbors were ordered to evacuate by late Saturday afternoon, and they weren’t disputing the need. As Hutchins packed up her kitchen, friends worked down in her basement to unhook her furnace and drag it up to her garage, where they planned to put it on concrete blocks. Her water heater was already up there, and much of her furniture was being piled onto trailers.

At least with this flood, there was time for residents to assess the seriousness of the situation, and get to work.

“They’ve been telling us it was coming for days. Last time, we had eight or 10 hours to get out,” said Hutchins, 53, who planned to go stay with her mother.

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While her friends packed trailers, a National Guard Humvee drove by, with soldiers checking on security needs. It’s the first time since 2011 that the Iowa Guard has been called up for such duty.

In nearby Cedar Rapids, the residents of about 5,000 homes had been advised to evacuate before the floodwaters hit Monday night. Mayor Ron Corbett said in an interview that he hopes residents will heed the warning, especially after what they saw in 2008.

The evacuation is not mandatory, Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Mark English said, but is very strongly recommended. Officials, including the Iowa National Guard, will enforce an 8 p.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday curfew in evacuated areas.

“We want you to today take care of your belongings and your pets (Saturday),” Corbett said. “(Sunday), we want you to take care of yourself.”

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Corbett said the city is advising residents to evacuate if their homes are within an area that would be inundated if the river reaches 28 feet deep. By Saturday afternoon, the forecast crest had dropped a bit, from 25.3 feet to 24 feet. But it could depend on whether more rain falls upstream.

“You know how they say football’s a game of inches? Flood protection is definitely a game of inches,” he said.

That game of inches brought a sliver of good news elsewhere, too. Cedar Falls saw crest predictions drop more than a foot Saturday, and Waterloo saw a roughly 3-foot drop in predictions. As of 5 p.m. Saturday, the river was expected to crest at 99 feet Saturday evening in Cedar Falls, and 23.6 feet Sunday morning in Waterloo.

The stakes would be even higher in Cedar Rapids if authorities hadn’t led an effort to buy out the owners of 1,350 homes that flooded in 2008. About 45 acres of green space now line the river where many of those homes once stood. Corbett said that at the time, it was the second-biggest such buyout in U.S. history, after only the New Orleans buyouts after Hurricane Katrina.

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Corbett talked on a sidewalk across the street from where construction workers were filling temporary barricades with sand to try to keep floodwater from pouring into a neighborhood near downtown. The area was supposed to be protected by a floodwall by now, but the city’s huge flood-protection project has been held up by a lack of millions of federal dollars.

The mayor met on the sidewalk Saturday with a cluster of fellow government officials, led by Gov. Terry Branstad and the state’s two U.S. senators. Branstad, speaking up to be heard over the roar of front-end loaders and the beeping of dump trucks, said he understood federal officials’ desire to ensure floodwalls and levees are cost-effective. The Republican governor generally touts small government, but he said in this case, state and local officials have pledged to do their part, and the federal government should step up, too.

“They have a responsibility in terms of public safety,” he said. “And they’ve spent a lot of money on other things in other places.”

State Rep. Art Staed pressed Iowa’s members of Congress on the issue in a meeting in Cedar Rapids earlier Saturday. The Cedar Rapids Democrat said residents are frustrated by the delays in building permanent flood protections.

“We need a long-term solution to this,” Staed said.

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