Three years on, New Orleans still makes headlines for the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, which caused about $400 million in infrastructure damage. Yet 1,000 miles north, on the usually quiet banks of the Cedar River in the usually quiet city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, summer floods are racking up even higher damage estimates approaching $570 million.

So as New Orleans continues its much-publicized rebuilding process, Iowa's second-largest city has begun its own, much-less-heralded rebuilding process.

Ironically, Cedar Rapids officials had dubbed 2008 the “Year of the River.” But riverfront redevelopment plans were all but lost when the second snowiest winter on record gave way to an unusually rainy spring.

By the end of June, average rainfall statewide was 23.8 inches, setting a record for the first six months of the year. In Cedar Rapids, rain pounded already waterlogged areas; some sections got 6 inches on June 12 alone, one day before the river crested at 31.12 inches.

“The June 13 flood event was actually the second major flood in Cedar Rapids this year,” says Public Works Director Dave Elgin, PE. “The rains were following the crests, which progressively increased the depths of the crests downstream.”


Because spring floods frequently occur throughout the Midwest, many river cities combat this natural event with a systematic program in which just about any water depth has a counter measure.

“We consider it a methodical engineering response,” says Craig Hanson, PE, Cedar Rapids' public works maintenance manager. “We have a flood program manual covering lessons learned from the previous 150 years of flooding.” The manual was formalized by city staff and the public works department from a series of flood summary documents generated in 1993, when the Cedar River crested at just above 19 feet.

The manual, which includes personnel assignments, is revised yearly. “We conduct annual flood training for all public works personnel in early March because the earliest historic major flood occurred March 16 and 17,” Elgin adds.

This year, at least initially, this systematic approach worked as planned. But as the rain continued, water levels soon surpassed the program's limits.

In late April, the river crested at 17 feet. Working from the manual's historical data, public works crews plugged select storm sewers and placed pumps in low-lying areas to avoid sewer backups. The efforts worked.

But by June, ever-changing crest projections were hampering mitigation efforts.

Typically, the Cedar River slowly meanders through downtown Cedar Rapids at depths of less than 8 feet. With a flood stage of 12 feet and major flooding at 16 feet, the 100- and 500-year floodplains are set at 22.5 and 26.5 feet, respectively.

A week before the peak crest, projections were approximately 18 feet, so the department followed manual procedure for that flood stage and began evacuating low-lying areas. “We're the trigger mechanism for local law enforcement's reverse 911 system,” Hanson says.

While the police and fire departments carried out evacuation orders for portions of the city, public works analyzed topographical maps and watched forecasts to determine the next potential round of evacuations. “We also repositioned the pumps out of the flooded areas to the next line of defense,” says Elgin.

Then projections were raised to 19 to 20 feet. Nearly all of the department's 174 employees were placed on 24-hour rotations: 12 hours on the job and 12 off. Sandbagging equipment was deployed as attention focused on the city's levee system. “In general, the levees are built to withstand a 100-year flood, but there are a few low areas around 20 feet,” Hanson says.

Soon after, a third revised crest projection came in — 24.5 feet — rendering the manual obsolete. “All our historical data points go back to a record level of 20 feet, which has only been reached twice,” Elgin says.

City crews quickly employed their own equipment to build earthen dikes to 24.5 feet to protect houses and businesses, only to receive yet another river crest prediction. This time it was 28 feet.

On June 13, the Cedar River finally crested at 31.12 feet, more than 11 feet above the previous record crest and 19 feet above flood stage, discharging water at a rate of 155,000 cubic feet/second — enough water to top the much wider Mississippi River at Dubuque, Iowa.


“The magnitude of this flood and the damage it caused is almost incomprehensible,” says Brian Fagan, at-large Cedar Rapids City Council member and mayor pro tem. It gave city leaders the opportunity to put their National Incident Management System (N.I.M.S) training to practice.

A perimeter around affected areas was established and patrolled by the National Guard while public works crews went about their work. “There were canyons of debris covering the road,” Fagan says.

“We found major sinkholes and foundation damage to homes that we had to address before allowing the public back into flooded areas,” Hanson adds. “There were also 56 inoperable traffic signals and 800 traffic regulation signs destroyed.”

Clearing the streets was just the beginning. Everything that the water touched in the 7,198 effected parcels — 5,390 residential, 1,049 commercial, 486 tax-exempt, 84 industrial, and 51 agricultural — had to be discarded. Houses were stripped to the studs.

All of the city's trucks, loaders, and skidsteers were mobilized to clear debris. Local contractor Manatts Construction Co. donated hauling equipment to the effort, as did the Iowa DOT and Terex Construction Americas, which donated two SKL 873 loaders, two TX 7608 backhoes, two HR 16 mini-excavators, and five Genie TML-40000 light towers.

One of the two loaders went to Cedar Rapids and the other to Palo, a suburb of about 900 residents. Nearly 98% of Palo's 423 homes were flooded, and public works officials there had to rely primarily on donated equipment. “By quickly clearing the debris, we were able to keep the fly, gnat, and mosquito populations at bay, reducing the potential of illness,” says Tom Watson, the town's infrastructure commander.

Using three donated loaders, city workers hauled away most of the debris within a month of the river's crest. Without the equipment, Watson estimates the effort would have taken 30% longer.

The next major challenge was figuring out where to unload all the debris.

The Cedar Rapids-Linn County Solid Waste Agency operates two landfills, but only one — which is a 50-mile round trip from downtown Cedar Rapids — was open.

Sitting idle at the epicenter of the flood was the other landfill, which was capped in 2006 with 285,000 cubic yards of capacity left. The site offered a much shorter hauling distance, quicker trash removal, fuel savings, and less truck interaction with the motoring public.

“Given the circumstances, the agency, along with local, state, and federal government, realized that reopening the landfill was the best alternative,” says Education Coordinator Stacie Johnson. The Department of Natural Resources granted an emergency, 90-day temporary permit within a week of the river's crest.

Within the first six weeks after the flood, 72,428 tons of debris — more than 40% of the typical yearly intake for Cedar Rapids — were sent to the landfill.


Along with debris removal, public works managers focused on getting essential city services back on line.

Although Cedar Rapids has a population of 125,000, its water and waste-water consumption is equivalent to a city of 1.2 million residents thanks to an industrial base that generates two-thirds of the city's wastewater.

The city's drinking water system consisted of four high-capacity wells that collect an average of 8.5 mgd of water each and 46 vertical wells that each collect 1 mgd. All of the vertical wells and three of the four collector wells were left inoperable by the flood.

The day before the floodwaters peaked, the last working collector well was also in jeopardy. “We mobilized 10,000 sand bags to the site and at 9:30 p.m. put out a call for volunteers via the local news stations, which were providing 24-hour flood coverage,” Hanson recalls. Within 45 minutes, more than 600 residents were in line, four deep and 100 yards long, to move and position sandbags. The well was saved, but the water supply was not yet secure.

With only one operating collector well, the city turned to the neighboring cities of Hiawatha and Marion, which have share mutual aid agreements for fire and police, for additional water resources. Cedar Rapids also provides wastewater treatment for the two suburbs, so even without a mutual aid agreement for water it was likely that they would provide additional water, Elgin says, adding that Cedar Rapids collected water from fire hydrants in the cities.

After tapping into these alternative water sources, Cedar Rapids was producing 13 mgd but using 39 million gallons. In a press conference, officials pleaded with residents and businesses to curtail usage while utility crews worked feverishly to get a second collector well on line.

As soon as the waters receded enough to reveal the structure of the second collector well, motors, components, and workers were airlifted to the site and got it back on line within a few days. By early August, 80% of water production capacity was back on line.

Meanwhile, although built above the 100-year floodplain, the wastewater treatment plant was inundated with water, leaving the electrical and other components inoperable but the structure intact. The initial drinking-water crisis gave city workers somewhat of a break because water usage was significantly curtailed, reducing the volume of untreated wastewater discharged into the river by about 60%. (Under normal conditions, fewer than 40 million gallons are treated daily.)

After the main lift station was repaired, trash pumps were deployed to prevent sewer backups into flooded houses. Within four weeks of the flooding, primary treatment was on line. The first stage of secondary treatment — removal of microscopic contamination — was in service by the end of July. The chlorination/dechlorination disinfection processes were anticipated to be back on line by late September.

“It will take some time, but we will rebuild to be stronger and more sustainable than before the flood,” Fagan says, pointing out that there were no flood-related deaths. “We're not just quickly building to close the gaps for the next two to three years. We're rebuilding for future generations.”

— Rick Zettler is a resident of Cedar Rapids and president of Z-Comm, a company specializing in construction and aggregate equipment marketing, public relations and freelance writing.

Web Extra

To learn how Cedar Rapids is paying its rebuilding expenses, visit the “article links” page under “resources” at

Do-it-yourself reimbursement

Why one victim of recent flooding in the Midwest decided not to involve a third party when applying for federal aid.

Some people consider the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) a villain, but Tom Watson, infrastructure commander for the tiny Iowa town of Palo (population less than 1,000), enjoyed working with the agency after the Cedar River flooded the town in June.

One source of FEMA's reputation as being difficult may be the adjustor companies that offer their services as intermediaries between the community and the federal agency after disasters. Such companies gave Palo city officials the impression that their services had to be used to qualify for federal reimbursement. Not true.

“The companies charge administration fees ranging from 3% to 10% for submitting paperwork, and another 10% of total reimbursement for their services,” Watson says. The company claims applicants will get more federal money by using their services, thus covering the additional expense of using their expertise.

Palo chose to work directly with FEMA. In addition to being the town's infrastructure commander, Watson owns a local contracting company and had worked with federal agencies, so he knew what to do.

“Working with the adjustors wasn't the right decision for Palo,” says Watson, who encourages small communities with limited budgets to consider taking the same path. “We wanted to keep the money local. Paying the adjustor's charges plus the city's 15% contribution required by FEMA to the overall damage totals was just taking too much from Palo's coffers.”

FEMA also proved flexible, helping officials fill out and submit the appropriate worksheets for reimbursable items and offering some latitude in how the money is spent.

“Items must be brought back to preflood conditions,” Watson says. “But the guidelines allow a city to declare an ‘alternate project,' and up to 90% of the funds for the project can be redirected.”