Floodwaters swamp Iowa town; drinking water all but gone

Saturday, June 14, 2008

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Hospital patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers were evacuated in the middle of the night as the biggest flood Cedar Rapids has ever seen swamped more than 400 blocks Friday and all but cut off the supply of clean drinking water in the city of 120,000.

As many as 10,000 townspeople driven from their homes by the rain-swollen Cedar River took shelter at schools and hotels or moved in with relatives.

About 100 miles to the west, officials in Iowa's biggest city, Des Moines, urged people in low-lying areas to clear out by Friday evening. The Des Moines River was expected to crest at 8 p.m., but officials said just before the expected peak that a malfunctioning gauge may have led them to overestimate how high it would rise.

Officials became less worried that the levees would be topped, but U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Roger Less said the city of 190,000 residents would not be out of danger until today.

"We have a lot of soft spots in those levees," Less said. "We are still at very high river levels even though we are starting to see some slight drops." He added: "We don't think the victory is won at this point."

Mayor Frank Cownie, who said the call evacuation call was an attempt to "err on the side of citizens and residents," later said he didn't regret that residents were advised to leave, despite the faulty gauge.

"Absolutely not," Mayor Frank Cownie said. "I was here in 1993. I saw what happened. I saw what happened to my business. I saw what was happening to every other thing in Des Moines."

The flooding was blamed for at least two deaths in Iowa.

Since June 6, Iowa has gotten at least 8 inches of rain. That came after a wet spring that left the ground saturated. As of Friday, nine rivers were at or above historic flood levels. More thunderstorms are possible in the Cedar Rapids area over the weekend.

In Cedar Rapids, the engorged river flowed freely through downtown. At least 438 city blocks were under water, and in some neighborhoods the water was 8 feet high.

For decades, Cedar Rapids escaped any major, widespread flooding, even during the Midwest deluge of 1993, and many people had grown confident that rising water would pose no danger to their city. The flood this time didn't just break records; it shattered them.

The Cedar River was expected to crest Friday night at nearly 32 feet, 12 feet higher than the old record set in 1929.

Flooding left 2 inches of water in the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday night, and water spilling into the lower levels threatened to knock out the hospital's emergency generator.

A total of 176 patients -- some of them frail, about 30 of them from a nursing home at the medical center -- were moved to other hospitals in an all-night operation that was not completed until daybreak.

Gov. Chet Culver declared 83 of the state's 99 counties disaster areas, a designation that helps speed aid and opens the way for loans and grants. The damage in Cedar Rapids alone was a preliminary $737 million, Fire Department spokesman Dave Koch said.

Officials warned people to conserve drinking water after floodwaters knocked out electricity to all but one of the city's half-dozen or more wells. The one working well was protected by sandbags and generators that were pumping water away from it.

Hotels implored guests to use water only for drinking.

Interstate 80 was closed east of Iowa City to Davenport after the Cedar River washed over the highway.

Violent thunderstorms Thursday and Friday brought widespread flooding to Michigan's Lower Peninsula that authorities say left some roads and bridges unstable or impassable.

Weary residents in waterlogged southern Wisconsin began cleaning up Friday from a new spate of storms the night before, including nine reported tornadoes and some flash floods.

People in several northern Missouri communities, meanwhile, were piling up sandbags to prepare for flooding in the Missouri River, expected to crest over the weekend, and a more significant rise in the Mississippi River expected Wednesday.

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