City eyes ways to prevent last year’s flood devastation

BY CHRIS CLARK | JUNE 08, 2009 7:26 AM

Because Dubuque Street was flooded, it took a fire truck nearly three times longer than usual to reach its destination, Fire Chief Andy Rocca said last July.

A year later, officials are mulling over projects to prevent Dubuque Street — a major artery in and out of the city — from being submerged in case of a future disaster.

“The project would open up more opportunities for transportation,” said Iowa City engineer Ron Knoche. “It’s a major area of transportation from Coralville and into the downtown.”

While a number of flood-stricken areas still need assistance, city officials made the elevation of Dubuque Street and the renovation of the Park Road bridge a priority — a combined project estimated to cost around $32 million.

Knoche said the changes would reduce the water level by at least 14 inches near the bridge — the estimated amount of backwater it caused in last year’s flood.

While the main reason for raising Dubuque Street is to provide a route for transportation, Rick Fosse, the Iowa City public-works director, said the elevation could also act as a barrier directly in front of Mayflower, though it is not intended to protect it completely.

UI officials estimated they have spent $8 million in repairs to Mayflower so far, and they expect the cost to increase. UI spokesman Tom Moore said officials have been discussing a few mitigation projects to help prevent similar damage in the future.

One possibility is raising the sidewalk on the riverbank to a consistent elevation to act as a floodwall and to make it wide enough to accommodate temporary flood barriers if water levels increase.

Knoche said although there is no final word on exactly how much Dubuque Street would be raised, the project would probably lower water levels in Mayflower by around 1 foot — compared with the 3 or 4 feet it saw last summer.

Last year was not the first time Dubuque Street caused difficulties during a disaster. City officials considered raising the street several times after the flood of 1993 but decided against it.

Mayor Regenia Bailey said she was unsure specifically why the council decided against the projects in 1993, but she said a lot of people in the community felt the flood was “an unusual event.”

“A lot of people thought they wouldn’t see anything similar again in their lifetime,” she said. “But, there we were in 2008, seeing something even worse.”

Fosse said the addition of Park Road bridge to the project sets this proposal apart from the 1993 considerations. It was not part of the project then.

“Elevating Dubuque Street will have an impact on flood levels, but by incorporating Park Road bridge, it would prevent creating such high levels of backwater,” he said.

Officials said the project would not only benefit Iowa City, it would also affect surrounding areas.

“These projects are absolutely critical — not only for our community but also for Coralville as well because it acts like a dam,” Bailey said.

Revenue from the 1 percent local-option sales tax — passed in a vote from last month — will help fund a major portion of the project. Officials expect around $9 million in revenue from the tax each year, and the money is set aside for flood mitigation.

Fosse said the city is asking for financial assistance from seven different sources for the project, and officials want to have a contract in place before beginning the final design process.

Officials are uncertain of an exact time frame for the completed projects. No contracts have been written yet; they must first raise sufficient funding and hear bids. Hypothetically, the construction alone would be a two-year project.

“If we got the money tomorrow, plans for the Park Road bridge [and] Dubuque Street project would be about 18 months to two years out,” Fosse said. He hopes the planning will be completed by 2011 or 2012.

Remembering the June 2008 flood

Last week’s rain triggered memories of last summer’s flood for members of the Iowa City community.

A year after the flood, community members said they are happy with progress made in the recovery process, but officials say a lot of work lies ahead.

“For many, [recovery] is happening too slowly,” Mayor Regenia Bailey said, noting the slow-moving process to receive state and national funding. “The response from the community has been incredible, and the city staff has been amazing.”

The Iowa River reached its highest level on June 15 — reaching around 9.5 feet above the flood level of 22 feet and exceeding the 1993 high point by more than 21⁄2 feet.

Damages are expected to cost the UI roughly $743 million, according to a May estimate from Doug True, the UI senior vice president for Finance.

The flood scattered members of the Arts Campus across the city and closed Mayflower and at least a dozen other UI buildings.

Businesses along Highway 6 in Coralville suffered some of the worst damage — some forced to close for good.

Iowa City residents living in the neighborhood near Normandy Drive, among others, were evacuated from their homes. Some left with only a few hours’ notice.

Money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency may fund a proposed buyout of 39 homes in the 100-year floodplain. Officials will not build on that land, converting it to green space to avoid potential damage in the future.

“Flood recovery is such a huge process,” said Rick Fosse, the Iowa City public-works director, and the process requires both repair and prevention.

“Efforts aren’t complete, but we’re getting a lot done,” he said.

— by Chris Clark

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