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Five years and two floods later, CR still on the mend

BY ROBERT CROZIER | JUNE 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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Despite a change in floodwater levels and protection measures between flooding in 2008 and 2013, Cedar Rapids officials, residents, and business owners say the emotional wear and tear has stayed consistent.

But they say the emotional strain suffered five years ago, when the Cedar River inundated dozens of city blocks, has revealed an encouraging silver lining.

With 2008 fresh in the minds of many Cedar Rapids residents, they say flood prevention efforts this time around proved to be more effective.

To date, the 2008 flood has cost the city of Cedar Rapids at least $500 million, Cedar Rapids City Councilor Kris Gulick said. He said city staff members are still trying to pull together the figures on the cost of the this year’s flooding.

While some major projects, including the restoration of the historic Paramount Theater and the construction of a new City Hall, have been completed, Gulick said, a number of projects remain.

The Veteran’s Memorial Building, downtown library, central fire station, animal-control facility, a number of public-works facilities, and the riverfront amphitheater remain under construction, he said.

Cedar Rapids Parks Superintendent Daniel Gibbons said amphitheater construction was delayed because of the 2013 winter and spring weather, including the flood.

He said recent flooding concerns are incomparable to those in 2008, when the river crested well over 30 feet. Although the recent flood crest on June 2 stood at approximately 18.2 feet, he said the two events remain connected.

“They are connected emotionally,” he said.

Gibbons said the department is set to incur some costs from this year’s flood, mostly in flood-preparation labor and trail restoration. Repairing the trails alone will require about $10,000, and the department has spent between $30,000 and $40,000 in labor.

In 2013, Cedar Rapids Public Works spent more than $700,000 in setup, maintenance, and removal of flood protection, said maintenance department manager Craig Hanson.

Linn County Supervisor John Harris said the only county building that suffered flood damage in 2013 was the new Linn County Courthouse, whose basement suffered minor water levels. Those waters have since been pumped out. When rebuilding the public-service center, courthouse, and jail, Harris said, officials relocated essential equipment to the buildings’ upper floors.

“We were prepared for more water than we got.”  

On the west side of the river, just a few blocks away, stands the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.

Despite being housed on original building grounds, a few major differences have been developed for the long-standing heritage center.

Jason Wright, the museum’s vice president for development, said that five years ago, as the Cedar River started to flood near the property, museum staff and community residents rushed to build a wall between 2.5 and 3 feet in height.

He said the man-made wall of sandbags would have prevented the river from flooding the building had the crest been what had been originally predicted.

But, Wright said, the wall turned out to be around 5 feet too short.

After suffering $11 million and 8 feet of floodwater, the building was picked up and moved to a nearby hill, where it now sits 11 feet higher than 2008 elevation levels, Rob Merritt, museum director said.

“We had to fight tooth and nail, and we were the first people approved to have an entire building moved and mitigated by FEMA,” he said.

When everything was said and done, the total cost to repair the museum, move it to higher ground, and expand it by 30,000 square feet, was $25 million, he said. It reopened July 14, 2012.

David Muhlena, library director, said during 2008 flood-evacuation efforts, the staff members were able to save approximately 80 percent of the building’s total collection. Items were moved out based on their significance to Czech heritage, he said.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner’s office, who evacuated the jail five years ago, said officials have since been forced to become overly cautious.

“Up until 3 o’clock that morning, the floodwaters were projected to not even come onto [May’s Island],” he said.

Hussein Herz, who received roughly $20,000 from FEMA was the only person on his neighborhood’s block to repair his house following the 2008 devastation.

Today, the only other house left, with broken-out windows and a decaying façade, stand as a reminder to what once was. He said the city of Cedar Rapids has yet to reach out to him with assistance.

The city now owns about half of the vacant lots on the block, while nearby Cargill owns the other. The company, he said, has been in contact with him about purchasing the property, but he said he will refuse any offer under $150,000.

“It was a miserable time, man,” he said. “Hard time.”


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