Cedar River Approaching What Had Been Historic 20-foot Level in Cedar Rapids

By Rick Smith, Reporter

The Cedar River at May's Island in downtown Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 30, 2013. (THE GAZETTE/KCRG)

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By Aaron Hepker

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — With the 5-year anniversary of the city’s historic flood just two weeks away, the Cedar River is on a frightful climb once again.

Even so, furniture maker John Schwartzkopf on Thursday was carrying historic dates and previously high river levels in his head, and, by his math, he said he’d probably be fine at his first floor spot in the Cherry Building at New Bohemia.

The city’s historic flood of June 2008 sent the Cedar River’s floodwaters to 31.12 feet in Cedar Rapids, which translated to about seven feet of water in Schwartzkopf’s spot in the Cherry Building, 329 10th St. SE. The memorable flood of 1993, in which the river reached 19.27 feet, didn’t impact the Cherry Building, he didn’t think.

By last night, the National Weather Service was forecasting that the Cedar River would reach 19.8 feet by Saturday, a fourth highest water mark in Cedar Rapids of all time that he said might come with a silver lining.

"Seeing all this happen, might get them moving on things," Schwartzkopf said about the city’s still-unrealized plans for a flood protection system to keep the river at bay.

City Council member Monica Vernon on Thursday said the river’s fast rise on Thursday was "a huge reminder" of the city’s $7 billion flood disaster in 2008 and what the city yet needs to do to protect itself against flooding.

"It reminds us our work isn’t done," Vernon said.

The city’s downtown, which was heavily damaged in the 2008 flood along with the neighborhoods along the river, is protected against flood water to about the 22.5 foot level, Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager, said on Thursday.

However, he said the lowest spot in the heart of New Bohemia south of downtown starts to take on river water at between the 18- and 19-foot river level. That’s as long as the city’s sewer system and flood pumps perform as expected, he added.

As a result, on Thursday, nerves were frayed at the New Bo City Market, in the 1100 block of Third Street SE in New Bohemia, where Kristie Wetjen, the market’s director, said a river level of 18.37 feet could put water on the floor of the market. The market, with the help of volunteers from the Coe College women’s basketball team, intended to place sandbags around doors and windows to keep any water out, she said.

At the same time, Wetjen led a noontime meeting Thursday of permanent market vendors, who decided to move equipment and food out of the building or elevate it in the building.

"Not a single one," Wetjen said when asked if any of the vendors wanted to stay and see the eight-month-old market open for its usual Thursday evening hours.

"You have all these new businesses that are in their infancy, and we have this sense of responsibility for them," she said.

Jerry Gillon, owner of Betty and Bobo’s Better Breads in the market, was baking bread at noon on Thursday, preparing for the market’s Thursday evening business when the vendors decided not to open.

Meanwhile, Lorrie Beaman, owner of Pappardelle’s Pasta in the market, was leasing a refrigerated semi-truck to store her frozen food while the market rides out any possible flooding.

Across the street, Jon Jelinek, owner of the Parlor City Pub & Eatery and several other New Bohemia commercial properties, was busy at midday Thursday putting on siding on his latest storefront property.

"I’m not going to get too excited," said Jelinek, who figured he’d put sandbags by his doors to keep any water out.

His daughter-in-law, Stephanie Jelinek, said Parlor City was going to keep its front door propped open for now to make sure customers knew they were open for business.

The 1993 flood, which reached a level comparable to the current river forecast, for the most part put water in the streets, not the buildings, Jon Jelinek said.

New Bohemia is a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places that has seen a flowering since the 2008 flood even though it sits in the 100-year flood plain. In fact, the City Council obtained special permission from the state and federal government to permit building in historic districts on newly vacant lots where properties were bought out and demolished in the city’s flood recovery buyout program.

Nonetheless, the reinvestment and the special permission doesn’t change the fact that the 100-year flood plain in the city remains in harm’s way.

As a result, the city, Jon Jelinek said, needs to continue to push for a new flood protection system, even if the Army Corps of Engineers is supporting protection only for the east side of the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids in a system that would safeguard New Bohemia.

Just because flood protection comes to one side of the river first doesn’t mean you don’t build it, he said.

Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District, on Thursday said most the merchants in Czech Village across the Cedar River from New Bohemia were thinking that a 1993-like flood would not impact their stores. But the flood disaster of 2008 was on people’s minds, she said.

"I wasn’t here in the 2008 flood so I don’t know everything that happened," Pruden said. "But I can read fear on people’s faces because they’re remembering 2008."

New Bohemia seemed most at risk of flooding on Thursday, but the city was taking steps all along the river to protect against the river.

Ellis Boulevard was closed at midday Thursday as were Ellis Park and Jones Golf Course.

Giant dump trucks were hauling dirt to the Cargill plant downstream from downtown to build a temporary berm to protect the riverfront plant.

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