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Flood of 2008: What If It Happens Again?

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The damage has been done. People either cleaned up and came back, or took a buyout. While people are trying to move on, we know the "Flood of 2008" left a lot of questions behind. Many wonder five years later-- what would communities experience if it happens again?

The Cedar River showed its power in 2008. The historic flooding tested the flood protection systems river communities had in place.

"We had some issues with flood gates not being used during the 2008 flood, for a long time," said Waterloo Mayor Buck Clark. "So we had trouble getting them to operate."

Mayor Clark says the rising waters seen in the past few weeks are confirmation that what they have in place now, works. "We were able to test all of our flood gates, all of our pump stations. And we found that they're working, which is a good thing."

The City of Waterloo has added several new pump stations, designed to help keep water on the wet side of the existing levee system. Eight more are in the works. But the city is going with the approach of water goes where it wants to.

"It didn't prevent any issues at some low lying businesses and residences, but we would've been a lot worse had we not had those things that we've put in place since the 2008 flood," said Clark.

Many homes, including those on San Souci Island, were bought out. The boating center, rebuilt with FEMA funds, is designed now for water to flow through it. It's an approach the city is using going forward.

"We are just designing our amenities and our buildings along the river to accommodate water which we know is eventually going to come," said Clark.

One of the most important things cities have been working to protect since the flood of 2008 is basic infrastructure and utilities. At Cedar Falls Utilities, they've installed a new concrete flood wall designed to accommodate waters 4 feet higher than they were in 2008.
But when the Cedar River crested in Downtown Cedar Rapids, it became painfully evident that the city needed a better flood protection system in place. That's a system that Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett says is still in the works.
"We've purchased temporary systems this Hesco Barriers, Tiger Dams. Long Term, we still need comprehensive flood protection on both sides of the river," said Corbett. "But we have to work with the federal and state government for that."
Corbett adds that in Cedar Rapids, another flood like what happened in 2008 would still be devastating to people and businesses.

Local business owner Al Pierson was involved in an effort to get a local option sales tax passed to help pay for flood recovery.
"We can't forget, we need to reinforce that memory in people's minds that we're still vulnerable," said Pierson. Pierson's flower business came back after the flood. For those who didn't rebuild, the buyouts of homes and businesses will help with the economic impact should another flood happen.

Mayor Corbett says the city has worked with Utility companies to help relocate electrical transformers and substations. "That will help us in the event of another flood because people won't have widespread power loss," he said.

Corbett adds preserving the infrastructure is one of the most important parts of flood protection. "We were down to our last well, our last source of water supply," he said. "We've raised all those wells, so even without permanent flood protection, in the event of another 2008 flood, we wouldn't be in jeopardy of losing our water supply."

The new Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids right along the Cedar River is under construction right now, and the whole area is designed to flood. But it's just a small part of seven-and-a-half miles of flood protection the city would like to see built.

There is a plan in place for flood protection. At this point, "The Army Corps of Engineers has approved a project for the East Side of the River, not the West Side, just the East Side," said Corbett.

But 5 years later, there is no permanent protection in place. That means the homes and businesses that didn't get a buyout, and came back, are still at risk.
Sales tax votes have failed twice. Pierson says after recent flooding in May and June of 2013, the thought may come up again as a solution to getting permanent protection in place.

"I'm not sure that I'm the one that's ready to lead this again," Pierson said. "I would certainly support it and be involved. And we've got the potential of matching funding from the state and the federal government. God knows what's going to happen there."
Mayor Corbett says it is without question that we need to get protection on both sides of the river.

"Once it gets to a point where our temporary measures don't work then we're unfortunately at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Corbett.

And in Waterloo, Mayor Clark has a realistic way of looking at the potential for more flooding. "Expect it. If you live along the river, you're going to get water. Plan for it, build for it. Make sure things work," said Clark.

And Mother Nature, as people along the river are well aware, isn't forgiving.

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