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First in a series looking back at the 2008 flood

NEW HARTFORD --- Most times, Beaver Creek conceals its ferocious character, a benign little stream hardly big enough to support a canoe.

Heavy, heavy rain on saturated soils, though, can bring out its potential in a flash. Residents of New Hartford were aware in June 2008 but still caught off guard.

"We just didn't have any idea," says Carole Joblinske, chair of the library board. "The library had never seen high water. We were very, very surprised and very, very sick."

A dirty tide flowed into the building, swirling around furniture and shelves and soaking into paneling on walls.

Five computers barely a year old went under. They were positioned on the floor, out of the way for users, and conveniently situated for 18 inches of water, which found the equipment easily enough.

Practically everything the filth touched would end in ruin. About 1,000 books survived, but 4,600 volumes and the entire card catalog were trashed.

"It was just a mess," Joblinske says.

The scene, to varying degrees, played out across the town.

"Ninety-five percent of the homes had water," said Richard Young, mayor at the time.

Based on his calculation, more than 230 houses were damaged to some degree. Besides their properties and the library, residents also were rightfully concerned about the New Hartford-Dike Elementary, the post office, City Hall, a convenience store, park, diner, bank and other businesses.

If the flood won, New Hartford --- population 659 --- faced extinction or a diminished version of itself hard to comprehend.

The disaster, though, was bigger than a single community.

Flooding and lightning claimed four lives. By the end of June 2008, former Gov. Chet Culver had named 86 of Iowa's 99 counties disaster areas and had activated more then 4,000 members of the Iowa National Guard. By August, 80 of Iowa's 99 counties were included in a federal disaster declaration.

An estimated 1,500 miles of roads and 400 miles of railroad tracks were affected. Dozens of bridges washed out, and barge traffic on the Mississippi River shut down.

The list of communities hit hard read like the directory on the Iowa Department of Transportation map. During the peak of the flooding, officials estimated 40,000 Iowans representing 30 cities had evacuated their homes.

Cause and effect

The National Weather Service later identified key contributing factors that resulted in the historic flooding:

The depth of snow for mid-February was much above normal.

Above normal precipitation in April.

River levels much above normal in April.

Soil moisture was much above normal in May.

Repeated rounds of heavy rain in first two weeks of June.

State Climatologist Harry Hillaker in his year in review for 2008 noted specifics that contributed to later high water levels.

"An exceptionally wet 15-day period from May 29 to June 12 brought a statewide average of 9.03 inches of rain," he wrote in his report.

The normal amount is 2.45 inches for the period.

"This was probably the wettest 15 days in state history and followed six months of unusually cold weather and an extended period of excessive precipitation dating back to August 2007," according to Hillaker's report.

The rain followed other notable, even historic, weather events, according to Hillaker.

"The statewide average seasonal snowfall was 45.1 inches, 12.7 inches above normal, and ranks 10th highest of record, highest since 2000-01," he added.

Several cities set rainfall records in April 2008. Fayette, for example, got 11.98 inches, bettering the previous mark by almost 4 inches. The record had survived 119 years, according to Hillaker.

According to weather service records, Waterloo got 6.25 inches of rain in May 2008, more than 2 inches more than normal. June followed with 8.79 inches. Of that total, however, almost 8 inches fell from June 2-12.

Never before

Part of the problem in New Hartford originated west of town. Ridge Avenue, about two miles out, runs north and south, crossing Beaver Creek at about a 90-degree angle. The gravel road acts like a dike between Iowa Highway 57 on the south and hills to the creek's north.

In 2008, however, runoff in the extreme built up behind Ridge Avenue. Ultimately, a small lake perhaps 10 to 12 feet deep developed.

Eventually, water topped the road and began washing the road away, and eventually, the structure failed. Estimates put the incoming surge at about 6 feet.

Larry Bass, a member of the City Council, has lived in New Hartford for 44 of his 65 years.

"The only time I've had water in my house --- and the original part was built in 1854 --- was in '08," he says.

Neighbors in New Hartford and residents of other communities at the time repeated variations of the theme: The water has never been this high ... Our house isn't even in the floodplain ... I've lived here all my life and never seen the river like this ...

Even before all the mud was washed away, discussions developed about how to prevent the next catastrophe. Within about a year New Hartford responded, raising and extending an existing earthen berm around the city. Officials worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to Councilman Steve Latwesen.

"We knew that we needed to improve what he had," he says.

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Latwesen credits Gordy Ballhagen, a former council member, for spearheading the project.

Various options were available along the way, and Latwesen said those making decisions tried to follow a prudent course and one possible with available finances.

Butler County, meanwhile, rebuilt and fortified Ridge Avenue, covering sides with landscaping fabric and riprap.

There was no way to know, though, if any of the precautions would function as planned.

Until it rained.

"I was pretty nervous because there's a lot of weight on your shoulders. It hadn't been tested," Latwesen says.

Record rain

The drought of 2012 evolved into the wettest spring in 141 years of record keeping, according to Hillaker. When a gully-washer arrived May 29, Beaver Creek escaped its banks.

Dozens of volunteers and firefighters added sandbags to New Hartford's berm and closed gaps near railroad tracks. City crews placed pumps in low spots to clear floodwater backing up behind the barriers.

"We felt like we had it at a level to control the water," Mayor John Anderson says. " ... Our goal was to get it out of town."

Friends and board members for New Hartford's library never questioned whether to rebuild in 2008. They took the opportunity to knock out some walls, opening up space, and then remodeled. They replaced wooden shelves with metal ones.

"We didn't even think about it. We just went ahead," Joblinske says.

When the river started to rise last week, Joblinske, who lives outside town, experienced a sinking feeling of deja vu.

"Just sick to my stomach. You can't help thinking, 'Oh, my gosh. Can we do this again?'" she says.

Volunteers cleared two shelves of books and raised other items --- just in case. Monday, they started putting nice, dry books back on shelves. The library opened for business within days.

Council member Carolyn LeBahn cleaned up two properties in town after the 2008 flood and two vehicles were damaged. A lot of what her family owned went into Dumpsters. While she doesn't plan to put carpet in the basement again, LeBahn feels with the new, battle-tested berm in place, she could.

"I'd feel pretty safe," she says.

New Hartford lost a few homes and residents. Kwik Star pulled out, and a hardware store shut down.

But a new convenience store went up on the edge of town. Most of the people stayed, and attractive little parks popped up on lots that might otherwise be vacant.

"Yeah, we'll never be the same," Latwesen says. "But in some ways we're better off."

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Regional Editor for the Courier

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