Last in a series of articles looking back at the 2008 flood.
WATERLOO — Cedar River flooding doesn’t spoil Mary Murray’s love for Sherwood Park.
“Where else are you going to find something like this?” said Murray, sitting at a picnic table near a campfire pit between her home and a gently rolling river.
“This is like being on vacation,” she said. “You’re in the middle of two cities but you’re kind of in the middle of nowhere. It really feels like that.”
But it’s a nuisance when the river escapes its banks to rearrange her lawn furniture or carry away firewood. It’s more inconvenient when deeper water limits access to a canoe.
Then there was 2008, when the river roared up and tore through her living room.
“We had to pretty much throw the whole house away,” Murray said. “We had to go down to studs and start over.”
Ten years ago today, Murray and her husband were among the hundreds of Black Hawk County residents forced from their homes as the Cedar River and its tributaries surged to levels well above what had been seen before or since.
The event reshaped the landscape, as flood buyouts in places like Sherwood Park, Sans Souci Island and the North Cedar area in Cedar Falls left vast swaths of open ground.
Murray’s home is the last of more than 60 homes once located in the scenic neighborhood along the west banks of the Cedar River from the National Cattle Congress grounds to Hartman Reserve.
“We’re the last of the Mohicans,” she said.
A serious situation
A boat arrived in the early morning hours of June 10, 2008, to evacuate Jim Newcomb and his wife from their Longview Street home in North Cedar.
“We floated down Longview … and as we went around the corner from Woodlawn to Cedar (Street) there was a Cadillac there in the water,” he recalled. “I remember the tail lights were blinking on and off.”
A day earlier, Newcomb had been helping others sandbag and keeping a close eye on the river forecast. The 100-foot flood prediction, although a record, was still lower than his home.
“That evening I had water coming into the basement through the flood drains,” Newcomb said. “That had never happened before.”
Most of his neighbors had already left by the time Newcomb saw water entering his yard. Driving out was no longer an option.
“The water was just coming up so quickly,” he said. “I told my wife, this is a serious situation … and we called the fire department.”
A massive volunteer sandbagging effort protected downtown Cedar Falls and vital utilities from the Cedar River, which eventually peaked at 102.1 feet, or 14 feet above the flood stage.
Lacking a flood levee on the east banks, the river tore through North Cedar and impacted hundreds of properties.
Some 155 North Cedar homes and businesses were lost to government buyout programs after the 2008 flood, which was on top of 165 properties acquired and demolished after floods in 1993 and 1999.
“The biggest impact to those of us in North Cedar was that we had a lot of homes displaced, a lot of families that relocated and moved someplace else,” Newcomb said. “It’s a tragedy when you have that many homes lost.”
But the disaster brought those who remained, like the Newcombs, closer together and led to the creation of the North Cedar Neighborhood Association in 2009.
“We have a lot more green space that we used to,” Newcomb said. “We’ve taken a lot of responsibility for our space out here, and that’s been a great thing for our community.”
The 16-acre North Cedar Natural Resources Area, with savanna, tallgrass prairie and woodlands, now grows where homes were removed. Neighbors Park was created on the former site of Aerial Services at Cedar and Center streets. Community gardens have cropped up on other vacant lots.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said heavy rains a year earlier and a deep winter snowpack created moist soil conditions and high river levels across the state by June 2008.
Extreme rainfall during the first two weeks of the month resulted in historic flooding, which put 85 of Iowa’s 99 counties under a federal disaster declaration; caused an estimated $10 billion in damage; affected more than 40,000 people; and saw up to 3 million acres of corn and soybeans underwater at one point.
While the heaviest damage was in the Cedar and Iowa river basins, Waterloo and Cedar Falls generally managed to avoid the catastrophic losses seen in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City thanks to a 1970s vintage levee system.
Volunteers of all ages flocked to downtown Cedar Falls during the flood to fill sandbags atop the flood walls, which weren’t high enough on their own, to protect the downtown, sewage treatment plant and Western Home Communities along Dry Run Creek.
“The levee was a big thing,” said Cedar Falls City Administrator Ron Gaines. “If that waste treatment plant goes under, it would have taken months and months to get it back up and running, while half to two-thirds of the homes in Cedar Falls would have had sewer backups.”
The threat of a levee failure was very real.
“The National Guard was trying to get us to move from (City Hall),” Gaines said. “But we thought that was really going to send a bad message if all of the sudden we were giving up on it.”
Cedar Falls received nearly $35 million in infrastructure grants for flood recovery, which allowed it to relocate the public works building to higher ground in the industrial park; rebuild the beach house and park shelters; construct lift stations; develop the Northern Cedar Falls Industrial Park; and provide assistance for private developers to construct 91 new homes to replace some lost to the flooding.
Cedar Falls Utilities, which suffered $20 million in damages when its Utility Parkway headquarters filled with water, managed to continue power, water and communications services with barely an interruption. CFU later spent $5.5 million raising its floodwall by four feet in hopes of preventing a future disaster.
Recovery continues today in Cedar Falls, as a contractor working under a state flood mitigation grant is working on a project to raise the Cedar River flood levee by two to three feet.
Levees hold but leak
Former Waterloo City Engineer Eric Thorson recalled surreal moments during the 2008 efforts to keep the flood control system intact.
“It’s extremely intense and stressful,” Thorson said. “The days are long and you’re checking stuff and worrying about this and that.
“But then you leave here and go home and everybody’s sitting on their front porch or mowing their lawn,” he added. “It was like a non-event for most people in the city.”
Interim City Engineer Jamie Knutson said the levees had proven themselves in 1993, when the Cedar River swelled to 20.8 feet. But 2008 wound up topping out at 27.01 feet.
“Everybody knew what to expect up to a certain height from the ‘93 flood,” Knutson said. “But we got up to heights we’d never seen. It was a lot of scrambling.”
The river poured into areas on the west side of the dikes, flooding homes in Sherwood Park, Sans Souci and Cedar Terrace, while taking out the boathouse and damaging Riverfront Stadium in Cedar River Exchange Park.
Water worked through the levees in places where gates or valves failed to operate, including Westfield Avenue along Black Hawk Creek and the west side of downtown. Young Arena, the Russell Lamson Building, Operation Threshold, Waterloo Community Playhouse and others took on water as the National Guard patrolled downtown and closed bridges.
A railroad bridge near Sixth Street was partially washed away by the Cedar.
But Knutson said the entire downtown and many other neighborhoods would have been a catastrophe without the flood control system.
“The government … got its money’s worth out of it because it certainly paid for itself in ‘08,” he said. “Had we not had the levees we would have looked just like Cedar Rapids.”
The Cedar River had already started to subside on June 12 when water began filling up Lafayette Park and overtopping streets in the neighborhoods around the former Rath Packing Co. plant.
“It just kept coming up and there wasn’t anything you could do about it,” said Tom Poe, president of Crystal Distribution Services, which operates cold storage warehouses in the former Rath properties.
The water eventually filled a below-ground storage facility full of product.
“Everybody sandbagged as much as they could but we couldn’t stop it,” Poe said. “I remember it like it was today. It’s one of those things that will never go away.”
Continued heavy rains caused water to back up behind the flood walls as small pumps designed to push the water over closed gates in the levees were unable to keep up. A new round of evacuations begin as residents were asked to leave their homes.
“Once Blowers Creek filled up it got into the storm sewer system and worked its way all the way up to Rath,” Knutson said.
Crystal Distribution stayed in the Rath area after the floods and recently completed a major expansion. But it no longer uses the lower level storage area hammered 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, the city received more than $20 million in federal grants to build five massive pump stations, including one on Blowers Creek, designed to prevent future backups. Flood gates were replaced throughout the flood control system.
A new Public Works Building was constructed on Glenwood Street, moving operations impacted by flooding on Black Hawk Street in 2008. Grants also helped the Leisure Services Commission repair the stadium and boathouse.
“We rebuilt with flooding in mind,” said Leisure Services Director Paul Huting. “The new stadium party deck and boathouse laughed at the 2016 flood.”
Knutson said the improved flood control system performed well in September 2016, the second highest Cedar crest ever, noting it was easier to focus on the flood levees when resources weren’t diverted to protect homes that not longer existed on Sans Souci or in Sherwood Park.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said. “A routine.”
The Black Hawk County Conservation Board also faced significant improvements since the 2008 flood destroyed its headquarters in Black Hawk Park and wiped out two major Cedar Valley Nature Trail bridges over the Cedar River.
The headquarters were moved to a new building on West Airline Highway in Waterloo. A new $1.8 million trail bridge in Evansdale opened in 2011, while a new $3.4 million bridge at McFarlane Park near La Porte City opened in 2013.
County Supervisor Frank Magsamen said the conservation board efforts were the largest among many projects designed to mitigate future damage. The county added back-up generators to public buildings, purchased 17 flood-damaged houses and tightened requirements for construction in flood-prone areas.
“I think we’re better equipped if we have a disaster that has the impact we saw (in 2008),” he said.
Mary Murray is also better prepared after honing her flood watch routine in Sherwood Park, adding a new layer of technology to the resources available in 2008 to predict flood crests based on a mix of science and experience.
Through her cell phone, Murray can monitor river gauges upstream in Austin, Minn., and Charles City, taking into account Black Hawk Creek, which enters the Cedar above the Waterloo river gauge.
“I even have the weather guy’s number on my phone,” she said.
While the 2008 flood dramatically changed her neighborhood, turning it into a public recreation area, Murray is still in love with Sherwood Park.
“But now with the park and the shelter and the boat ramp, everybody can enjoy it out here,” she said.