Water ebbs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; other areas evacuated

Sunday, June 15th 2008, 8:30 am
By: News 9

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa  -- The dark, filthy water that inundated the entire downtown of Iowa's second-largest city was receding Saturday after forcing 24,000 people to flee, but those who remained were being urged to take draconian measures to avoid overwhelming the city's only remaining drinking water source.

A sandbagging siege saved the last of the city's four collection wells from contamination by the record flood. But officials warned that if people didn't cut back on flushing toilets, taking showers and other nonessential uses, the town would be out of potable water in three to four days.

"Water is still our primary concern," said Pat Ball, the city's utilities director. "We're still using water at a greater rate than we're producing."

The flooding in Iowa is the latest disaster created by severe storms blamed for at least nine deaths in the U.S. Midwest this past week.

President Bush, in Paris, France, was briefed Saturday on the situation in Iowa, the White House said.

In addition to the immediate federal response efforts that are supporting state and local governments, Bush was assured that the Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is already thinking ahead and planning for the long-term needs of the people after the water recedes, including places to live and low-interest loans that can help get lives back on track, a White House statement said.

The drenching has severely damaged the corn crop in Iowa, America's No. 1 corn state, and other parts of the Midwest at a time when corn prices are soaring and food shortages have led to violence in some poor countries. But officials said it was too soon to put a price tag on the damage.

More than 400 city blocks and 3,900 homes were flooded in Cedar Rapids, where early estimates put property damage at $736 million, according Fire Department spokesman Dave Koch.

While the Cedar River ebbed in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, a levee breach in the state capital of Des Moines flooded a neighborhood of more than 200 homes, a high school and about three dozen businesses.

More than 200 homes were evacuated in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, as a flood crest headed down the Iowa River. The Iowa City crest is not expected until Monday or early Tuesday.

At least two deaths in Iowa have been attributed to the flooding, which has prompted the governor to issue disaster proclamations for 83 of the state's 99 counties.

Elsewhere, Illinois emergency authorities said a levee along the Mississippi River in far western Illinois burst Saturday morning, and voluntary evacuations were under way in Keithsburg, a town of about 700 residents.

"The levee broke in two places," Keithsburg Alderman George Askew, 76, said of the town some 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Moline. "We're getting under water."

Parts of southern Wisconsin have been dealing with flooding for days. West of Milwaukee, in Summit, authorities Saturday found the body of a 68-year-old man near his vehicle on a flooded road.

Iowa's worst damage so far was in Cedar Rapids, where the Cedar River crested Friday night at nearly 32 feet (9.75 meters), 12 feet (3.66 meters) higher than the record set in 1929.

Murky, petroleum- and garbage-choked water inundated three collection wells and threatened the fourth before several hundred volunteers staged a last-ditch sandbagging operation. The collection wells are fed by a network of four dozen smaller wells.

Water lapped to within 3 feet (a meter) of the improvised, 4-foot(1.2-meter)-high wall surrounding the brick pumping station before it began to recede. Two portable generators, one as big as a semitrailer, roared around the clock to keep the three pumps inside running.

"It's the little engine that could," said Ron Holtzman, one of several people who came to watch the operation Saturday from a nearby foot bridge.

The pumps could not draw enough water for the city of around 120,000-plus residents and the suburbs that depend on its water system.

Officials estimate it could be four days before the river drops enough for workers to begin pumping out flooded portions of the city.

Residents took the warnings seriously.

Kathy Wickham, 65, was collecting water from the dehumidifier in her basement and has been bathing from the 6-inch (15-centimeter)-deep enamel washbasin she used as a child on a farm.

"I grew up without any running water, so I'm going back to my childhood," she said.

In Catherine Holt's household, there are nine children ranging in age from 2 to 17 -- including four teenage girls. She said they're making do with baby wipes and water stored earlier in the week in milk jugs and soda bottles.

"So what if it stinks?" said Holt, who closed off one of the family's two bathrooms and forbade the children from using any faucets. "This is so minor compared to what other people are going through."

In Iowa City, at the University of Iowa, students and faculty joined with townspeople and members of the National Guard to fill thousands of sandbags in the area known as the Arts Campus.

"We've pretty much just abandoned any effort to try and protect the Arts Campus, because we are just overwhelmed by the amount of water," university spokesman Steve Parrott said. "It's just too unsafe."

Valuable paintings, including a rare collection of African art, have been removed from the art museum, Parrott said.

The flooding was blamed for at least two deaths in Iowa: a driver was killed in an accident on a road under water, and a farmer who went out to check his property was swept away. That brought the region's weather-related death toll this week to nine, including four teenagers killed Wednesday when a tornado tore through a Boy Scout camp, also in Iowa.

(Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)