Friday, June 13th 2008, 5:31 pm
By AMY LORENTZEN
Associated Press Writer
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) -- Rising water from the Cedar River forced the evacuation of a downtown hospital Friday after residents of more than 3,000 homes fled for higher ground. A railroad bridge collapsed, and 400 city blocks were under water.
In Des Moines, 100 miles to the southwest, officials issued a voluntary evacuation order for much of downtown and other areas bordering the Des Moines River. Mayor Frank Cownie said the evacuations were an attempt "to err on the side of citizens and residents."
Des Moines is Iowa's capital and largest city, with about 190,000 residents. But the hardest-hit was Cedar Rapids, a city of 124,000 people.
Gov. Chet Culver declared 83 of the state's 99 counties to be state disaster areas, and nine rivers were at or above historic flood levels. Elsewhere in the upper Midwest, rivers and streams tipping their banks forced evacuations, closed roads, and even threatened drinking water.
The hospital's 176 patients, including about 30 patients in a nursing home facility at the hospital, were being evacuated to other hospitals in the region. The evacuation started late Thursday night and continued Friday morning in the city of 124,000 residents.
"Some are frail and so it's a very delicate process with them," said Karen Vander Sanden, a hospital spokeswoman.
Water was seeping into the hospital's lower levels, where the emergency generator is located, said Dustin Hinrichs of the Linn County emergency operations center.
"They proactively and preventatively started evacuation basically guessing on the fact they were going to lose power," he said.
Dave Koch, a spokesman for the Cedar Rapids fire department, said the river will crest Friday at about 31.8 feet. It was at 30.9 feet early in the morning. In a 1993 flood, considered the worst flood in recent history, it was at 19.27 feet.
The weather conditions that triggered the floods were the same as those in 1993: hot air from a ridge of high pressure on the East Coast colliding with cooler air from the West Coast, according to Ken Kunkel, interim director of the Illinois Water Survey.
Steve Hilberg, director of the Midwest Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Ill., says rain is expected through the weekend, but next week is expected to be sunny and dry.
At least 438 city blocks in downtown Cedar Rapids were under water, Koch said. There was more flooding outside of downtown, but authorities don't know what widespread it is.
Flooding also closed Interstate 80 from east of Iowa City to Davenport. The flooded Cedar River crosses the interstate in Cedar County, about 20 miles east of Iowa City.
No deaths or serious injuries were reported in Iowa, but one man was killed in southern Minnesota after his car plunged from a washed-out road into floodwaters. Another person was rescued from a nearby vehicle in the town of Albert Lea.
Just southeast of Grand Rapids, Mich., crews pulled the body of a motorist from a car found drifting in the swollen Thornapple River. State police said they believe the 57-year-old man called on his cell phone but didn't say what happened or where he was; they found him using global positioning equipment.
Violent thunderstorms Thursday and Friday brought widespread flooding to Michigan's Lower Peninsula that authorities say left some roads and bridges unstable or impassable. Utilities said about 42,000 new power outages were reported Friday morning, in addition to about 36,000 customers who lost power in earlier storms.
In Wisconsin, amphibious vehicles that carry tourists on the Wisconsin River were used to evacuate homes and businesses in Baraboo, north of Madison. Hundreds of people lost power in Avoca, west of Madison, and were "strongly encouraged" to evacuate because of flooding of the Wisconsin River and other streams, said Chief Deputy Jon Pepper of the Iowa County Sheriff's Department.
Half the homes in Oshkosh, which has 62,000 residents, have suffered extensive water damage, including basement flooding and structural problems, acting city manager John Fitzpatrick said.
The rising Fond du Lac River forced hundreds from homes in Fond du Lac.
People in several northern Missouri communities, meanwhile, were piling up sandbags to prepare for flooding in the Missouri River, expected to crest over the weekend, and a more significant rise in the Mississippi River expected Wednesday.
Des Moines officials recommended people leave parts of downtown on either side of the Des Moines River by 6 p.m. Friday. Included are all areas in Des Moines' 500-year floodplain.
The alert was prompted by rising river levels expected to peak at 8 p.m. Friday.
About 300 volunteers and members of the Iowa Army National Guard worked late Thursday into Friday to shore up a levee showing some soft spots north of downtown. The levee protects a neighborhood along the river.
Amtrak's California Zephyr line was suspended across Iowa because of flooding along the BNSF Railway.
Despite all the water in Cedar Rapids, there was precious little for toilets, cleaning, or drinking.
Koch said the city is at critical levels and only one well was operating. It was in a flood area protected by sandbags, and generators were pumping water away. Normally, the city has six or more functioning wells, he said.
"If we lost that one we would be in serious trouble. Basically we are using more water than we are producing," he said. "We really need to reduce the amount of water we are using ... even using paper plates, hand sanitizer."
Area hotels issued water warnings, including the Marriott Hotel, which issued a statement imploring guests to cut their usage and use water only for drinking.
"Any flushing of the toilet, running the sink, or showering should be kept to a minimum. We understand this is asking a lot, but anyway you may be able to assist us in this time of crisis would go a long way to avoid an even greater disaster."
Other Midwestern cities faced similar shortages: Lawrenceville, Ill., a town of 4,600 people near the Indiana line, grappled for a second day Thursday with a broken water system that left businesses with no usable tap water, forcing them to close.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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