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Craig McEwen, Published June 21 2009

Cedar Rapids’ recovery will be long and slow

On June 12, 2008, the Cedar River roared into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, flooding 1,300 city blocks, 5,400 homes and 700 businesses.

A year later, a multibillion-dollar rebuilding effort has begun but won’t be completed any time soon.

The city – population 126,396 – has filed a $1 billion permanent flood management plan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, consisting of removable flood walls and levees, said Jim Prosser, Cedar Rapids city manager.

“We’ve been advised by other cities that have had significant flooding that it will take at least 10 years,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran. “We are making measurable progress but not nearly as fast as some people would like.”

No serious injuries

No one was seriously injured when the 10-square-mile deluge pushed the Cedar River’s crest to 31.12 feet, 11.12 feet above previous records.

Damage, on the other hand, was widespread.

“We have an estimated $3 billion disaster here,” said Prosser.

That doesn’t include property damage, only recovery costs, he said.

In March, city voters passed, 12,982 to 9,018, a 1-cent sales tax that will generate about $18 million per year for five years, Posser said.

But, so far, the city has received only $60 million in federal money, he said.

And it could take up to two years for the Corps of Engineers to finish its feasibility study for implementing the flood management plan, said Halloran.

“At that point they will design what they think will work best for us,” she said. “Then we will see whether we agree to it or not, how much it will cost and how much the federal government is willing to participate.”

Combination of fixes

Prosser said he’s relatively confident that the city’s flood management plan will meet Corps of Engineers criteria.

It includes $2 million in interim flood protection and another key element is a management plan for the 4,000-square-mile watershed district that feeds the Cedar River, Prosser said.

The city expects to buy out about 1,300 flood-damaged homes, he said.

“Right now, one of the things we are really struggling with is getting resources from the federal and state governments,” Prosser said.

Cedar Rapids’ funding dilemma is different than what Grand Forks, N.D., experienced when the Red River flooded in 1997, he said.

That’s because the Grand Forks flood was one of the only federally recognized disasters that year, Halloran said.

“We were one of 70,” she said. “No matter how big the pie is, if you have to divide in into two pieces or 70 pieces makes a difference.

“We recognize that it’s going to be a long, slow process, particularly with those financial problems coming on top of our own disaster problems,” Halloran said.

Words of advice

Be patient, persistent and keep constituents informed, Halloran advises local officials.

“We’ve used a public participation process. The idea is to be as transparent as we possibly can,” she said.

“Anybody who wants to ask questions will get those questions answered. You might not always like the answer because the answer may be ‘no,’ ” Halloran said. “But at least we make every effort to make

sure that nobody is left in the dark.”

Listening to the public is very important, said Prosser.

“This is a time when you need to embrace controversy, make sure you clearly understand what people’s concerns and issues are and do the best you can to address those,” he said, “but also recognizing that you’re probably not going to get everybody to agree on every last element.”

Meaningful public involvement needs to be part of the planning process, he said.

About Cedar Rapids' 2008 flood

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502