Iowa flooding: Thousands evacuate Cedar Rapids

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(CNN) — Temporary barriers appeared to prevent serious flooding Tuesday in Iowa’s second-largest city, but officials are warning thousands of evacuated Cedar Rapids residents to stay away for a couple more days.

“It’s not time yet to go back to life as usual, but we’re getting close,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz told reporters late Tuesday morning after the Cedar River crested there just above 22 feet — 6 feet above what is considered major flood stage.

“It’s not over yet, but we’re feeling very good … that this temporary system that we built” will protect the city of more than 120,000 people, Pomeranz said.

Rising waters of rivers and creeks have flooded low-lying fields and properties in parts of eastern Iowa for days, and officials in Cedar Rapids urged about 10,000 people to leave their homes and businesses in the city ahead of Tuesday’s crest.

The spillover of the Cedar River, the worst Cedar Rapids has witnessed since 2008, comes on the heels of a fatal Wisconsin flood after heavy rains hit the area last week.

Cedar Rapids city workers, contractors, volunteers and National Guard troops had hastily erected a system of temporary walls, levees and 250,000 sandbags around the city over the weekend — and it appeared to be holding, officials said Tuesday.

Some streets and basements close to the river still will flood, in part because of water backing up from an overwhelmed sewer system, Public Works Director Jan Winter said.

Crews spent Monday night into Tuesday morning repairing minor barrier leaks and pumping water out of some areas. Officials seemed optimistic the city would avoid major losses as the river receded Tuesday.

“We’ll know at the end of this day how successful we’ve been in this most critical time in our community’s flood recovery effort,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said.

Evacuations encouraged

From 8 p.m. Monday to 7 a.m. Tuesday, residents faced a curfew restricting their access around Cedar Rapids. According to police Chief Wayne Jerman, the curfew will likely remain in effect every night until the Cedar River’s levels have receded to a comfortable level.

Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids’ public safety coordinator, said city employees and volunteers had tried to mitigate damage from the flooding. Last weekend volunteers pitched in to help lay sandbags and clear out the first floor of Taylor Elementary School.

However, Fire Chief Mark English warned that people still were under significant risk if they did not abandon the area. According to CNN affiliate KGAN-TV, rescuers already saved one woman who got swept away in the floodwaters Monday.

“Stay out of the water, please. Stay out of the evacuated area,” English said Tuesday. “The battle is not over. … That means heeding these warnings.”

Around Cedar Rapids, the Iowa National Guard had deployed more than 400 soldiers who are there to help people leave their neighborhoods and make it to evacuation points, Col. Greg Hapgood said. Residents were advised to pack their belongings, medications and personal ID before leaving their homes.

For those who chose to stay, the Iowa Red Cross has opened two shelters, where they intend to accept residents in need.

Interstate 80 still remains open to motorists. The Iowa Department of Transportation planned to monitor closely for flooding.

Facing the flood

Over three days last week, upward of 10 inches of rain pummeled parts of eastern Iowa and western Wisconsin, CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar said.

One Wisconsin resident died after a mudslide destroyed a home, according to CNN affiliate WEAU-TV. Another person lost his life after attempting to drive through floodwaters close to his home, the station reported.

Because of the flooding, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared disaster emergencies for 13 counties, a move that would loosen up cash from the state’s coffers for the response effort.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad took similar action in an effort to help other cities affected by the flood. During a visit to Clarksville, he watched people lay 180,000 sandbags and 4,300 linear feet of flood barriers, all of which was delivered by the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

In addition, several other Iowa cities including Charles City and Waterloo remain on edge in the face of potential flooding.

Rising waters

The National Weather Service has already extended flood warnings through Sunday.

Residents such as Heidi McKay, whose family was around for Cedar Rapids’ worst flood back in 2008, aren’t taking chances.

“We’re better prepared now,” McKay told KGAN. “We decided that, no matter what, we were taking everything this time. We were not going to put anything upstairs. It was all coming out.”