Flood of 2008: City of Cedar Rapids

Nov. 1, 2008
A facilities professional at City of Cedar Rapids shares his experiences and advice on disaster planning and recovery

Dean Archer, facilities services manager for the City of Cedar Rapids, IA, has a lot on his plate these days. In June, 30 to 40 city facilities were devastated by floodwater - approximately 2.4 million square feet of city property. "It's been an ongoing battle since the flood," says Archer.

Historic Flooding
Flood recovery isn't a new fight for Archer or the city: In 1993, the Cedar River crested at just over 19 feet, flooding many downtown businesses and neighborhoods. On June 6, 2008, flood levels to match those of '93 were predicted. But, one week later, on Friday, June 13, the Cedar River crested at 31.1 feet - almost 20-feet beyond flood stage - flooding Cedar Rapids City Hall (which, along with the Linn County Courthouse, is located on May's Island, right in the middle of the river). The week leading up to that Friday left an irrevocable imprint on Cedar Rapids, and tons of damage in its wake.

"The first indication we had that we were going to have problems was on Tuesday, [June 10]," says Archer, noting that an underground parkade at City Hall floods if the river rises beyond 12 feet. "We had to start running pumps in there to keep water out of City Hall. We were running big, 6-inch pumps 24/7; by Wednesday, the pumps weren't keeping up and we couldn't find any more." The parkade started filling up, which allowed water to rush in to the basement of City Hall.

The water continued to rise on Wednesday, and the downtown area lost power. The back-up battery for the electronic river gauge failed; suddenly, no one knew exactly what to expect. "Thursday was the day the levee at Ellis Park collapsed. The Central Fire Station and the Time Check Recreation Center went under water. We were already 6-feet [beyond] anything that's ever happened before - in history," emphasizes Archer. All the streets and buildings closest to the river were flooding; when the levee failed, the situation escalated quickly.

At the Public Works Building, a mile from the river, Archer and other city employees never expected to see water. But, "that Thursday afternoon," Archer explains, "water started coming up close to the railroad tracks right next to us, and the tracks worked like a dam." Survey crews started using GPS grading to calculate water height. Behind the railroad tracks, the levels indicated an entire foot above the elevation of the floor in the Public Works Building. Archer recalls hearing the news: "I thought, ‘Oh boy, we're in trouble.' "

Though sandbagging had started almost 4 days earlier, water was entering the building fast, and the rain was still coming down persistently. The local energy utility was called, and power was shut off in the Public Works Building, with critical operations switched to generator power. "The water started boiling up through the storm drains," says Archer, who recalls water creeping in around the diligent volunteers and workers who were placing sandbags. "I went home around 6 p.m. on Thursday to grab something to eat. While I was there, my facilities maintenance supervisor called me and said, ‘Don't worry about coming back.' " The water had come over the tracks.

Once over the railroad obstacle, the water rushed into the building so fast that Archer's maintenance supervisor couldn't get to the generators fast enough, treading through knee-deep water to shut them down. "The last 2 or 3 feet of water came in a very, very short time," says Archer.

Dean Archer, facilities services manager for the City of Cedar Rapids, IA, saw floodwaters back in 1993, and the damage they did to Cedar Rapids buildings. He didn't think he'd ever see a flood of that magnitude again - but what happened in June 2008 easily topped the 1993 floodwaters. PHOTO: MIKE SCHLOTTERBACK

Picking up the Pieces
After cresting on June 13, the water quickly receded. Important and meaningful city facilities - including the Public Library, City Hall, transportation centers, and others - were soaked by dangerous, chemical-tainted water. The priority at Public Works was to get the fuel system - which powers about 1,500 city vehicles, from police cars to fire trucks - up and running. The three underground 10,000-gallon tanks were tested, and all had held tight during the flood. "We lucked out," says Archer. "By Saturday afternoon, we had that service back online." By Sunday, water had left the Public Works Building and the generators were operating. "We started clean-up right away [on] Monday morning," says Archer, who applauds the city employees in moving so quickly.

"We have two electricians," continues Archer, "and they worked and worked, and finally got everything back, tested, and running." High-voltage transformers had to be taken apart, dried, cleaned, dried again, and tested. When the large feeder cables were pulled off, "I bet there were 50 gallons of water running out of them," says Archer, likening it to a garden hose filled with unbelievably contaminated water.

The muck left in the basement of City Hall was reportedly waist deep, and similar conditions were present in numerous other city buildings. Many of the city facilities are so large that Archer and his team quickly realized what they were up against. "We thought, ‘This is way beyond us,' " says Archer. The facilities team tried to use local contractors for the clean-up, but they too were overwhelmed or unequipped to handle the scale and scope of the flood damage. "You get into a 367,000-square-foot building like this and you think, ‘What do I do now? What do I do first?' "

Believe and Plan
Archer had seen the flooding in '93, which led to a broadened emergency response plan. "That was catastrophic," he says. "The thought was, ‘We'll never see that again in our lifetime.' " The plan worked up to a point - the point it was designed for - but the city was unprepared for the magnitude of the Flood of 2008. The biggest lesson Archer learned from this experience? "Believe the unbelievable," he says seriously. "We did not believe it. I said, right up to the last minute, that water would never get in to our building. But, it was 37 inches in this one, and 5-feet deep in others."

"The plan now is so huge," says Archer, "that it probably won't even involve me." Nothing is set in stone yet, but the possibility of 30- to 40-foot-wide levees, and neighborhoods replaced by green space, has been mentioned. Aside from having an emergency response plan that involves the worst-case scenario, Archer suggests the practical, important tips that helped him and other city employees during this crisis.

"Keep your contact list updated," he says. "Being able to push a button and call someone, and say, ‘I need my power off right now,' is so important, and it worked very well for us." Keeping a thorough contact list updated and easily accessible is sage advice from someone who's seen his share of disaster recovery, including the (nearly 40) city facilities that were damaged in June - most of which are now up and running, and on the way to full restoration.

More Flood Stories:

Cover Story - Lessons from the Flood of 2008

  1. Mercy Medical Center - By Jana J. Madsen
  2. Alliant Energy Tower - By Jenna M. Aker
  3. The University of Iowa - By Leah B. Garris
  4. City of Cedar Rapids - By Jenna M. Aker
  5. Guaranty Bank & Trust - By Linda K. Monroe
  6. Quaker Oats - By Jana J. Madsen
  7. Cedar River Tower - By Linda K. Monroe

Jenna M. Aker ([email protected]) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.

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