Iowans reel from latest disaster

Central Iowa residents begin clean-up while are farmers consider options following record flooding

BY JOHN PAPE | AMES, IA | August 15, 2010


Squaw Creek overflowed its banks and inundated Ames, IA, area businesses and residents. Hundreds of residents were evacuated and were forced to boil their drinking water.
Credit: FEMA/Jace Anderson

Forklift operator unloads pallet of water in an Ames warehouse where the water will be redistributed to those in need at city water distribution sites. This water is part of 25 truckloads of water the state of Iowa requested FEMA to supply, to help those without potable water because of recent flooding.
Credit: FEMA/Jace Anderson/

Residents across large portions of central and southeastern Iowa have begun the clean-up process in the wake of record flooding following three days of torrential rainfall.

Flood waters drove hundreds from their homes in the Ames and Des Moines areas and left one teenager dead after the car she was riding in was washed from a rural road.

Rescuers recovered the body of 16-year-old Jessica Nicole Webb of Altoona about 10 hours after several cars were swept off the road by the storm-swollen Mud Creek between Altoona and Mitchellville.

Webb was one of 11 people riding in three cars when they were washed downstream at the height of the flooding. Emergency crews rescued the other 10, all of whom were found either clinging to trees or hanging on to logs. Four of those rescued were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries, according to A.J. Munn with the Polk County Emergency Management Office.

Altoona Fire Capt. Ryan Young said the drivers were apparently unable to see that the road was flooded.

“My understanding is they were just driving down the road about 4 a.m. when they ran into the floodwaters. They didn’t realize water was covering the roadway and their cars just got washed away,” Young said. “It’s fortunate we were able rescue 10 of them.”

In the state capital of Des Moines, flood-prone Four Mile Creek rose to more than 16 feet on Wednesday, some 4 feet above flood level, driving hundreds of people from their homes. By Friday, waters had receded to 7 feet, and crews were going into flooded areas to assess the damage, according to Jon Davis with Polk County Emergency Management.

“The crews are continuing to assess the safety of the flooded homes and apartments so we can give the green light to residents to return home and begin the clean-up,” Davis said. “We first need to make certain there is no structural damage or other health or safety issues that would put them at risk if they return.”

Davis was not certain how long the safety assessment would take. He also did not have a damage estimate for flooded areas of Des Moines and Polk County. He did say the evacuation area included 145 apartments, 82 mobile homes and 50 single-family residences.

Des Moines city officials spent $1.5 million in 2008 to buy out flood-prone properties in the same area along Four Mile Creek. On Friday, City Manager Rick Clark said the city would be looking at using state and federal grant funding to purchase more property in the area.

Just north of Des Moines, crews in the city of Ames were spending the weekend getting the community’s drinking water system back on line following a major water line break that happened during the height of the flooding.

John Dunn, the city’s water and pollution control director, said crews had been working literally around the clock to repair the break and purge the city’s water system of any potential pollutants.

“On Wednesday, a large water main under Squaw Creek near the Iowa State (University) campus broke and drained a nearby water tower. Our crews could not keep up with the water loss, and within an hour-and-a-half of the break, the tank was drained,” Dunn said. “That’s when we were forced to shut down the system.”

By Thursday, crews were able to restore a partial water service, but officials in the city of 55,000 people issued a “boil water” notice while asking residents to use as little water as possible.

The water restrictions were lifted Saturday afternoon, but the boil order remained in effect until water sampling determined the water was safe to drink.

“We’ve literally got crews going out and knocking on people’s doors asking to sample their water,” Dunn said. “As soon as we’re absolutely sure the water is safe to drink, we’ll lift the boil notice, but that may take several more days.”

Dunn also praised the work of city crews in purging the entire system to ensure it was free of potential contaminants.

“We worked for 27 hours straight to flush the system. We typically do that as a routine maintenance item once a year, and then it normally takes five weeks to complete,” he said. “To do what is normally a five-week job in 27 hours was a tremendous effort.”

Flooding also hit Iowa State University, located on the south side of Ames. Squaw Creek runs along the eastern part of the main campus, and several smaller steams run through the school grounds.

Several campus buildings sustained flood damage despite a sandbagging effort, and many of the school’s athletic complexes were surrounded by water. At one point, the basketball arena was flooded with by as much as 5 feet of water.

ISU Assistant Director of Facilities Bob Currie said it was “still too early” to determine a dollar amount sustained by the university as a result of the flooding.

At the height of the flooding in Ames, Squaw Creek rose to a near-record level of 18.13 feet. The record is 18.5 feet. The South Skunk River, which runs along the eastern edge of the city, reached an all-time record flood level of 26.72 feet, eclipsing the old record of 25.6 feet.

By midday Saturday, both the South Skunk River and Squaw Creek were back within their banks.

Communities located along rivers and streams were not the only ones hit hard by days of torrential rainfall. In tiny Luther, northwest of Des Moines, some 4 million gallons of water was being pumped out of the town. The water ponded in areas of Luther as a result of the heavy rains on top of already-saturated ground.

While most residents were beginning the clean-up phase, officials at the Iowa State University Extension Service are concerned the state’s renowned corn and soybean crops may be damaged by the flooding. Agronomist John Holmes said standing in floodwater for several days could easily deprive plants of the oxygen they need to survive. Additionally, corn needs nitrogen to fully develop, and floodwater could leach nitrogen downward in the soil to a point where corn plants cannot reach it.

On Saturday, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver announced he received confirmation that President Barack Obama had authorized 18 flood-stricken counties be added to an earlier Presidential Disaster Declaration issued in July.

The declaration allows the release of public assistance funds to state and local governments, as well as certain private nonprofits such as rural election cooperatives and municipal utilities, for emergency repair and recovery projects in the wake of the flooding. Counties included in the declaration were Black Hawk, Boone, Buchanan, Clayton, Delaware, Dickinson, Dubuque, Emmet, Fayette, Guthrie, Jackson, Jasper, Jones, Lucas, Mahaska, Polk, Sioux and Story.

They join 32 other counties declared as disaster areas on July 29 following the collapse of the Delhi Dam near Hopkinton. That collapse sent millions of gallons of water crashing into downstream communities.

The dam break came after an earlier round torrential rains that caused record flooding on the Marquoketa River.


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