CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The sun finally broke through the layers of clouds on Friday, a reassuring presence after a week of rain. But as residents in and around this eastern Iowa city surveyed their waterlogged landscape, they did not like what they saw.
“It looks like Katrina,” said a man in a pickup who declined to give his name. He was stuck in traffic that was at a standstill for 10 miles on the interstate north of the city, gazing at the Quaker Oats factory and buildings sitting in several feet of water.
Residents said the flood that hit Iowa’s second-largest city is far worse than the deluge of 1993. About 25,000 residents have had to leave and hundreds of homes and businesses have been damaged, many severely.
More than 400 blocks of downtown were evacuated, including a jail and major hospital. Water flowed like a river through downtown streets blocked by National Guard members, and warehouses along the Cedar River were nearly submerged. Floodwater gurgled around treetops and lapped just feet below electrical wires and billboards. The Cedar River crested at 31.2 feet Thursday, 15 feet above flood stage and breaking the record from 15 years ago.
“We thought the crest would be 20 or 22 feet, and we thought we would be okay, but it was 31,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran said.
The flooding that hit this city of more than 120,000 is just part of the hammering the Midwest has received from severe storms during the past week.
Tornadoes have touched down in several states, including one that killed four Boy Scouts at a camp in western Iowa on Wednesday.
Floodwaters have submerged parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Authorities have been forced to close a nearly 300-mile stretch of the upper Mississippi River to all traffic. According to the Associated Press, scores of bridges across nine overflowing rivers have been weakened or swept away.
The floods have destroyed acres of corn, soybeans and other crops, prompting worries about a spike in food prices at a time when they already have been rising. “I have real concerns about our agricultural sector,” said Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who declared 83 of Iowa’s 99 counties disaster areas.
Cedar Rapids and Des Moines were the hardest hit by flooding in the state. Iowa City, which thousands have already fled, is expected to be severely flooded in the next few days as the river there crests.
With three of Cedar Rapids’ four pumping stations reportedly not working, residents were told to use water sparingly, for drinking only, not washing. Officials credited volunteer sandbaggers for keeping the fourth plant from flooding.
“We are in a (drinking) water deficit. If people don’t reduce, we’ll have to go to boil mode,” Halloran said.
Public officials warned residents to stay away from floodwater and to make sure their tetanus vaccinations are current because of the risk of infection from contact with the water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has delivered 750,000 liters of bottled water to the state.
On Friday morning, long stretches of Interstate 80 and surrounding roads were shut down, creating a 300-mile detour north for drivers crossing the state. In the afternoon, officials also closed a short portion of the interstate south to Iowa City.
Carpenter Phil Leidigh, 53, a Cedar Rapids native, wondered where homeless people downtown would go and said flooding hit low-income areas of the city the hardest.
“Where the flooding is, it hit the people who are already struggling, who worked their whole lives to get where they are and now have to start over,” he said. “It could take years for the city to recover. They have been trying to revive the downtown, but now who knows if Debbie’s Ice Cream and these other little businesses will ever come back.”
Factory workers stood on overpasses to survey the damage and wondered whether they would still have jobs.
Wendy Hatch stared out at the swollen Cedar River and the souvenir factory where she works, which was half-submerged in water. Hatch said Norwood-Souvenir employees will learn their workplace’s fate at a meeting on Monday. She expects she may be transferred to another location, in Minnesota. On Thursday night, the flooding stopped five blocks from her home.
“We were sweating,” said Hatch, 41. “But we made it, we survived.”
Denise Hatch, 37, her sister-in-law, works at the Weyerhaeuser paper plant along the river. She and her husband, Don, planned to bring generators and equipment from their farm outside the city to aid cleanup efforts as the water recedes.
The deluge is being called a 500-year flood in Cedar Rapids and other parts of Iowa, meaning that in any given year there is a 1 in 500 chance of such a large-scale flood occurring.
Denise Hatch said many people whose homes were swamped probably did not have flood insurance, because they were many blocks from the river.
Leidigh said the historic 1993 flood that submerged much of the Midwest was “not even close” to the current situation.
“That was from heavy rain in our area, but this time it’s actually the river rising, and water coming up through the drainage system instead of going down the drainage system,” he said.