36,000 Iowans homeless as floodwaters recede

By Alan Gomez, Marisol Bello and Judy Keen, USA TODAY

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Marie Welton figures her daughter will have to bulldoze her flooded home here. She worries about the survival of her own business, a children's hair salon, as people recover from epic flooding that put 1,000 blocks underwater.

"They say we're going to be resilient. They say we'll overcome this," Welton, 52, said Sunday, but Iowans' can-do spirit "is going to keep going down before it comes up."

Floodwaters began to recede Sunday in Iowa's two largest cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, and the Iowa River crested in Iowa City after swamping part of the University of Iowa, but many communities face daunting cleanup and recovery efforts as the waters still threaten communities elsewhere in the region. Downstream Iowa communities such as Wapello, Burlington and Keokuk are braced for record flooding. Davenport put out an urgent call Sunday for volunteers to fill sandbags to reinforce two levees.

The National Weather Service predicts record flooding on the Mississippi River on Wednesday and Thursday at Canton, Hannibal and Louisiana, Mo., and Quincy, Ill. Authorities in Alexandria and Canton called for voluntary evacuations Sunday. Workers rushed to add 3 feet of sandbags to Canton's 27.5-foot levee. The river is forecast to crest there at 28 feet — 14 feet above flood stage.

PHOTO GALLERY: Flooding rains devastate Midwest

"We're preparing for crests that are coming Wednesday through Friday that will rival the all-time records of 1993," Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said.

For a week, relentless storm systems that spawned tornadoes and dumped torrents of rain have flooded huge portions of the upper Midwest. Flooded rivers and breached levees forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, caused millions of dollars of damage, covered vast stretches of farmland and strained the patience of people across the region.

Iowa, hit hardest through the weekend, got more rain Sunday. Brian Pierce, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Davenport, said the next three or four days will be generally dry.

READER FORUM: Are you in the flood zone? Share your story.

About 36,000 Iowans in 11 counties are homeless, Gov. Chet Culver said Sunday. In Cedar Rapids, 25,000 people were forced from their homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is taking applications for disaster assistance.

"This is far over record flooding. It is of historic proportions," David Miller, administrator of the Iowa Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said at a briefing. Eighty-three of Iowa's 99 counties have been declared state disaster areas. Three deaths were attributed to flooding.

In Cedar Rapids, in blocks where the water had receded, residents waited in line for a chance to grab a few things from their homes with police escorts. City spokesman Dave Koch said initial estimates of property damage total $1 billion.

When Kaleen Large left her house Thursday, water was rising and TVs were floating. She grabbed the cedar chest her late grandmother had left her. It was a 1939 graduation gift filled with photo albums, family heirlooms and Large's childhood stuffed duck.

Large, Welton's daughter, pushed it halfway up the stairs to the second floor before police ordered her out. "It's frustrating, of course," said Large, 33, "but everybody's in the same boat. Well, not really."

David Eberle was angry as he waited at one of 10 checkpoints. "The longer they make us wait, the more trouble we're going to be in," said Eberle, 48. "We should be able to save our homes." He could have been cleaning out mold-causing muck, he said.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Greg Graham said he understood the frustration. It's important, he said, to maintain a secure perimeter around flooded neighborhoods to prevent looting and to ensure that nobody walks into a house with structural or electrical problems.

"If we start losing control, we'll never get it back," Graham said.

Steve Daringer had no reason to line up. His home was still underwater. He's still paying off the government loan he used to repair his house from a 1993 flood and doesn't know what to expect when he finally can go home. "We have no idea what's left," he said.

Sharon Hicks did get a look at her house. After taking a few steps in, she looked down at the water-soaked floor and said, "I don't want to look. It's a disaster."

Hicks left with a bag full of wet clothes and pictures of her late mother and late sister that hung unharmed above the flood level. The house was a muddy mess. Her collections of Elvis Presley mementos and Native American art were scattered on the floor. A cabinet was on the wrong side of the room.

"I was going to get my clothes, but my dresser's upside down," said Hicks, 66, a retired nurse's aide. One of her daughters, Marsha Hicks, couldn't even reach her basement apartment. When she pulled open the door, water was still up to the top step.

"Everything I owned was down there," said Marsha Hicks, 48. "I need some air. I can't breathe." She had left Thursday to run errands and came back 90 minutes later to find the basement completely flooded.

"It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie with the water coming up behind me," she said.

The National Weather Service said the flow on the Cedar River through Cedar Rapids peaked at 149,500 cubic feet per second Friday, more than doubling the previous record of 73,000 in 1961.

The river fell to 24.6 feet Sunday, a drop of more than 5 feet from Friday's crest of 31.1 feet.

The town of Palo, which has fewer than 1,000 residents, is still unreachable, said Linda Langston, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors.

She said teams have gone in to assess damage. They want to secure two floating propane tanks and check other hazards before letting people return. "They're not going to like what they see," she said.

'Flood of epic proportions'

The Iowa River crested in Iowa City on Sunday at 31.5 feet, earlier and 18 inches lower than projected. The river is expected to remain at that level through today.

"It's a flood of epic proportions for us," said Mike Sullivan, a spokesman for the Johnson County Office of Emergency Management. He said 5,000 people were displaced in the county of 111,000. The worst flooding was in Iowa City and neighboring Coralville.

"The escalation of this event has hopefully stopped," Iowa City manager Michael Lombardo said. He said it could take five to 10 days for the water to begin to recede.

"This is the worst flooding event in the history of Iowa City," Lombardo said. In 1993, the previous record flood, it took more than a month for water to recede. At least 200 homes have been flooded and 600 people evacuated.

Brian Mara fled his second-floor apartment in Coralville on Friday as water streamed in under the door. He left so quickly, he forgot his wallet with his ID and bank card. He paddled back on an air mattress later Friday to retrieve his wallet.

"I'm homeless," Mara said. "Everything I own was in there. I don't know what I'm going to do."

On Sunday, wearing the T-shirt, beige cargo shorts and flip-flops he wore when he fled, Mara, 40, a carpet installer, helped his co-workers and boss salvage merchandise from a flooded warehouse. "Ugh," he said, scraping muck off his feet on a patch of grass. "There's no clean water here anywhere."

The basement showroom of Randy's Carpets and Interiors flooded almost to the top, while its one-story warehouse nearby flooded up to 3 feet deep.

Sullivan said the county is trying to protect six power substations that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people. Four are surrounded by water, but temporary levees were holding Sunday.

Sixteen University of Iowa buildings, including the art museum and a recital hall, were flooded. The university suspended summer classes and told non-essential workers to stay away. Art treasures by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock had been removed.

"We are not through this by any means," university President Sally Mason said. "The water is very, very high. If the buildings take on more water, they could become unstable. It is a very volatile situation."

'We've been through it before'

In Des Moines's capital, the Des Moines River broke through a levee Saturday after volunteers, city workers and Iowa National Guard troops worked for days to shore it up. More than 200 homes, a high school and three dozen businesses were inundated.

Leane Hartney and Rebekah Dunlap awoke at a motel to see television images of their home engulfed by floodwaters. A day earlier, they thought it would be safe. "When I saw that, I was just sick," Hartney said.

Kathy and John Essex reopened their restaurant, Mr. Bibbs, 18 weeks after the floods of 1993 with $60 borrowed from a relative in the cash register. They had used all their savings to clean and repair their north Des Moines restaurant. "The first time was the worst. It broke my heart," said Kathy Essex. "This time, we knew it was going to happen. We've been through it before; we'll be able to do it again."

In Columbus Junction, where the Cedar and Iowa rivers meet, crews spent Friday building a temporary levee. It gave way Saturday night, flooding the town of 2,000.

Councilman Hal Prior said the bowling alley, senior center, grocery store and medical offices were flooded to their roofs. The water treatment plant is flooded and inoperable. Two 18-wheelers of bottled water were delivered by the state, county and National Guard.

Officials worked to hook up 3,000-foot hoses from their water system to one operated by a Tyson's chicken plant on the outskirts of town to supply residents with water for bathing and flushing toilets. The town is trucking in portajohns until the city can supply sufficient running water.

"The good news is that the crest has passed and the water dropped 4 inches in the last half-hour," Prior said Sunday. "We think we've passed the crisis." The bad news: Floodwaters are unlikely to recede fully for at least a week, he said.

The region's economy will feel the flood's effects long after the water retreats. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed a 315-mile stretch of the Mississippi River to barge traffic, starting at Bellevue, Iowa, and ending at Winfield, Mo.

Corps spokesman Alan Dooley said that during the last two weeks of June 2007, 1,881 barges carrying more than 2 million tons of commodities passed through the locks at Winfield. More than half of that cargo was agricultural commodities such as corn; the rest was coal, petroleum products, chemicals and construction supplies, he said.

Iowa business, farm and government leaders said losses are likely to exceed the $2.1 billion in damages and lost business in 1993. In the short term, though, the rebuilding of homes, businesses and infrastructure could create an uptick in Iowa's economy. "We're talking 2 to 3 billion to get this place back on its feet," said Lee Clancey, president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Agriculture losses could have global implications. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently lowered forecasts for this season, which if accurate will mean higher prices for food, livestock and ethanol. "This is a disaster that's growing in size every day," said Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau. "I am deeply, deeply concerned that there will be farmers who simply won't survive this."

Missouri might take the next hit. Many levees in the region have been improved since the 1993 floods, but those in northeastern Missouri aren't as high as those around St. Louis, Dooley said. Many levees north of St. Louis have as much as a 12.5% chance of being inundated in any given year, he said.

This is likely to be one of those years. "We are confident that there are levees up there that will be overtopped," Dooley said.

Bello reported from Iowa City, Keen from Chicago.

Contributing: Matt Kelley and Bob Swanson in McLean, Va.; The Des Moines Register

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