Cedar Rapids and Floods: A Complicated Relationship


Jaydin McMickle

Rising flood waters on the Cedar River.

Abby Throndson, News Editor

Ranked sixth on the FEMA disaster declaration, the Eastern Iowa floods of 2008 were devastating to Cedar Rapids. Eight years later, the 2016 Eastern Iowa flood drowned the city that ‘would never flood’ once again. Over the summer, Cedar Rapids celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 floods, and on September 22, the 2-year anniversary of the 2016 flood, as well as gaining funding for a long-awaited flood project.

The Cedar River crested at 31.12 feet in 2008 on June 13. It was on this day that the Cedar River had been a record height, 19 feet above flood stage. The 2016 flood crested at 22 feet, ten feet above flood stage. The 2008 flood reached flood stage around June 13, falling below flood stage on July 7. In 2016, the flood barely lasted a week.

As it says in “Epic Surge,” a book published by the Gazette about the 2008 flood, “In a city of about 120,000 residents, 5,390 homes were harmed by this disaster, many irreparably.” 940 Cedar Rapids businesses were damaged by the 10 square miles and 1,300 city blocks of water flooding Cedar Rapids.

The long process of recovery from the 2008 flood included installing flood prevention measures. This plan included building a levee around the wastewater treatment plant, developing an interim flood control plan, and purchasing temporary flood control measures. No new flood prevention ideas were put into place after the 2016 flood, until the city received $117 million for flood protection services.  

Rob Davis is the Flood Control Program Manager in the city of Cedar Rapids. He works alongside an administrative assistant, a real estate representative, and a construction inspector on the implementation of the permanent Cedar River flood protection system and the design of temporary flood protection plans. This team works with the Federal and State governments on funding, grants, and project issues for the flood protection measures.

“Several recovery initiatives have been successfully completed after the 2008 flood. This includes constructing new housing that was lost in 2008… and removing homes that are in the flood zone so that damage in future floods is avoided. While we no longer have immediate recovery needs with either flood, we continue to grow our businesses and expand our neighborhoods,” said Adam Lindenlaub, a planner for the Community Development Department.

At times, it could have been to see past the vast river water drowning the businesses and homes of downtown Cedar Rapids, but people were affected even though they were never touched by the flood waters. Businesses were drowned and closed by the flood, employees losing jobs if businesses don’t reopen. Transportation detours, mandatory curfews, and schools closing can all disrupt daily life, and none involve living in the specifically affected areas. Some hidden effects are municipal service delays due to workers having to take care of other jobs that come up because of the flood.

The 2016 flood lasted about a week, recovery lasting only a few more weeks. The Cedar Rapids School District cancelled classes Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the week, then extended it to the rest of the week, due to not being able to safely transport all students to school, students commonly referring to it as the ‘flood week’. “The 2016 flood was not comparable to the 2008 flood,” Davis said. “It was an effective reminder of vulnerability and the need for more permanent flood protection, as the City spent around $8 million protecting itself. It was an effective catalyst in getting the recent federal funding.”

Davis also works to improve many things in our communities that happen due to floods. Some of the most important community work his team does is reaching out to the public on the goals and importance of flood control system. “Community is understanding that the flooding is a new normal and the 2008 event can occur again.” Davis said. The flood protection is specifically being designed to not entirely block the river from the city. “We want the flood protection to enhance quality of life in Cedar Rapids and encourage growth and resilience. In order to do that, the flood protection must blend into the background of the community.”

Just recently, the Army Corps of Engineers announced the $17.4 billion given to disaster recovery projects across the country. The Cedar Rapids flood protection project received $117 million towards designing, property acquisition, and construction for the levees, walls, and floodgates on 7.5 miles of the Cedar River. This contributed to the $550 million flood control system. After inflation, the project is predicted to cost around $750 total.  

This plan has been in the works for around 10 years. “Coincidentally, the city had begun a river study in 2008 with the US Army Corps of Engineers prior to the 2008 flood event,” said Davis. “After the 2008 flood, that planning was modified and significant planning was done between 2008 and 2011.” No big changes have been made to this plan since 2011. The 2016 flood was an effective catalyst in gaining the funding needed for the project.

The flood calendar in Iowa has started to change. “We seem to be having heavier rainfalls throughout the year so I think we’ll no longer have flood months we’ll just have to be prepared all the time,” Cedar Rapids Public Works Director Jen Winter told KCRG. This is where the flood protection system comes into lights, this will help the community be better prepared for the smaller floods that the city is now prone to.