COUNCIL BLUFFS — When you think of first responders, the mind goes to a firefighter rushing into a burning building or a police officer capturing a criminal.
It isn't often you think of a man grabbing his construction hat, reflective vest and a shovel before hitting the streets.
Maybe you will after the Flood of 2011.
The employees of the Council Bluffs Public Works Department have been the front line of defense in the city's continuing battle against the floodwaters of the Missouri River.
When an emergency declaration for flooding was issued on May 25, Public Works crews had been fighting rising water since April 20.
Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan said the Public Works team has done a great job, even going beyond what some thought possible.
"These people have done it in a very difficult situation, under a lot of scrutiny and during unbearable heat," Hanafan said. "Yet they do their job, go home at night and sometimes turn around three or four hours later when they are called to come back."
Public Works employees have been working three shifts around the clock seven days a week. Whether they usually work on a road repair crew or on pump stations, Operations Director Pat Miller said, every one of his employees has pitched in to fight the 500-year flood.
"The crews have had a great attitude; morale is still very good," Miller said, even though many have given up vacations for the summer. "They see it as their mission."
Street Superintendent Jeremy Noel agreed with Miller's assessment.
"They are really taking ownership," Noel said. "They know the severity and seriousness of the situation. All the departments have come together as a team, which is what it takes to get through this."
The projects started immediately after the stepped-up water releases from Gavins Point Dam were announced. Miller said some of the first jobs were to seal the levee with sandbags at River Road and along the Canadian National Railway. Workers organized the first sandbagging effort with the assistance of firefighters.
Those first weeks were stressful, Miller said.
"We had a lot of guys putting in 16-hour days," he said. "It's one thing for me to put in a 16-hour day in my office, but these guys were out there actually doing the hard work."
Noel said some people were initially working 70 to 80 hours a week, until temporary employees were brought in for support. Approximately 40 temporary workers are still monitoring the levees and watching the pumps.
And there are plenty of pumps to be looked after.
Miller said between 32 and 36 auxiliary pumps are running at all times throughout the city. From 6 inches to 18 inches, the diesel-powered pumps are constantly moving water from the dry side of the levees back to the river.
The diesel pumps became necessary after the city's electric pumps began to experience problems moving such a large amount of floodwater and groundwater, and others were needed when pump stations became inoperable because of flooding.
Miller said if not for the work of his crews, narrow misses could have become large catastrophes.
Exhibit one, he said, would be the pump station near the Twin City neighborhood. Two of the three 32,000-gallon-per-minute pumps failed in the first few weeks of June, leaving one pump to keep the Twin City and Malmore Acres neighborhoods dry.
The pumps were designed to blast water out of the station, rest and wait to fill up again before ejecting more water. However, with the high water on the Missouri River, the pumps were running nonstop.
The third and final pump broke down, twice, but was repairable.
"It went out one weekend, and our electrician had to be in there, with no air conditioning, working to get it fixed," Miller said. "We managed to get it fixed in time, twice."
If not for those quick repairs, thousands of gallons of water would have inundated Twin City. The two broken pumps were repaired and reinstalled in July. Now the three pumps work a little differently, with variable frequency drives to gradually wind the pump up as it starts rather than just lurching to a crescendo.
While danger is still possible from the high water, Noel and Miller said they are trying to get to work that typically would be done this time of year. Concrete repair and pothole reports are still necessary. Miller said a pothole crew has been assembled, and Noel is putting together a concrete team.
But just when time appears to be available for routine maintenance, something like Friday morning's rain happens, and it's all hands on deck to make sure the streets don't flood.
"If we get a quarter- to a half-inch of rain, we have minor street flooding," Miller said. "The groundwater is that high."
He is concerned that it will take some time to get rid of the groundwater, and with the gate structures permanently sealed, Miller is concerned pumping might have to continue into the winter months.
"It took a long time for the groundwater to build," Miller said. "It will take a long time for us to get rid of it."