IOWA CITY (AP) — Eastern Iowa communities fighting Iowa River flooding received good news Monday after a new projection indicated that Coralville Lake was less likely to top its emergency spillway.
The lake, six miles north of Iowa City, is expected to crest Thursday at under 710 feet, two feet below the spillway, according to the projection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Although some homes, streets and parks have already been flooded, residents and public officials were cautiously optimistic that the new forecast meant that they would be spared the devastation inflicted on the area by the record flood of 2008.
“Hopefully, it will just turn out to be a big annoyance rather than a huge disaster,” Iowa City resident Jon Ozeroff said as he stood outside his home along flood-inundated Normandy Drive.
Ozeroff said that, for the time being, he was declining the city's request to voluntarily evacuate, because the water had not reached inside his home. He said he had to rebuild his basement after it flooded in 2008, but unlike most of his neighbors, he declined a government buyout and stayed put.
Gov. Terry Branstad viewed the high water Monday in parts of eastern Iowa by airplane before visiting with officials in Coralville and Iowa City, who assured him that their flood defenses were holding. He said he was very encouraged by the Coralville Lake forecast.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the dam at Coralville Lake, which was built as a flood-control barrier for the Iowa River in the 1950s, and manages how much water leaves its reservoir to minimize flooding. When the water tops the spillway, it becomes harder to control and can lead to devastating floods not only in nearby Coralville and Iowa City, but in cities downstream, such as Columbus Junction, about 40 miles south.
The spillway has been breached only twice: during the 1993 and 2008 floods, whose damage still lingers.
Just days ago, the corps had warned that the lake would top the spillway this week by more than a foot. In response, the corps slowly increased the amount of water being released into the river, and volunteers spent the weekend sandbagging homes and businesses.
But since then, several days of dry weather in the Iowa River basin improved the forecast, Johnson County emergency management spokesman Terrence Neuzil said.
“The news keeps getting better,” he said. “As long as we don't have any significant rain come into the area or into the Iowa River basin, we're holding steady here in Johnson County.”
Still, he cautioned that the river — already over flood stage at nearly 25 feet in Iowa City — would remain high for several days. Officials were closely monitoring weather forecasts that called for possible rain through Thursday.
Neuzil said that about 30 homes and buildings in the county were already inundated with water, with damage estimated at $2 million in damage, and 30 others were vulnerable. Many of the property owners who were hardest hit live in unincorporated areas and have refused to have their homes bought out after being damaged in the 2008 flood, he said.
The county issued mandatory evacuations for four neighborhoods, covering about 30 residents, Neuzil said. Officials in Iowa City over the weekend recommended evacuations for about 10 additional homes.
At least a handful of Johnson County residents refused to evacuate, even though the utility company has shut off their electricity and gas, he said.
Neuzil said the Sheriff's Office warned residents that they might not be able to be rescued in an emergency, but it was not removing them by force.
Branstad spoke on a bridge over the Iowa River on the University of Iowa campus, where workers have deployed seven miles of flood barriers to protect buildings. The university is still rebuilding its theater, arts and music buildings, which were inundated and destroyed in the 2008 flood.
U of I President Sally Mason said Monday that the school has suffered minor damage, such as to sidewalks and green space where the barriers were erected, but no building had been affected so far.
Cedar Rapids, a city about 30 miles north that was also devastated by 2008 flooding, also had escaped major damage. The Cedar River started falling after cresting Sunday at 18.23 feet, tied for its 10th-highest recorded elevation, and was forecast to go below the 12-foot flood stage Wednesday.
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