Flood ebbs in one city as levee fails another

The dark, filthy water that inundated the downtown of Iowa's second-largest city was receding Saturday after forcing 24,000 people to flee, but those who remained were being urged to take draconian measures to avoid overwhelming the city's only remaining drinking water source.

A sandbagging siege saved the last of the Cedar Rapids' four collection wells from contamination by the record flood. But officials warned that if people didn't cut back on flushing toilets, taking showers and other nonessential uses, the town will be out of potable water within three to four days.

More than 400 city blocks and 3,900 homes were flooded in Cedar Rapids, where early estimates put property damage at $736million, according to fire department spokesman Dave Koch.

While the Cedar River ebbed in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, a levee breach in the state capital of Des Moines flooded a neighborhood of more than 200 homes, a high school and about three dozen businesses.

More than 200 homes were evacuated in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, as a flood crest headed down the Iowa River. The Iowa City crest isn't expected until Monday or early Tuesday.

“This is our version of Katrina,” Johnson County Emergency Management spokesman Mike Sullivan said of Iowa City. “This is the worst flooding we've ever seen.”

At least two deaths in Iowa have been attributed to the flooding, which has prompted the governor to issue disaster proclamations for 83 of the state's 99 counties.

Elsewhere, Illinois emergency authorities said a levee along the Mississippi River in far western Illinois burst Saturday morning and voluntary evacuations were under way in Keithsburg, a town of about 700 residents.

“The levee broke in two places,” Keithsburg Alderman George Askew, 76, said of the town some 35 miles southwest of Moline. “We're getting under water.”

Parts of southern Wisconsin have been dealing with flooding for days. West of Milwaukee in Summit, authorities on Saturday found the body of a 68-year-old man near his vehicle on a flooded road.

Iowa's worst damage so far was in Cedar Rapids, where the Cedar River crested Friday night at nearly 32 feet, 12 feet higher than the old record set in 1929.

Murky, petroleum- and garbage-choked water inundated three collection wells and threatened the fourth before several hundred volunteers staged a last-ditch sandbagging operation. The collection wells are fed by a network of four dozen smaller wells.

Water lapped to within 3 feet of the improvised, 4-foot-high wall surrounding the brick pumping station before it began to recede. Two portable generators, one as big as a semitrailer, roared around the clock to keep the three pumps inside running.

“It's the little engine that could,” said Ron Holtzman, one of several people who came to watch the operation Saturday from a nearby foot bridge.

The pumps were drawing at near capacity of 15 million gallons a day. But that's not enough for the city of around 120,000-plus residents and the suburbs that depend on its water system.

Officials estimate it could be four days before the river drops enough for workers to begin pumping out flooded portions of the city. City Engineer Dave Elgin said the Cedar River was dropping at a rate of about 2 inches an hour Saturday.