CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Several thousand residents of Cedar Rapids left their homes Sunday as floodwaters began to spill out of the rising Cedar River, and Iowa's second-largest city worked to apply the lessons officials learned after the record 2008 flood.
The river crested Saturday night in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, which are about 55 miles upstream from Cedar Rapids, which is Iowa's second-largest city, with about 130,000 people.
The water levels in Cedar Falls and Waterloo were slightly lower than had been expected, but they still reached levels that were second only to those in 2008, when a major flood devastated the region.
The National Weather Service predicted that the river will crest at 23 feet in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday morning — well below the 2008 record of 31.12 feet. Officials asked those living in about 5,000 downtown homes near the river to evacuate. They said it could be days before people can return home.
The Cedar Rapids school district said Sunday that it is canceling classes through Wednesday because of the flooding. District officials will reevaluate the situation by Wednesday afternoon.
Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the city has been preparing to deal with a major flood since that of 2008, which caused billions of dollars of damage. City workers and volunteers have been working for days to build a temporary system of levees to try to contain the floodwaters.
"All the work is coming together, and you can see the benefit of planning and preparation," Pomeranz said.
After the 2008 flood, about 1,350 homes near the Cedar River were bought out and destroyed to reduce the amount of damage that future floods could inflict. About 45 acres of green space sit in that area today.
On Sunday morning, more than 100 volunteers helped remove the seats from the restored Paramount Theater in Cedar Rapids and move them up to the second floor to protect them from floodwaters. The theater was heavily damaged in the 2008 flood because it is one block from the Cedar River, and it cost $35 million to restore.
Unlike in 2008, residents have had more time to prepare for a flood. The benefit of that extra time was clear in the small town of Palo upstream where residents of more than 80 homes evacuated.
Kim Hutchins, whose home in Palo is about 10 miles upstream from Cedar Rapids, told the Des Moines Register that she spent Saturday packing up her kitchen while some friends unhooked her furnace in the basement and moved it up to the garage. Most of her furniture was piled onto trailers to move.
"They've been telling us it was coming for days. Last time, we had eight or 10 hours to get out," said Hutchins, 53, who planned to go stay with her mother.
Palo residents were being urged not to use water on Sunday because of a sewer line break and area flooding. Officials said they were working to repair the sewer line quickly. In the meantime, they were providing bottled water to residents.
Officials in Waterloo and Cedar Falls hope their communities will sustain less damage in this flood because of steps taken since 2008, but Black Hawk County Emergency Management Coordinator Lorie Glover said the extent of the damage won't be clear until the water recedes.
In Waterloo, the Cedar River crested at 22.95 feet (7 meters) Saturday. That's well below the 2008 record of 27 feet (8.2 meters), but still caused major flooding. It remained at 22 feet Sunday afternoon.
"We do have pockets of damage in some areas that we will be looking at, but the water is still very high," Glover said. "We need to wait until it goes down a little bit before we can get into some areas to look at what damage there will be."
Parts of southern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin experienced flooding over the past few days, but it appeared that most of the threat of major flooding had passed in those states by Sunday.
In the southern Minnesota town of St. Clair, eight to 10 homes remained evacuated Sunday. Assistant Blue Earth County Emergency Manager Eric Weller said Sunday that "we were very lucky overnight" that not much rain fell.