How We Saved the Last Functioning Water Well in Cedar Rapids During Iowa's 2008 Flood

Flooding downtown Cedar Rapids, IA, near 1st Street and A Ave.
Flooding downtown Cedar Rapids, IA, near 1st Street and A Ave. | Source

Iowa's Katrina

In 2008, Iowa was hit by the worst flooding in its history, or, in bureaucratic terms, its worst hydrological event. Most of Iowa's counties were declared federal disaster areas and it came to be called “Iowa's Katrina”. Hardest hit was the city of Cedar Rapids, my town. With a population proper of 125,000, it is the second largest city in Iowa.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, July 4, 2008 -- The railroad attempted to prevent this bridge from being pulled off it's pilings by weighing it down with train cars filled with gravel. In the face of the river's strength during the flood, the attempt was futile.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, July 4, 2008 -- The railroad attempted to prevent this bridge from being pulled off it's pilings by weighing it down with train cars filled with gravel. In the face of the river's strength during the flood, the attempt was futile. | Source

Personal Dilemma

We don't live anywhere near the river and so didn't have to worry about raging river waters pouring into our basement like thousands of others. Our only personal hydrological event occurred on June 12, 2008, the day before the river crested. Our sump pump stopped working and water from rain-sodden ground started backing up from the sump well and slowly spreading across the basement floor. With everything else going on in the city, I didn't think we had a chance of finding a plumber as I manually channeled the water to a functioning drain, but my wife got hold of one and he arrived johnny on the spot, his van loaded with brand new sump pumps. He fixed the problem right quick and I only shed one tear as he walked off with my $800. We were far luckier than thousands of other homes and businesses. But I digress.

Collector Well #4 just off Edgewood Road

Call For Help

After the plumber left and the last of the standing water had been pushed into the drain and the dehumidifiers started, I collapsed into my chair with a hot cup of tea. My wife and my granddaughter, who was visiting us from Alaska-- we blamed her for bringing all the rain, just to watch her eyes roll-- were watching the local 10:00 PM news when the anchor man made an announcement: all the city's water wells were either flooded or contaminated, save one last large containment well. The river was still rising and would soon flood it, leaving the entire population without water. The authorities were putting out a call for help as there were less than a dozen city employees frantically filling and placing sandbags around the well station.

It was one of those situations that you don't analyze and think about. It sounded like an emergency, so I just said I was going down to the station and help. My wife and granddaughter said they wanted to go to, but, seeing as I had no idea what I was getting into, I didn't think they should go. I left alone. I wish I hadn't been so “gallant” because I think I denied them a very special memory.

Looking down Edgewood Road from where I parked. Just past the bridge in the woods on the right sits Collector Well #4.
Looking down Edgewood Road from where I parked. Just past the bridge in the woods on the right sits Collector Well #4. | Source

The Newcomers

It took me less than 10 minutes to find a parking spot above the Edgewood Road bridge over the Cedar River. The well station was just across the river and, fortunately, the bridge was high enough to escape the flood waters, though the road, continually sloping downwards, was underwater a few hundred yards beyond the station. I got out and headed down the road in the dark; there were a few others ahead of me, some carrying shovels. I wished I'd brought one, but I hadn't given much thought to what to bring to a flood. We all walked in silence across the bridge. A few dozen people were filling sandbags from a huge pile of sand dumped in the road. We newcomers pitched in, filling or holding sandbags or starting to form a line to get the sandbags to the station. There was a fair distance from the sand to the station as parts of the raised causeway from the road to the station were already under water.

The well station from Edgewood Road. The causeway and its drop-offs on either side were covered by floodwaters in 2008.
The well station from Edgewood Road. The causeway and its drop-offs on either side were covered by floodwaters in 2008. | Source

The Hundreds

A dump truck with a fresh load of sand and bags grumbled across the bridge, the driver being very careful not to run over any of the hundreds of people walking down the road toward us. That was a sight I will never forget. But there was plenty of work to be done and fortunately some water department supervisors knew what they needed and people just stepped up. I joined the the line formed to relay sandbags to the station. My spot was in thigh-deep water in the middle of the causeway. The dirty water hid the fact that there was a steep drop-off on either side of the causeway, but everyone was careful, though obviously not heeding the official warnings constantly publicized to stay out of the water because it was a toxic sludge.

Looking from the well station across the causeway to Edgewood Road. The floodwaters covered all this in 2008.
Looking from the well station across the causeway to Edgewood Road. The floodwaters covered all this in 2008. | Source

Saved

Everyone kept at their jobs as the thousands of sandbags were filled, passed along and placed against huge sheets of plastic liners completely around the station's concrete walls. The height of the sandbags steadily grew. The waters continued to rise. More trucks dumped sand. And people kept coming. A second line was created; both lines tightened up so we didn't have to pass the 20 – 50 pound bags as far. It got to the point where we just turned, hugged the bag, turned and released it to the next person and turned back for the next one. Finally, after two hours a cheer started at the station and went down the line to the workers on the road. We'd done it. There was nothing more that could be done. It remained to be seen whether our efforts would save the last well when the river crested. The previous record flood stage had been set in 1929 at 20 feet. The next day the Cedar River crested in Cedar Rapids at 31.12 feet, but the city could still provide safe drinking water, though rationed, because the sandbags held on collector well #4.

A&W on Ellis Blvd.
A&W on Ellis Blvd. | Source

Expect This Every 500 Years?

Bruce Jacobs, the city’s utilities engineering manager said, “The hundreds of people coming down the road to sandbag the thing was just astonishing to us. That was very uplifting.”

Greg Eyerly, the city’s utilities operations manager who was also at the well site, calls it “a miracle” that the well continued to pump water.

Estimates of the flood damage to the city run as high as $3 billion; 1,000 city blocks, 10 square miles, were flooded. It was classified as a 500-year event. Estimates of flood damage to the state exceed $10 billion.

It was also estimated that 800 – 1200 people came to help that night. The odd thing is, there are very few pictures. People weren't there to take photos. I wish there were a few, but whenever I remember the silent hundreds walking down that road, I still get a lump in my throat because, whatever else is going on in this country, that is where our greatness lies.

Cedar Rapids Flood of 2008

Cedar Rapids Flood Facts

31.12 Cedar River's crest (in feet) on June 13, 2008

11.12 Feet above previous record (1851 and 1929)

9.36 Feet the river rose in eight hours the day before the crest.

1,126 City blocks inundated.

7,749 Properties flooded.

18,623 Residents directly impacted.

1,413 Buildings demolished (still in process).

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Comments 9 comments

jenubouka 4 years ago

Incredible story Unnamedharald. I remember this horrific incident; but did not know about the well. I wish this kind of thing would happen on a global level. Loved IT.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks very much for commenting, jenubouka. The funny thing was that, even though we lived in the city, we couldn't get near enough to see much of the actual flooding because onlookers would just get in the way. National Guard troops were stationed well forward of the flooded streets to stop looters, gawkers etc. The only way across the river in town was the elevated Interstate 380 through downtown. I made that trip two times to get to my Dad's place and it took me two hours each time, instead of the normal 10 minutes; people atually walked along the side faster than the cars moved-- just like normal Chicago traffic. For more than a week roads and highways were under water such that in order to get to Iowa City 25 miles away you had to take detours totaling 250 miles.


jenubouka 4 years ago

Wow, what an ordeal! It is amazing what happens in a natural disaster. We have a few rivers that could cause some issues. In fact there is still a law in effect: it is illegal to row down Yakima Ave, back about 50 years ago our river would flood so bad this is how many got around.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

Thank you for helping to save the well. I will never forget June 11-13, 2008 - the horror of watching the river rise from my office on the 19th floor of the Alliant Tower before we were evacuated on Wednesday, the helpless feeling on Thursday as the water continued to rise, working at the Red Cross shelter at Prairie High School on Friday helping people find dry clothes after they had been rescued from their homes by boat. The video made me cry.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi Deborah. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was an uplifting experience. My only regret is that, with all the hundreds of people involved, hardly any pictures or video exist to record this amazing event. I've only seen a couple grainy, blurry shots. You must have had quite a view nearly 20 stories above the river! Thanks for reading and commenting.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

I do not know why, but I missed this hub at the date of editing :( So interesting. News about hurricane in NY are still fresh and I should say how lucky you were not to have something like this disaster. By the way, you say in the end of the hub that more than 1400 buildings were demolished. Where did the people who live there moved? Were the people offered some other places to live or it was all covered by insurance companies (here is your money - do whatever you want to do?) Shared!


xstatic profile image

xstatic 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

Outstanding Hub! Such a community spirit shared by all those volunteers is what we need more of in America. This is uplifiting and well written for sure.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Pavlo, it's been a very long process, but the city with local, state and federal funds has been buying up those properties that were demolished, though it didn't cover the pre-flood value. My niece lost her house because the basement walls caved in so much it was ruled unsafe (it was a mile away from the river just at the base of a hill). She ended up basically losing it because she had only bought it less than a year earlier. She had no choice but to walk away from it. She lived in a apartment after that but just moved into another house. This was classified as a 500-year flood and many did not have flood insurance.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi xstatic. It was indeed a moving experience to see and participate in. We were able to help, but many people's lives were disrupted for years-- and are still trying to recover.

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