Residents of Des Moines neighborhood hit by 1993 and 2008 floods pack up as river rises again

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Des Moines residents leave homes as river rises

DES MOINES, Iowa — Irene Carter has twice watched floods nearly destroy her home, so the mere threat of another soaking in her seemingly flood-prone Iowa neighborhood was enough Tuesday to get her and several neighbors packing.

They weren’t told to evacuate, but in their community — where a vulnerable levee is again threatened by a rising Des Moines River — they’re not sticking around. If water inundates her one-story house, as it did when the levee failed in 1993 and 2008, Carter isn’t sure whether she’d go back.

“I don’t think so. It’s too much for me,” the 69-year-old widow said.

The river was already swollen with snowmelt when rain began to fall this month. Saylorville Lake, north of Des Moines, is designed to protect the city from flooding, but it’s close to its maximum storage — and forecast to overtop a spillway on Wednesday.

The city was monitoring the river and levees on Tuesday. Although the river was expected to stay within the levee system, officials acknowledged that the levee protecting Carter and other residents of the working-class Birdland neighborhood just north of downtown Des Moines is more vulnerable than other parts of the levee system.

A.J. Munn, emergency management director for Polk County, said officials have known since 2008 that Birdland’s levee was more vulnerable, and some residents expressed anger Tuesday that the levee wasn’t fixed years ago.

The levee was repaired after the 2008 flood, and a company earlier this year was rewarded a $7.2 million contract to rebuild the levee. But construction hasn’t begun, so officials spent Monday putting together a makeshift reinforcement.

“There’s no concern about overtopping the levees. The more significant concern is a failure through the Birdland section of that levee,” Munn said.

Officials have been encouraging Birdland residents for the last few years to have an emergency plan in place — if they feel at risk, they should leave.

And they do.

In March when snowmelt sent the river up, Carter and several of her neighbors packed their belongings because of worries about the levee. It held, and there was no flooding. But the river swelled again this month.

Carter said she still has boxes packed from that scare and was loading them back into the moving truck.

“If it doesn’t flood, I’ll probably put the stuff back in the house,” she said.

Crews late Monday finished putting in a secondary levee directly behind Birdland levee. The secondary levee consists of wire baskets lined with felt and filled with sand. Munn said the process is more efficient than sandbagging.

“People may be arriving at a decision to self-evacuate. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. It’s human nature,” Munn said, adding that officials would meet with Birdland residents Tuesday evening to keep everyone informed.

Carter said several of her neighbors had already left, though she wasn’t sure how many.

“I’m moving out and putting all my stuff in my girlfriend’s driveway,” said Larry Clark, 63, who moved to the neighborhood about a month ago. “I just made friends down here, some good friends. We all got to go our separate ways until this is over with.”

A few houses down from Carter, Robert Heathcote Jr. was packing up his house and getting a camper ready to go. He planned to live in the camper if his house came under water.

Heathcote, who grew up in Birdland, also went through the floods of 1993 and 2008.

“It’s rough,” he said, visibly upset about the threat of another flood.

A water line is still visible about seven feet high on one of the windows of his house from 2008. He calls it a reminder and believes the levee should have been fixed long ago.

“It’s not done right now. To this day, it’s not done,” he said.

In April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave Minneapolis-based Ceres Environmental Services a $7.2 million contract to rebuild the levee. The design has been completed, but construction hasn’t started.

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