Sunday, June 22, 2008

Flood Survivors Seek Answers in Iowa City

Flood Survivors Seek Answers in Iowa City

A meeting between federal and city officials and residents of the flooded out Normandy Drive area of Iowa City started out folksy Saturday, but grew more tense as answers grew less specific.

The more than 250 residents were more than happy with Dave Loebsack (pictured above with neighborhood resident Steve McGuire), offering applause for the congressman's physical labor sandbagging the neighborhood. Loebsack announced that he had canceled a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan that was scheduled for next month to focus on flood relief. "For some months to come, the district staff and I will be working almost exclusively on this," he said. "It's going to be a long process, no doubt about it. I know what I'm doing when I'm back (in the district.) It won't be sandbagging, but it'll be cleanup."

But as questions turned to city officials, the neighbors grew more restless. When can we get back in our homes? Why should rebuild before we know about a buyout? How do we start the process? Some questions were answered, some remained unanswerable as officials tried several variations on "we don't know yet."

"I've tried to do everything I could in Washington to get all the assistance that Iowans deserve," Loebsack said, praising the bipartisan efforts of Iowa's four Democrat, three Republican D.C. delegation. "All seven of us have been working in a bipartisan manner. The 2nd District is by far the hardest hit, so my office has been taking the lead in the House."

"We got the President up to $2.65 billion" for a relief package, said Loebsack, who accompanied President Bush on his Thursday visit to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. "But we have no idea how much this will cost yet."

"If we approach this with the same attitude and collective effort we did with the sandbagging, we're going to be OK," said Mayor Regenia Bailey.

Dave Wilson, head of Johnson County Emergency Management, said at least 6 million sandbags were deployed in the county. "Not all of them got wet. We were extremely proactive down here and suffered no major loss of infrastructure and no loss of life."

"This is the first of what I imagine to be several meetings. No decisions have been made about anything," said McGuire, one of the meeting's organizers. "I know many of you now by your elevation," he said. "I'm 651.8," which wasn't enough. "People are struggling with where to stay, let alone where to begin."

The neighborhood has set up its own web site, PVTFloodResponse (that's Park View Terrace, not "private". It's a nicer nickname that the "Mosquito Flats" that some old-timers still call the area.)

Bailey said most mandatory evacuation orders have now been lifted ("Why not all," one person muttered at the statement) except for a handful of addresses on Normandy Drive. The Peninsula neighborhood, which was evacuated because the only access road was flooded, is now open. The city is offering updates on lifted evacuations on its web site and through press releases, and Bailey offered her personal cell phone number to neighbors whose computers were still sitting in flooded homes.

"Automobile access should be in the next day or two," said City Manager Mike Lombardo. He was asked, with audience members applauding, why boat access was not allowed as it was in the 1993 flood. Lombardo, only two weeks into the job, couldn't speak to 1993, but said the 2008 decision was made to keep residents and rescue personnel safe.

While most evacuation orders are lifted, access is by foot only, and an 8:30 p.m. curfew for areas within 100 yards of flood waters is still in effect.

"Don't be in a hurry to get rid of the sandbags," says Public Works Director Rick Foss, By Tuesday afternoon, water should drop below the 712 foot level of the Coralville Dam spillway, but Foss reminded residents of the multiple peaks of the 1993 flood.

Foss said the city will eventually pick up sandbags, but there's not yet a plan to get them moved from the side of homes to the curb. He also said he was unsure about which was a higher priority: removing snadbags SANDbags (though I like that new word, "snadbags") or removing damaged contents of homes.

That question was answered, as residents, in unison, shouted "CONTENTS!"

Residents also asked about temporary relief on property taxes, assessments, and utility bills. "It's minor, but every nickel is going to help all of us," said one woman.

"Temporary tax relief would take an act of the city council and would have to be consistent with state law," said Lombardo, and the same would be true of utility rates.

"I doubt that our property values have gone up in the last month," said one man to applause.

Lombardo said there was no blanket answer yet on rebuilding.

A FEMA representative said that if a buyout were to happen, it would be at the pre-flood market value of homes.

As for rebuilding, City Planner Jeff Davidson advised residents to "Document everything. Photos, receipts." City staff also advised people with water in their basement to pump it down only a foot at a time, then wait an hour or so between pumping, to make sure water isn't backing up and to ease structural pressure. The city does not expect to give any homes a "red placard" indicating they are structurally unsafe.

Residents also asked for pumps to be placed on two low spots on Normandy Drive to speed the process, but Foss said that was technically unfeasible. He said some sandbags had been removed to allow drainage.

A FEMA representative said half to three-fourths of the residents have filed by phone already. Residents will get two packets in mail: a white one from FEMA and a brown one from the Small Business Administration. FEMA will also send a representative to look at each applicant's home.

"Why do we want to rebuild?" asked one resident, seeking the definitive buyout answer that never came. "Should we start rebuilding if we don't know for sure if we're going to be bought out?"

While residents seemed to begrudgingly accept answers from city officials, the greatest ire was reserved for the Army Corp of Engineers' management of the dam. McGuire said there would be a meeting about hydrology, but noted, to sarcastic laughter, "We don't have a representative from the Corps here."

"Are we expendable when it comes to a flood?" asked one neighbor, while another muttered, "They raised the water plant, so they don't care about us anymore." The old Iowa City water plant was nearly closed in 1993; a new plant is on higher ground.

Loebsack, however, tried to remain positive, offering a toll-free office number (866-914-IOWA) and personal help removing waterlogged carpet despite an aging lower back. "Things are going to be even better than they were before, no doubt about it."

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