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Keeping pace with Iowa's floods

Federal data collectors ride the water, measuring currents.

June 16, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ON THE CEDAR RIVER, IOWA — The flood chasers steer their battered flat-bottomed boat around sodden chunks of barn door, skim past telephone poles, and ease by a nearly submerged "no passing zone" street sign.

Six days ago, before the Cedar River swelled and flooded towns, this was a winding road through Muscatine County in southeastern Iowa.

Now this is a wild, roiling adventure for Doug Goodrich and his crew.

"Man, this is amazing," said Goodrich, 55, a supervisor with the U.S. Geological Survey's data collection team. Staring down at a laptop, Goodrich studied the candy-colored lines showing the speed and direction of hidden currents beneath him.

"The water levels, the flow, everything, it's so much worse than it was back in 1993," he said.

At a time when 83 of Iowa's 99 counties have been declared disaster areas by the state and tens of thousands have been evacuated from their homes, most people here are fed up with anything related to water.

State officials said Sunday that 36,000 Iowans have been evacuated in 11 counties.

Even as the waters slowly receded in Cedar Rapids on Sunday -- and thousands of evacuees waited for hours at checkpoint lines for the chance to return to their homes and see the damage -- the rivers were still rising elsewhere.

In Iowa City, at least 15 buildings on the University of Iowa campus, including one designed by architect Frank Gehry, were flooded and more than 500 residents were forced to leave their homes.

Though the river crested Sunday at just over 31 feet, lower than expected, city officials said it would be at least two weeks before the rivers fell back to pre-flood levels.

In Keithsburg, Ill., 700 residents were reportedly being forced out of their homes after levees crumbled.

R. David Paulison, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, who has been touring the Midwest to survey the damage, told CNN's "Late Edition" that this was "some of the worst flooding I've seen since Katrina."

That has meant long days and little sleep for Goodrich and the nearly two dozen other USGS staff who have spent more than a week crisscrossing the state, following the swelling rivers.

They've waded through storm waters and hiked over muddy terrain, carrying computers, GPS sensors, even old-fashioned measuring sticks and oars -- all to track how deep the water is and how it's moving.

Crouched next to Goodrich on the boat, hydrologist Jon Nania carefully slid a neon-orange floating device out onto the coffee-colored water.

The device -- which looks like a miniature boat -- has an acoustic sensor attached to the bottom that uses sound waves and other technology to help map the water's speed, depth and direction. The data is then transmitted to a laptop on the skiff.

"Man, the water looks like it is moving way faster than I thought it would be," Goodrich said.

Nania, 33, nodded. The computer told him the flooded county road was about 17 feet below him. Around the bend, twisted trees the size of small pickups slammed into a steel bridge, filling the air with a sound like thunder.

"You know, I could have retired two months ago and missed all this," Goodrich said. "I swore to myself that I wouldn't ever go through another flood like the one in 1993."

It's been the talk of his office -- that this could be the beginning of another crisis like '93, when months of widespread flooding caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in economic woes.

"We keep saying it can't get worse, and it does," Nania said.

Iowa's USGS team is spread across the state and tracks 153 measuring sites, some of which date back more than a century.

The data they collect helps the National Weather Service make its flood predictions, and aids other federal agencies and emergency organizations in knowing when to move the public out of harm's way -- and to let towns downstream know what may be coming.

This past week, the phones at the USGS' Iowa City office have been ringing continually. Scores of pleas have come from meteorologists and scientists for the latest readings on big rivers (the Iowa, the Cedar, the Des Moines) as well as tributaries (Big Bear Creek, Salt Creek, Richland Creek).

Yet this can be dangerous and exhausting work.

In Cedar Rapids last week, after about 24,000 locals were evacuated, the flood chasers boated past fallen electrical lines to make repairs and double-check flood readings. When crews headed to Decorah, lightning storms churned overhead as they crossed bridges to check on the Upper Iowa River.

"I knew we were in for the long haul when the water got so high in places, our own equipment was flooded," said biologist Jason McVay, 36.

They've also become disaster experts to friends, family and absolute strangers, who pepper them with the same question: What's the water doing now?

When Nania and Goodrich found a dry spot on the road, they pulled the boat up and tied it to a guard rail.

A few steps away, Faith Brown nervously watched the floodwaters swirl across the blacktop.

"Think it'll go down soon?" asked Brown, 18, who builds office furniture at a nearby factory. Since the flood, a detour from her home in Muscatine County has added nearly 30 miles round-trip to her daily commute -- and eaten away at her fuel budget.

"It's going down now, but it's slow," Goodrich said.

Then, ignoring her exasperated sigh, he turned his attention back to the water.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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