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Flood barriers protect Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as river crests

Midwest flooding
Cory Harrison stands on a flood wall as he looks over businesses flooded by the Cedar River on Sept. 27 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

An elaborate system of temporary floodwalls largely protected Cedar Rapids homes and businesses Tuesday as the river that runs through the city reached its second-highest peak. 

City officials said the 9.8-mile system of Hesco barriers and earthen berms that contractors erected over the weekend was successfully holding back the rain-swollen Cedar River. 

The city, Iowa’s second largest, received good news as the river crested Tuesday morning at 22.1 feet — a foot lower than predicted Monday and 3 feet lower than forecast over the weekend. That was 9 feet below the 2008 flood that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in the worst natural disaster in Iowa history. 

City crews had worked through the night to patch any weaknesses in the protection system and pump out water that seeped through the barriers or up through the saturated ground. 

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“City employees and contractors worked in really heroic ways to make sure the temporary system we put in place was fully functional,” said city manager Jeff Pomeranz. 

Their work continued Tuesday as the city turned its focus underground to its pressure-packed sewer system, which officials worried could send water shooting onto streets in the coming hours and create danger for any bystanders. 

“The enemy now is what we don’t see,” Pomeranz said. 

While the system was working, city officials said that many homes and businesses near the river will likely have water in their basements. They warned about the prospect of residential sewer backups and structural damage. 

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Thousands of residents had heeded the city’s call to evacuate low-lying areas. It will likely be a few more days before they are allowed to return to their homes and businesses. Classes at public schools remained canceled Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Firefighters and police officers rescued a woman Monday afternoon who had been swept away by the river north of the city’s downtown. She clung to a tree until emergency responders reached her. 

“Several officers and firefighters put their lives at risk and in great, great danger,” said Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Mark English, who urged residents to stay out of low-lying areas that had been evacuated. 

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