Around The River Bend: Covering The Flood

Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
(CBS)

Last year I covered a series of floods through Arkansas and Missouri, this summer, it seems the waters are slower and more devastating as they wind their way down the Midwest and into the Mississippi. Though it might sound grotesque, watching this slow process is a bit like watching a snake consume its prey. Just as you can watch the snake's meal grind slowly down its body, you can see the bulging waters of these rivers slide downstream.

My colleagues Dean Reynolds and Cynthia Bowers had been reporting on the floods long before my new producer Brandon Baur and I drove over from our coverage of teenage girls murdered in Oklahoma and the tornadic devastation in Chapman, Kansas, but there was plenty to cover for all of us.

Driving into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, brought me flashbacks of driving into New Orleans days after Katrina. Though there is nothing at all similar in the scale and scope of human tragedy, or the speed of the levee breach, or the failure of the preemptive evacuation I kept remembering the images of rooftop islands where the water swallows everything else. After covering that disaster, I'm never as eager to enter the water for a live shot or for any reason really because I know the inevitable filth in floodwaters, especially in an urban environment. The toxic mix is comprised of every fluid that ever gets put into a vehicle, the insulation from homes, the refrigerants from our air conditioners and fridges, the household chemicals kept under the sink, rotting foods, meats, garbage, sewage … you get the picture. There is every reason to minimize your exposure to that water when possible.

On those first days, Cedar Rapids was under voluntary water restrictions. The hotels were asking guests to flush less, not shower at all and restrict water use to consumption only. More than 25,000 people had already been evacuated before the river crested and as we've seen in the past couple of days tempers are getting heated as anxiety overwhelms some in their desire to see the state of their homes and belongings.

Down in the college town of Iowa City, the heart of the Hawkeye nation was preparing for the worst in its own way. The University picked its battles carefully, figuring out which buildings they had a better chance of defending and executing aggressively. I had never seen a sandbagging effort on the scale of what I witnessed last Saturday afternoon.

It was a combination of students, alumni, neighbors, volunteers filling thousands of bags, and forming human chains to get them stacked as needed.

The Iowa River bisects the city and the city had begun closing bridges. The potential existed that citizens on either side would have a much longer commute if all the bridges closed down but the river crested earlier than expected and not all the bridges had to be closed.

A quick side note on the forces at play against bridges when rivers swell like this. A lot of people wonder why officials close bridges, and find the precaution unnecessary. The reasons for being careful are three bits of common sense physics. Bridges are designed with one primary force in mind- the weight of what is on them - pushing down. When there is such a tremendous increase in the quantity of water flowing down a river, what we can't see happening underwater is pretty important. First, the water scours away dirt wrapped around the foundation of the bridge, and that leaves it more vulnerable to debris slamming against it and compromising its structural integrity. Second as the water gets higher, and slams the slide of the bridge, the lateral force can also weaken the structure. Finally there is the risk of buoyancy. Bridges don't float you say? Well when water gets so high under the bridge and starts bouncing against it's underside, engineers actually drill holes down through the surface to relieve pressure so that all the air and water being forced up can channel through the bridge instead of pushing the bridge up to be lifted off its foundations.

As I toured a drowned downtown Coralville on a coast guard skiff, the number of non-chain small businesses under water was the most saddening. Small restaurants, laudromats, family-owned businesses that operate six-days a week and eke out just enough profits to get by, where will they get the money to start over? The majority of people in this region don't have flood insurance. Several might have taken some after the floods in 1993, but a few years after, several insurance companies reassessed what was a 100-year flood plain, or a 500-year flood plain, and the prices became very high for someone to pay the premiums, so most people chose to go without. So now we're looking at a situation where there are a large number of victims in an uninsured catastrophe. These people whose homes and businesses maybe under water who might have been middle-class last week might have to file for unemployment and government assistance just to make ends meet.

The sentimental costs are staggering in any disaster. I paddled out to Poppy Crum's parents' home in the Mosquito Flats neighborhood of Iowa City. Watch the video here. She had helped her parents move as much as possible out of the home her family had lived in for 45 years. She said she watched her childhood disintegrate in her hands as the water inundated one cardboard box of momentos after another in the basement.

In Columbus Junction, I spoke to the mayor whose tears weren't far beneath his sunburns from sandbagging for the past few days. If you can find it on a map, you'll see that the town is located where the Cedar and Iowa rivers converge. With the record flows of those two rivers, no amount of sandbags was going to prevent the inevitable. Fortunately for this town, most of the residential neighborhoods are up on a hill, but the downtown which contains the only grocery store, gas station, general store for miles, not to mention the fire department and city buildings are under 10 feet of water.

Further down near Oakville, where a small army of volunteers on ATVs had fought so valiantly last week with thousands of sandbags to reinforce their levee, the river broke through. When you see Oakville located near the bottom of a bend in the Iowa River, you almost feel like they were doomed from the beginning. Bends in rivers are weak spots, and when the type of record high water volume pushes against one spot in the bend, it is bound to weaken and break. The town of Oakville was the most populated casualty of the Iowa River's new more direct path toward the Mississippi. Roughly 16,000 acres of farmland are now part of the last stretch of the Iowa. The owners of at least one hog farm in the path of the levee breach let their pigs find higher ground and fend for themselves. You can see a few remaining splashes of pink on the levee – how long they'll survive without feed is anyone's guess.

This southeastern corner of Iowa is almost picture-postcard rural. The standard homestead is nestled among some tall trees that serve as a windbreak, there's usually an adjacent barn and grain silo that glimmer in almost any light. The kids on summer break from nearby Mediapolis High School cruise out on the gravel roads in their pickup trucks to see the new white cap rapids where corn fields used to be. They're longing for a bit more now than another appearance in the state football tournament or those three years where their softball team was so good. They'd like to see the rivers return the land that their parents and grandparents have worked and lived on for so long.

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