Des Moines Cleans Up After Flood

Residents are turning the same energy they used to fight the floods to assessing damage and helping the city's recovery

METEOROLOGISTS here say the deluges that caused the flood of 1993 are over, but the monumental tasks of cleanup and recovery have only begun. If people here have learned anything from the disaster, it's that teamwork and cooperation can do wonders.

Cy Carney, the city manager who headed Des Moines's emergency response, has awe in his voice as he describes the efforts of officials, city workers, and citizens. Instead of being tagged the largest city ever to lose its water supply, he says, Des Moines should be known as "the largest city in the country ever to build a temporary water system and have it up and running in one day."

Last Friday, drinkable water was restored - ending one of the flood's most-harrowing chapters. Businesses and residences had been without water for almost three weeks after flood waters contaminated the supply. And while a few portable toilets still stand along streets and National Guardsmen still operate some water-purification units, normalcy is reappearing.

Behind the scenes, much of the same energy used for fighting flood waters is being channeled toward damage assessment and recovery. On Saturday, the Flood Recovery Task Force - embracing city, county, school, and business representatives - estimated area losses at $716.2 million, including damage to homes and work places, plus the multiplier effect from shutdown businesses.

More than 300 businesses were damaged, with problems ranging from loss of inventories to market share. But the $500,000 maximum loan offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to firms won't go far toward covering losses.

The task force counts 2,120 damaged homes, though only about 150 are expected to be uninhabitable. Many hard-hit families have low or fixed incomes - FEMA's $11,900 maximum grant will probably fall far short of needs.

In a report issued last week, task-force members make a strong appeal to Congress to immediately fund an Army Corps of Engineers assessment of the flood-control system in the Des Moines and Raccoon River basins. They call for the appropriation of money to pay for improvements to the system, such as higher, stronger levees. The task force also wants the caps on FEMA aid raised, and it wants Washington to waive FEMA's requirements for matching funds from local governments since tax revenues here are droppi ng.

Mr. Carney says these recommendations would benefit any community that suffers a disaster.

One key to getting through recent weeks, the city manager says, was public information. For 14 days, he and other officials - including those from the Corps and Salvation Army - held twice-daily briefings that were covered by the local media.

Meanwhile, work crews have organized recovery efforts. Eight city areas were identified as particularly affected by the flood; levees were diligently watched, so that crews could respond instantly, as needed. Those eight areas remain the focus for recovery efforts. A recovery team is sited in each one, Carney explains, to handle needs like demolition and trash removal. "It's almost a case-worker approach to each area," he says.

What are the city's plans to reduce the chances of future damage of this magnitude?

City engineer Harold Smith shakes his head. Rolling out charts showing the flooding records of the area's two major rivers since 1903, he notes that water levels this time surpassed records by five to six feet. "It was a quirk of nature," he says. The rivers, which have separate drainage basins, flooded and crested simultaneously. Looking toward the Des Moines River, which runs alongside City Hall, Mr. Smith comments: "It was just a wall of water down through there."

He argues that the city had every right to expect that its flood defenses would be adequate. But that doesn't mean defenses shouldn't be reinforced now. In fact, plans to do so were under way before these torrents.

Funds were authorized last fall for the Corps to begin work on the West Des Moines levee system, an $18 million job, Smith says, that would have protected some of the areas most devastated by flooding. "And, obviously, we will take measures to increase the height of the levee at the city waterworks," he adds. "Nobody wants that to happen again." He also feels that the city will have to consider better floodgates on some levees. The method of closing off openings with sandbags was just too slow.

Overall infrastructure damage remains unknown, though Smith says his early estimate is around $17.5 million. Roadways were less affected than expected; many parks were virtually washed away.

Sewers could have a multitude of hidden problems. The city engineer says his crews will be lowering TV gear under streets to see what happened. Some main sewers are century-old brick affairs.

Des Moines's new waste-water-treatment facility was not hurt by the flood, but for the last month it has been treating 240 million gallons a day, instead of its normal 60 million gallons. "That," Smith says wryly, "tells us we have severe infiltration somewhere."

Carney is well aware of these problems and others, but chooses to view the experience as something on which to build. Help has come to the city from dozens of other Iowa communities and states.

What it all tells him, the city manager says, is that the capacity of people in the city of Des Moines to draw together into an effective community is "outstanding."

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