The Flood of 2008

In Historical by Jeff Wilcox

No words can describe what occurred across the state of Iowa a year ago. Rivers were cresting or within a week of cresting (some at record levels) across the state. At Cedar Rapids, the Cedar River crested 11 feet above the previous record (31.2 feet) on June 13th. The river flowed into neighborhoods that thought the river would never get to. The river water was 8 feet deep in some parts of downtown, the river went blocks to either side of the actual river bed. Damage was extensive, with house after house, block after block being destroyed the water. The bridges in Cedar Rapids were high enough to let the water pass through and had to be closed. Soon enough the river went over the bridges and kept on rising. Only the Interstate 380 bridge was the only way people could get from one side of town to the other. Even then it was very difficult to get through. It has been a slow process getting the city back up and running. House have been or are being torn down, people are moving on with their lives although at a very slow pace.

Widespread Impact

The rivers are embedded in memory, Cedar, Wapsipinicon, Iowa, Des Moines, Mississippi, Turkey, Upper Iowa. They are along with many others were the ones that flooded to in some cases unbelievable records. For only the second time ever, the Coralville Reservoir went over the emergency dam, (the other time was 1993) and crested just over the 1993 record. The resultant flooding downstream in Iowa City and Coralville flooded the whole Coralville strip (along with flooding from Clear Creek that flowed into the Iowa River in Coralville).

Numerous businesses along First Avenue in Coralville (one of the main streets people take to get to either Carver-Hawkeye Arena for basketball or Kinnick Stadium for football) were flooded mainly south of the railroad crossing. Businesses along US Hwy 6 in Coralville were flooded from 6th Avenue eastward to Hawkins Drive. The Iowa Softball complex was flooded. Then came the University of Iowa. Hancher Auditorium was flooded and will (as of now) not be rebuilt. Many other university buildings were flooded by the overflowing Iowa River. The entire Art complex had to be moved the following school year to other locations around Iowa City.

Meanwhile north of town Interstate 380 (or the Avenue of the Saints) was closed for several days, more or less cutting off Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, which are only 20 miles apart. The detour has told by the media was over 400 miles long and went as far as Des Moines. Interstate 80 was closed at the Cedar River, when the water went over. That closed any through traffic from Omaha to Chicago and vice versa. US Hwy 30 was also closed at the Cedar River near Cedar Rapids. Iowa Highway 150 was closed north of Vinton for weeks due to the road collapsing due to the water. Iowa Hwy 1 between Mt Vernon and Lisbon met the same fate as well, although both were reopened by the fall.

Numerous levees broke across the state. One in Des Moines flooded a neighborhood north of downtown but many of the people had evacuated in time. A levee broke in Anamosa, causing the whole athletic fields to flood for the first time since the levee system had been erected after the flood of 1993. A gas station was ruined by that flood but has since reopened. An apartment building across the street has also reopened but without tenants in the basement. A railroad bridge collapsed in Cedar Rapids sending train cars that were put on the bridge to hold it down into the raging Cedar River below. (They are in the process of rebuilding that bridge now and should be reopened in a few weeks). Another railroad bridge just north of downtown near Quaker Oats had a slew of house boats that had left their mooring at the Ellis Boat harbor about a mile upstream and had settled against the tressle. Many of those house boats were recovered several weeks later.

A railroad bridge also collapsed in Waterloo sending the bridge into the river. (This one is slated to be rebuilt soon.) Parts of downtown Waterloo were flooded but nothing to the extreme that Cedar Rapids had. Another bridge collapse brought sadness to the small village of Sutliff in northeastern Johnson county, when part of the historic Sutliff bridge fell into the Cedar River. The remains of the bridge have been left as it stood when the river ripped apart the history of the small town. Ames was flooded as well. The river levels at the home of Iowa State University rivaled those seen in the historic 1993 flood there. Numerous business along South Duff Avenue near Squaw Creek were flooded, but many have since reopened once more. In northeastern Iowa, the Upper Iowa River went out of its banks in Decorah, the Turkey River did the same in Elkader damaging some buildings there.

What made the flood worse in some areas was the constant heavy rain and thunderstorms that continued plaging the area. On the night of June 11th, a round of thunderstorms crossed the state (that included the tornado that hit the Little Sioux Boy Scout Ranch which killed 4 scouts there). The heavy rain lasted to the morning of the 12th making rivers go even higher than forecast. In other cases the gauges stopped working as was the case with the one along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids which stopped working two days before the eventual crest.


Recovery has been slow and long in the year since the flood water receded. Numerous houses are being bulldozed and many residents are waiting for buyouts. Damage has been estimated over 1 Billion Dollars in Iowa, making it one of the worst disasters in the United States. Many businesses have reopened in the flood damaged areas, but many buildings have yet to reopen or be reoccupied. Some neighborhoods have turned into ghost towns with many of the residents having either moved away or waiting for buyouts to be able to move elsewhere.

A new levee system in Cedar Rapids is being investigated, but this will likely not become reality for several more years. Down in Iowa City, The University of Iowa will rebuild Hancher Auditorium at another location away from the river (at a site yet to be determined). Many of the buildings on the University campus have been cleaned and have or will be reopened by this fall’s semester. There’s many more things that could be discussed, but the flood was such a large event. Here are some interesting items to look at.

Six Days in June From KCRG and the Gazette
Un-Natural Disasters Book by Terry Swails and Carolyn Wettstone (this blog did a book review and DVD review on this back in the fall) (This also discusses the Parkersburg Tornado)
Epic Surge The book compiled by the Cedar Rapids Gazetter
Epic Surge DVD the DVD compiled by KCRG
Iowa Flood
NWS Des Moines’ Flood Assessment
Wikipedia Article on Flood
So Many more