Iowans fight back against floodwaters

IOWA CITY, Iowa Sun Jun 15, 2008 4:33pm EDT

1 of 40. Residents look at a flooded building in Columbus Junction, Iowa June 15, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (Reuters) - Officials moved paintings, books and documents out of harm's way on Sunday as record flooding in parts of the U.S. Midwest partly submerged the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.

"The campus has been hit hard. The city has been hit hard," said Michael Sullivan of Johnson County Emergency Management.

Floodwaters prompted the removal of valuable items from the university's Arts Campus, and nearly 1,000 homes were inundated in Iowa City and neighboring Coralville, he said.

Summer school classes were suspended and many roads were impassable.

In downtown Cedar Rapids, where the water shut a giant cereal factory, business owners were escorted to offices on upper floors via an elevated "skywalk" to retrieve laptop computers and documents.

Gov. Chet Culver said Iowa's losses were "massive," totaling in the billions of dollars, with 83 of 99 counties declared disasters and seeking federal aid.

Four people have died in flood-related incidents -- including a woman found in her flooded home in Cedar Rapids -- and 12 have been killed by tornadoes.

Officials at the stricken Iowa City campus have been "in an active flood fight for the last six days and are staying even with it at this point," said John Benson of the state's Department of Homeland Security.

The Iowa River in Iowa City was nearing its projected record crest, officials said, but water levels were rising downstream.

The Cedar River was dropping in Cedar Rapids, as was the Des Moines River in Des Moines, but water was up downstream. All flow into the Mississippi River, which also was rising.

Mostly clear weather was forecast for the coming week.

'THERE WAS NO POINT'

In Coralville, Brian Mara said he spent three days laying sandbags but "the water went right over, there was no point."

Des Moines authorities opened a second breach in a broken levee built to hold back the Des Moines River to allow floodwaters to escape a neighborhood. They lifted a voluntary evacuation order for the rest of the state capital.

In Cedar Rapids, where the damage was estimated at more than $700 million, a few of the 25,000 evacuated residents got their first look at ruined homes.

"Residents will not be given access if their home has any water in or around it," said Police Chief Greg Graham.

More than 9 square miles, or 1,300 city blocks, were flooded, and the fast-retreating water exposed a thick muck that officials warned may contain hazardous chemicals.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have suffered from the floods in our country. I know there's a lot of people hurting right now," said U.S. President George W. Bush, visiting France, after attending a church service.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Flooding also hit parts of Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. It disrupted businesses and tourism, and shut down factories and grain and meat processing plants.

Heavy spring rains have delayed planting of crops and submerged farm fields, sparking a record spike in corn prices and price jumps for other commodities. The flooding may aggravate an upsurge in commodity and food inflation, increasing the cost of making fuel like ethanol from corn.

Girding for the watery onslaught along the Mississippi River, officials in Illinois and eastern Iowa dumped sand, barricaded roads and marshaled resources for the aftermath.

A 300-mile (480-km) stretch of the vital waterway has been closed to barge traffic.

The 700 residents of the riverfront town of Keithsburg, Illinois, were forced out of their homes when levees broke. Downriver at Quincy, volunteers helped 400 National Guard troops with sandbagging and other efforts to fortify two key levees.

The levees broke during an epic 1993 flood.

"They've been through this before," said Patti Thompson of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Paris, Ryan Schlader in Cedar Rapids, Kay Henderson in Des Moines, Peter Bohan in Chicago; writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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