Two storms pound, waterlog the city by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · July 04, 2014
Two heavy and powerful storms hit West Branch Monday, piling on the water until it flooded homes, businesses, streets and government buildings especially downtown and some in Pedersen Valley. With wind gusts up to 80 miles per hour, the first storm hit about 3:15 p.m., flattening crops and snapping trees with large trunks. Add in soaked ground and some trees came up at the roots.
Long-time residents say this was the worst flooding seen here since 1993, where floodwaters reached at least six feet in the downtown.
Wapsi Creek that runs next to Agave’s Mexican Restaurant at Main Street and next to West Branch Roofing on College Street left its banks with the first storm, lifting pallets of roofing insulation and carrying them downstream. While the boxes fit underneath the College Street Bridge, the water level at Main Street reached the deck of that bridge, catching the boxes up at that location. West Branch Fire Department members and passers-by used ropes and sticks to drag them to the shore, then headed up to West Branch Roofing to move the rest out of the flooding area.
Hoover Creek running through the National Historic Site, which normally runs just under 2 feet deep, jumped up to more than 9 1/2 feet during the afternoon storm, dipped to about 8 feet, then shot up to more than 10 feet deep when the second storm struck about 7 p.m.
Roads in downtown West Branch started closing one by one. Second Street, First Street, the entrance to the Visitor Center, then Main Street all closed by Monday night, with strong sweeping waters flowing over them.
The flooding reached northward nearly to College Street, and southward nearly to Cedar Street, stretching east and west to fill basements in homes and businesses, as well as Town Hall.
Main Street Sweets, Agave’s Mexican restaurant, Parkside Repairs, Cornerstone Real Estate, Main Street West Branch, Salvaged on Main and the combined West Branch Fire Department/Police Department building all flooded as well. The private business owners or staff who spoke to the West Branch Times said they expected to be closed at least on Tuesday, but possibly longer. Friends, family and staff carried furniture, pushed water and mud, or swept up debris.
Lynch’s Plumbing’s office remained dry but its garages and sheds took on as much as 21 inches, office manager Sharon Lynch-Voparil said.
She noted that the staff was able to get their equipment and trucks out and on the job to tackle “six pages of patrons” who called about flooded basements.
“A lot of sump pumps were simply overwhelmed,” she said.
Steven Grace, co-owner of Main Street Sweets, said his restaurant took on five inches of water at the highest point. Water started seeping in just before the second storm and closed the business about 6:30 or 7 p.m.
“At 7 p.m. (the flooding) really took off,” he said.
He said he is insured but noted that while water did get on some furniture, it did not damage his equipment or the food. Grace had yet to talk to the landlord about the walls and floors.
City Administrator Matt Muckler said City Engineer Dave Schechinger walked the streets Monday night and Tuesday morning checking roads and bridges. As of Tuesday morning, the College Street bridge seemed safe, no roads buckled and the lagoon and lift station seemed to operate as they should.
Muckler believes the Cedar County Emergency Management Agency will likely provide the city with cleaning kits, and the city plans to give tetanus shots to workers who had to walk through high water.
He was unaware of power outages inside the city, but did hear that some Linn County REC customers north of the city did lose power.
Mayor Mark Worrell said he has been busy with a family emergency and unable to make a thorough tour of the town. He had some flooding inside his shop and the sewer backing up inside his own house, so he understands the stress West Branch residents and business owners are facing right now.
“I wish them the best of luck,” he said. “That is part of living in a flood plain. ... Mother Nature can be evil.”
Emergencies all over
West Branch Fire Chief Kevin Stoolman said that before the roofing insulation problem, firefighters received a call that a tree fell on a propane tank at 21 300th Street, breaking valves off the tank and causing the propane to leak.
The firefighters used a forklift to move the tank away from the house where it would be less dangerous.
The roofing insulation problem that came next meant finding three more forklifts to move dozens of pallets to the east side of the Wapsinonoc, where the ground is higher, Stoolman said, and that chore ran for the next 60 to 90 minutes.
The first storm’s rainfall brought in enough water to get into the fire department, so firefighters returned there and started lifting equipment and machines onto tables, counters and blocks of wood to keep dry. Stoolman said they also kept an eye on Second Street, hollering at motorists that tried to get through.
One of those motorists stopped and turned back, a second one did not and the flowing waters picked up the car. Three firefighters ran out to help the motorist out of the silver sedan, Stoolman said, then they tied the car to a nearby I-beam to keep it from floating down the creek.
Stoolman said that as many as 20 firefighters ran around town helping people Monday and well into the night. After floodwaters began to recede, firefighters gathered again at the station to start cleaning up the mess left behind by eight to 10 inches of water throughout the bays and kitchen, though a bit less in office area which has a floor that is higher than where they keep the fire trucks.
“It’s going to be a scramble to be ready for Hometown Days,” the fire chief said. “Everybody did a good job, though.”
‘We’re really isolated’
Flooding Main Street from Parkside/First Street to nearly Fourth Street meant drivers had to take a northernly route through 280th street to get from one side of the city to the other.
A stream overflowed and temporarily closed Herbert Hoover Highway a few miles west of the city limits. With those streets flooded, the two main access points to Interstate 80 were cut off, West Branch Police Chief Mike Horihan noted.
“We’re really isolated here,” he said after sunset.
The Cedar River flooded at the 258 milemarker of I-80, too, causing even further difficulties for motorists.
Yet with all the problems, Horihan knew of no injuries nor accidents outside of the swamped car.
Horihan, Public Works Director Matt Goodale, Schechinger and Officer Alex Koch congregated near the intersection of Parkside and Main to keep an eye on the flooding around sunset. About that time, resident Garry Younts walked up, asking if anyone knew where to get sandbags.
“A buddy of mine has about four feet in his basement,” Younts said, gesturing north on First Street.
No one had an answer.
Over on North Second Street, resident Tom Pagels, who works nights, said he had been sleeping before going to work. About 8:30 p.m. he got a phone call from one of his sons, who had been visiting his mother, and stated that they would not be able to come home as planned.
“Why not?” Pagels remembers asking.
“Have you looked outside?” his son asked.
When Pagels did, he saw his home, at the intersection of Second and Green streets, with water filling his yard and lapping at the floorboards. The hot water pipes in the crawl space under his home only put out lukewarm water because the floodwaters cooled it as they swept by, he said.
Pagels said he wished someone from the city would have gone door-to-door, knocking on homes to alert residents.
“I’m sure I will have a lot of property damage, but I won’t know until it recedes,” he said.
He was able to move his truck with little difficulty to dry land and park it at West Branch United Methodist Church, he said.
While the network of streets around downtown businesses swelled with rain, not all of the adjacent businesses took on water. Dewey’s Jack & Jill grocery store at the northwest corner of Parkside and Main; Presidential Motors, next door to Parkside Repair on Main Street, did not see flooding; and Casey’s General Store, between Parkside Repair and Main Street Sweets, only had water within a couple feet of the sidewalk attached to their building.
Tony Nopoulos, owner of Presidential Motors, and other men were seen checking on the building about 11:30 p.m. Monday. Nopoulos said the concrete curbing around some greenery in his parking lot went under water, but he could still see bushes and plants even at the highest point of the flooding.
Water crept up behind Jack & Jill, but only a little bit of water seeped into Patton Family Health Center’s vestibule, according to Patton financial manager Kathy Frederick.
Wapsinonoc Creek runs alongside West Branch Village and flanked the mobile home park with water to the south and west, but property manager Colton Miller said it did not cause problems for residents in their homes or on their streets.
“We’re built to handle this,” he said. “We survived really well.”
Miller, who is also a member of the city council, said he saw the devastation throughout the downtown.
“I feel bad for the rest of the town, though,” he added.
Mike Wilson, acting superintendent at Herbert Hoover National Historic Site while Pete Swisher is out of town, said one of the grounds staff said this was the worst storm he had seen in his 20 years.
However, the Hoover Complex looks “pretty good” considering, he said, with only some water in two historic buildings — the Meetinghouse and the P.T. Smith House basements got wet, but did not overwhelm the sump pump systems. A willow tree was laid down behind the Meetinghouse and there will be some silt cleanup as well.
“I think we lucked out here,” he said.
Grace said he planned to put the furniture and equipment from Main Street Sweets into his garage so the floor and walls could get thoroughly cleaned of the five inches of rainwater and silt. He expected to be closed all day Tuesday, and possibly Wednesday.
“I hope to be open for the holiday weekend,” he said.
Dave Hosier, son of the owner of Parkside Repair, said the shop got about six inches of water, but it did not appear Tuesday morning that any of the equipment was damaged.
“It’s a hellava mess,” Hosier said. “We’ll be down for today. Hopefully we’ll reopen tomorrow.”
Main Street West Branch Program Director Mackenzie Krob and landlord Norm Bickford stopped to take a break from cleaning the MSWB building, sitting on benches in Appreciation Park next door. MSWB got 4 1/2 inches of floodwaters, Bickford said, and the red brick pathway leading up to the veterans’ memorial was layered with mud and silt.
Bickford said he removed the doors because they appeared a little swollen on the bottom and is unsure if they will return to their previous size. He does not think the ceramic tiles will need to be replaced.
Helen Fawcett, co-owner of Cornerstone Real Estate, said her office saw an inch or so of rain get inside. They had a computer sitting on the floor which, when this reporter visited, they had yet to attempt to turn on, but no other equipment got wet. She believes the carpeting will need to be torn out, though.
“We’ll operate (the business),” she said. “But not out of this office for awhile.”
Peggy Jeffries, co-owner of Salvaged on Main, said her laminate floor will have to come up, but she credits partner Laura Rierson’s insistence on keeping their inventory off the floor for avoiding even damage.
Jeffries said a few table legs will need to be treated with bleach, but many of the smaller items are fine. And because her store only maintains part-time hours, the flooding “will not hit us the way it would some people.”
She noted that Rierson, who co-owns Reid’s Beans, had to close her coffee shop not due to flooding at her business, but flooding in her basement in her home in Tipton.
The City of West Branch and National Park Service, working with Johnson County Refuse, will place a 20-yard roll off dumpster in the Water Street parking lot, across from the Visitor Center. Residents may dispose of flood debris like damaged drywall, carpets and other storm debris until Sunday, July 6. Household appliances will not be accepted.