Ten square miles under 10 feet of water. The Cedar River overflowed more than a mile into nine neighborhoods (lightest blue) in Iowa's second-largest city. Plus, 650 damaged-beyond-repair parcels are being returned to the floodplain and supplemented with 7 miles of permanent and removable floodwalls along which pedestrian trails will run. East Grand Forks, Minn., installed removable floodwalls after the Red River overflowed in 1997; as has Minnesota's St. Paul Holman Field Airport, which abuts the Mississippi River. Map: Sasaki Associates/Photo: City of Cedar Rapids Community Development Department

If cleaning up after the mighty Mississippi seems impossible, take heart from colleagues who've felt the wrath of a tributary. Three years after the Cedar River caused the worst flooding in the city's history, Cedar Rapids is being honored for its swift and comprehensive response.

The Iowa city had designated 2008 the “Year of the River” to celebrate its namesake, but ended the year with $2.5 billion in flood-related damages. Already swollen with record-setting spring rains, in June the river crested at 31.12 feet. Having crafted response plans for a 12-foot flood, Public Works Director Dave Elgin, Maintenance Manager Craig Hanson, and their crews recruited residents to sandbag around the single drinking water well that escaped damage, reopened a landfill that received 72,000 tons of debris within six weeks, and restored primary wastewater treatment within a month. (For more information, see page 22 of our October 2008 issue.)

Ultimately, the waters displaced 310 city facilities and destroyed more than 7,000 properties including 5,000 homes. Though devastating, city leaders seized the opportunity to work with residents, business owners, and industry to develop a more walkable community that's much less reliant on nonrenewable energy. At the same time, 220 acres are being returned to the 100-year floodplain as additions to the city's parks system.

Within days of the flood, the city had mobilized residents and representatives from Linn County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop and implement a River Corridor Redevelopment Plan. By the end of 2008, almost 3,000 people had attended three open houses to develop a flood-management strategy. Then residents were asked to help create a plan to stimulate reinvestment in damaged areas over the next 10 to 15 years.

These efforts earned the city and Sasaki Associates the American Planning Association's first award for Best Practices in Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Planning. The award recognizes an effort that protects communities from natural and manmade hazards, minimizes losses from a disaster, and aids quick and efficient recovery to leave communities stronger and better prepared than before.