Iowa parks director handles wild weather

The prime objective in all emergency preparedness plans is to ensure the safety of residents, responders, civilians and visitors, whether the event involves a single field, a sports complex, a small section of a city or a much broader area.

The water level on the baseball field on June 7, 2011.

Big picture planning

Larry Foster uses the Master Plan layout to explain the extent of flooding at River’s Edge Park.

To prepare for broadly inclusive emergencies, it’s essential to establish a coordinated plan of action, with all potential players involved. For a municipality, all departments will play some role, with those providing essential services, such as police and fire protection, or basic needs, such as water, more in the public eye than those involved in parks and recreation, including the sports fields. Similar department interaction takes place at the county level. Other key players extend beyond city, county or state departments to the energy providers for electricity and gas; the communication providers for phone and Internet services; and emergency service providers such as the state or regional coordinators for the American Red Cross and United Way. Large-scale emergency situations also involve representatives of national agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security.

Larry Foster, director of parks, recreation and public property for the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is well-versed in all this. Previously serving in a comparable role for the city of Omaha, Neb., Foster has been through tornadoes at Rosenblatt Stadium; a 2007 blizzard and heavy snowfall the caused extensive, citywide tree damage; several short-term flooding; and other major emergency events.

The baseball field at Big Lake Park before flooding.

He says, “In each of these cases, the damage occurred quickly, within a matter of hours to a maximum time span of two days. We were able to move in immediately afterward to quantify the damage and establish the scope of what had occurred. We could then set the requirements for rectification; prioritize the tasks; and assign the appropriate action according to the areas of responsibility, expertise and equipment within our department and others within the city.”

From major to catastrophic

The 2011 flooding along the Missouri River was a unique, catastrophic event – and a man-made one. Water from the melt of record snowfall and heavy spring rains brought reservoirs at major dam sites on the Missouri River to unprecedented levels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who developed and oversee the river’s flood control system, determined release of water from the upstream dam sites would reduce the total impact of the flooding though it would cause extensive flooding for many communities along the lower section of the river. The releases began on May 23, 2011.

Water from Gavin’s Point Dam in South Dakota moved quickly to the maximum flow of 160,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). In Omaha-Council Bluffs, the river reached flood stage of 29 feet on May 31, rising to a high of 36.29 feet in July. The drop below flood stage was not anticipated to occur until late fall or early winter.

In quick response to the developing situation, the city of Council Bluffs set up a flood command center. Don Gross, in “normal times” director of community development for the city, served as public information officer. The center was soon supplying daily, and sometimes hourly, information to all involved. The venues included multiple meetings, statements to the media, Web postings and updates via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. To better coordinate monitoring and required action, many city department heads moved to the command center to focus on the flood situation, while others within their departments handled day-to-day operations.

As measured in late July, water flow under the Interstate 480 bridge that connects the two cities was 85 million gallons per minute, so a breach of the levee system would be capable of causing massive damage very quickly.

Part of the team

The city’s Evacuation Plan, with Public Alert Levels, was announced on June 14. Level 1, indicating an unusual or slowly developing event that might impact a levee or other flood protection system, was put in place immediately. Level 2 would signal a flood control protection system component or levee was failing or failure might occur rapidly. A Level 3 announcement would mean a failure was in progress. Appropriate public response to each level was posted, along with the evacuation routes and phone or computer methods to sign up for direct phone, text or email alerts.

Foster says, “Twenty-five percent of our maintenance-related workforce was devoted to full-time flood work at Level 1. That put stress on them and on the rest of the staff, covering our multiple park sites with fewer people.”

Many of the park areas experienced only minor flood-related water issues, including the city’s largest sports field complex, the Council Bluffs Recreation Facility. Others were harder hit. One-third of Big Lake Park was completely under water. In late July, only the top of the baseball backstop was visible.

Foster says, “The city golf course had 20 acres of standing water that couldn’t be redirected or pumped away, caused by inundation of seepage through the levee. At least 10 percent of the storm sewers on the course were covered. Rainfall thus had no route to the inlets, adding to the water level and the problem. Still, after a brief closing, the course reopened for play by the July 4th weekend.”

At Levels 2 and 3, much of Foster’s staff would become part of various teams responding to critical sites throughout the city. He says, “Assignments from each of the departments were coordinated to quickly assemble the people with the required expertise, along with the necessary equipment or supplies, at specific sites. That capability was to be maintained 24/7 until the floodwaters receded sufficiently to take pressure off the levees.

“Following cell phone issues during a short-term incident in 2010, the city and county jointly converted to a multichannel, radio-based communication sys- tem. All potential users were trained to ensure personnel could connect in extreme circumstances. I have 20 radio units assigned just within our parks system. The radios allowed us to interact across the broad spectrum of the many agencies and people involved, from city and county staff to the Iowa National Guard to the Corps.”

The backstop of the baseball field is barely visible in this shot taken in early August 2011.

Levee issues and storm sewer system failures remained major concerns throughout the flood stage. Through postings on social networking sites and media news reports, the public learned about the threats and actions taken to rectify them. Hundreds of muskrats, moles and pocket gophers burrowed into the levees near the waterline of the river, allowing water to seep in and weaken the whole levee. Once a burrow was discovered, repair and sandbagging were needed to ward off leakage.

Sand boils occurred when there was a difference in pressure on two sides of a levee that resulted in water seeping through on the land side, pushing up a mix of water, sand and dirt. These could be minor, repaired with only sandbagging, or as massive as one requiring sandbagging, coverage with a sand blanket and precautionary construction of a setback levee using 5,500 cubic yards of fill material.

The award-winning Master Plan for the Council Bluffs River’s Edge Park is shown here. Note the long stretch of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge that extends over the land area beyond the banks of the Missouri River in normal, preflood conditions.

Click here to enlarge.

Sinkholes, caused by high ground water connected with the flooding, could create pressure on the sanitary sewer systems within areas far from the levees. Water surrounding underground pipes sought out cracks and eventually created a subsurface cavity that led to a collapse. Within a day, a small drop in a section of street surface grew to a sinkhole 20 feet wide and at least 10 feet deep, collapsing that area of the street and part of a driveway.

These threats continued throughout the flooding. The involvement of Foster’s staff varied per incident, based on the predeveloped departmental assignments.

Foster says, “Much of my staff would be on the teams dealing with the human safety issues and protection of essential infrastructure. That took priority over evacuating approximately $1 million worth of equipment staged at our golf course maintenance facility and the additional equipment at the sports complex. We arranged access to semitrucks and had a safe site reserved for the equipment, but with the personnel we had available and the anticipated traffic on the evacuation routes, we’d likely get only one load evacuated from each site. Obviously, we prioritized the loading order.”

The playground area at Big Lake Park before the flooding started.

The water level in the playground area on June 8, 2011.

The top of the playground equipment is barely visible in this shot in early August 2011.

Balancing services and safety

The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge stretches across the Missouri River, linking Omaha and Council Bluffs. As an anchor to this bridge, Council Bluffs recently began work on an $11.5 million Phase 1 park project on the banks of the Missouri River. The master plan for the 90 acres, to be called River’s Edge Park, included strategies to protect ecologically sensitive riparian woodlands and waterfront areas during “occasional” flooding, not events like 2011.

Phase I of the plan was the 6-acre “Great Lawn,” directly east of the levee, slated for general recreation, including casual sports play, as well as concerts and other special events. Foster says, “Preliminary work had begun on the Great Lawn, with 40,000 cubic yards of soil compacted on-site before the flooding hit.”

A segment of a hiking-biking trail that had been built on top of the levee to lead to the bridge entrance was closed. Foster says, “We put safety ahead of recreational opportunities, keeping people away from potential danger from the large, waterlogged trees bordering the bridge, and protecting the levee from those spectators unwilling to abide by the safety-related restrictions. The closings also reduced the stress of constant traffic for area residents already dealing with the ongoing Level 1 alert, as well as water seepage from the levee infiltrating their basements.”

The U.S. Army Corps of engineers determined that it would cost more than $2 billion to repair the damage to the nation’s levees, dams and riverbanks caused by last summer’s devastating floods.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.