ELKADER, Iowa — Water thundered over the Turkey River dam in Elkader on Monday morning as the river climbed to nearly double its 12-foot flood stage.
As she stood near the historic Keystone Bridge, Elkader resident Julie Grau said the community was “on edge” as the waters rose.
“There’s just a sense of, ‘It’s happening again,’” she said, referring to floods in 2008 and 2016. “It’s been so devastating in the past that everyone is just on the edge of their seat. We know this can really impact people’s businesses, their homes, their livelihood.”
The river crested at 22.82 feet at about 9 a.m. Monday, according to the National Weather Service.It marked the fourth-highest crest in recorded history at Elkader, topping the August 2016 crest of 22.57 feet, which had been the fourth-highest recorded. A September 2016 crest of 20.65 feet had been the fifth-highest.
The record crest of 27.77 feet occurred in June 2008. The river also reached 27.32 feet in June 1991 and 25.57 feet in May 2004.
This time around, the Turkey River’s height at Elkader shot up over the weekend, going from 7.1 feet as of 6 a.m. Saturday, to 15.2 feet at 6 a.m. Sunday, to its crest Monday morning.
The National Weather Service attributed the steep climb to recent torrential rain along the Minnesota-Iowa border, where some areas received 7 to 8 inches of rain on Thursday and Friday.
“That really demonstrates the watershed theory,” said Elkader City Administrator/Clerk Jennifer Cowsert. “We’re at the end of the watershed, and what happens up the watershed affects us.”
Clayton County Emergency Management Coordinator Sarah Moser said county and local officials had been monitoring river levels since Friday and started sandbagging efforts Sunday.
“Everything up north coming down has just made things challenging for us,” she said.
Elkader Fire Chief Scott Marmann said Monday morning that his team had worked around the clock since Sunday morning.
“I’ve been out over 24 hours,” he said. “A lot of us have been.”
The department, along with many civilian volunteers, spent the bulk of Sunday afternoon filling about 2,000 sandbags. A sandbagging machine arrived from the Winneshiek County Emergency Management Agency, along with sand, end loaders and dump trucks provided by local companies C.J. Moyna & Sons Construction and Mobile Track Solutions.
Early Monday, firefighters deployed temporary flood control devices known as HESCO barriers.
Elkader Mayor Josh Pope praised the efforts of first responders, volunteers and local organizations such as Peace United Church of Christ, which served meals to volunteers on Sunday and Monday.
“When we put a post on Facebook, we had volunteers within minutes. They came from all over,” he said.
South Main and South High streets were closed for much of the day due to the rising waters.
At Schera’s Restaurant, 107 S. Main St., a cardboard sign at the front door informed patrons that the business had “gone floodin’.”
“At this point, you either laugh or you cry,” said proprietor Brian Bruening.
He said flooding is an “all-too-frequent occurrence” for his business, which has a back patio overlooking the river.
“This is probably the fifth time in 15 years that we’ve had water in the basement,” he said. “It seems like these 100-year and 500-year floods now come every two or three years.”
Bruening estimated that the lowest of the restaurant’s three basements had about 3 feet of water in it. Luckily, he said, the business had prepared on Sunday by moving many items from the basement to the main floor.
He predicted the restaurant would be closed for a week to 10 days while he and his staff cleaned up the mess and restocked their refrigerators.
At 201 S. Main St., Gloria Olson stood near Olson Appliance & Service, which she owns with her husband, Paul.
Olson said that, on Sunday morning, staff moved items from the basement to the main floor. They then learned the predicted flood level could bring the water to their back door.
“So, we moved everything off the main floor — to our upstairs, our garage, the fire station, our family and friends’ (houses),” Olson said.
She said a crew of staff and volunteers worked from 7 p.m. Sunday to 1:30 a.m. Monday to move items out of harm’s way. Sump pumps in the basement had kept up with the rising water, and she expected only minimal water damage.
Residents on the west side of the river also were affected, including Tom Reinhart. He said the flood is likely to carry away several feet of land from his property, although he did not think it was likely to reach his home.
“Our hillside is fracturing, and you can see it start to slide,” he said.
On Monday, however, the most he could do was observe the water from above.
“Watch it, wait and repair the effects,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”
In response to the flooding, classes were canceled Monday for Central Community School District, which serves Elkader and several surrounding communities.
Superintendent Nicholas Trenkamp said the decision was largely due to rising water levels along Iowa 56, one of the district’s bus routes.
“We can’t run buses across the main bridge in Elkader, the historic (Keystone) Bridge, because of weight limits, so (Iowa 56) is the only way we can get to the other side of our district,” he said.
Trenkamp added that the playground at the district’s elementary school, located at 400 First St. NW, was partially underwater.
“So, that was also a factor, and ... we’re just trying to keep people away from the downtown area,” he said.
Although the National Weather Service predicts the river at Elkader will not recede below flood stage until late today or early Wednesday, Marmann said Monday that cleanup already was underway in some areas and would continue for several days.
Grau said, “The town has always pulled together. We’ve stood strong in the past, and we’ll come through it again.”