IOWA CITY - A week's work of frantic sandbagging by students, professors, and the National Guard could not spare this bucolic college community from the surging Iowa River, which has swamped more than a dozen campus buildings and forced the evacuation yesterday of hundreds of nearby homes.
The swollen river, which bisects this city of about 60,000 residents, was topping out at about 31.5 feet - 18 inches below earlier predictions. But it still posed a lingering threat, and was not expected to begin receding until tonight.
"I'm focused on what we can save," Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa, said as she toured her stricken campus. "We'll deal with this when we get past the crisis. We're not past the crisis yet."
The university said 16 buildings had been flooded, including one designed by acclaimed architect Frank O. Gehry, and others were at risk.
Mayor Regenia Bailey said 500 to 600 households were ordered to evacuate and hundreds of others were under a voluntary evacuation order through the morning. The city had no estimate of the number of homes that had flooded.
Bailey said homeowners will not be allowed back until the city determines that it is safe.
Governor Chet Culver said it was "a little bit of good news" that the river had crested, but cautioned that the situation was still precarious.
"Just because a river crests does not mean it's not a serious situation," he said. "You're still talking about a very, very dangerous public safety threat."
Elsewhere, state officials girded for serious flooding threats in Burlington and southeast Iowa, including Fort Madison and Keokuk. Officials said 500 National Guard troops had been sent to Burlington, a Mississippi River town of about 27,000, and some people were being evacuated.
Culver said the southeastern part of the state would probably "see major and serious flooding . . . from New Boston and down."
In Cedar Rapids - where flooding had covered 1,300 blocks and forced the evacuation of about 24,000 people from their homes - residents waited hours to get their first close look since flooding hammered most of the city last week.
The Cedar River dropped 5 feet from its record crest of 31.1 feet in Cedar Rapids, revealing the destruction left behind.
Some residents grew angry after long waits to pass through checkpoints. Cedar Rapids officials also were inspecting homes for possible electrical and structural hazards.
The city's municipal water system was back to 50 percent of capacity yesterday, a big victory after three of the city's four drinking-water collection wells were contaminated by murky, petroleum-laden flood water. That contamination had left only about 15 million gallons a day for the city of more than 120,000 and the suburbs that depend on its water system.
After much of the University of Iowa's Arts Campus flooded in 1993, raised walkways were installed that doubled as berms. But those have been quickly overwhelmed by the Iowa River's rising waters.
Standing yesterday beside the grayish water surrounding the limestone and stainless steel Iowa
Across the river, Art Building West was surrounded by a murky lagoon. Designed by Steve Holl, it was one of 11 buildings in the world recognized last year by the American Institute of Architects, said Rod Lehnertz, director of campus and facilities planning.
The damage would have been worse had it not been for the Herculean efforts of students, faculty, National Guard troops, and others who swarmed the campus over several days to erect miles of sandbag walls, some as high as 9 feet.
On Saturday, volunteers filled and installed more than 100,000 sandbags, Lehnertz said.
Lehnertz was confident that buildings that had not flooded by yesterday were well-protected. He said the most pressing issue was flooding in the 6 miles of underground tunnels that feed steam to campus buildings for power. Workers pumped water from the tunnels into the streets and down toward the river.
Some buildings at the Arts Campus on the river's west bank had as much as 8 feet of water inside.
All elective and nonemergency procedures were canceled at the university hospital, and noncritical patients were discharged, Mason said. Nurses were brought in from elsewhere to ensure all emergency shifts would be covered.
Elsewhere in the Midwest, hundreds of members of the Illinois National Guard headed to communities along the swollen Mississippi River yesterday for sandbagging duty while emergency management officials eyed rain-swollen rivers across the state.
Two levees broke Saturday near the Mississippi River town of Keithsburg, Ill., flooding the town of 700 residents about 35 miles southwest of Moline.
The National Weather Service said the Mississippi would crest tomorrow morning near Keithsburg at 25.1 feet. Flood stage in the area is 14 feet. Rising water also prompted Illinois officials to close a Mississippi River bridge at Quincy.