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Crews rush to repair flood-damaged Iowa roads

By MICHAEL J. CRUMB

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Crews expect to finish removing debris and sludge this week from Iowa highways that were swamped for months by a surging Missouri River, but officials said there’s no telling when the roads will be completely repaired.

Sections of the Interstates 29 and 680 are largely rubble, leaving workers with a daunting number of repairs and little time as winter approaches. Officials said they’ll rush to open as many roads as possible and hope to have single lanes opened on damaged stretches of interstate by December, but some work will have to wait until next year.

Dena Gray-Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Transportation, noted that in some spots, “there isn’t any road left. You’ve got to start from scratch.”

Some of the worst damage was to Interstate 680, which loops north from Interstate 80 and connects Iowa to largely suburban areas of north Omaha.

“Interstate 680 is obliterated and there’s not a lot you can do,” Gray-Fisher said.

A contract for bids will go out Friday to rebuild a badly damaged three-mile stretch of I-680, heading east from the Mormon Bridge over the Missouri River.

Gray-Fischer said the contract will include incentives to get at least one lane open in each direction by Dec. 23.

The damage resulted from flooding of the Missouri that began in June and continued until early September, when the river finally dropped to more normal levels. The high water was due to huge releases from upstream reservoirs that were filled to capacity by a staggering Rocky Mountain snowpack and heavy spring rains.

Apart from I-680, there’s plenty of damage elsewhere, with I-29 closed north of Council Bluffs and to the south, from near Pacific Junction to the Missouri border. The Iowa Highway 175 bridge west of Onaway also remained closed, and highways 2 and 333 in southwest Iowa haven’t reopened.

Now that the river has finally receded, Gray-Fisher said crews have been inspecting roads to determine if they can carry traffic and the scope of repairs needed. Gray-Fisher said ground-penetrating radar will be used to scan highway surfaces and detect any sinkholes or areas where the ground beneath the surface has been washed away.

Some of the greatest concern is around intake pipes, culverts and bridge approaches.

The goal is to get flood-damaged highways open as quickly as possible so those residents and businesses that have been affected by high water can begin to recover, Gray-Fisher said.

“We needed to really put a fast-track recovery in place and put things back to the way they were,” she said.

Federal funds will cover 100 percent of work completed on flood-ravaged roads by Nov. 21 but state officials are worried they won’t be able to make that deadline and are seeking an extension to allow for more time to conduct assessments.

“We won’t even have the damages fully assessed by Nov. 21,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

After that date, the federal government will reimburse the state up to 90 percent of the cost for interstate highways and up to 80 percent on other highways.

Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, said federal disaster aid reimburses states for the costs of repairing and rebuilding highways and roads to their previous condition. She said the Nov. 21 deadline is generally intended to address immediate needs and that repairs to interstate highways usually fall under the 90 percent reimbursement scenario.

“Typically, major interstates are in the matching category because they are long-term repairs,” Singer said.

Gray-Fisher said officials likely would discuss how highways near the Missouri River could be changed to reduce the risk of future flooding, but those issues won’t be resolved immediately.

“That could take years of work and right now we’re looking at what we can do to get the economic recovery started for those people who have been affected by this,” Gray-Fisher said.

In Council Bluffs, residents and officials said they’re eager to put the summer behind them.

Mayor Tom Hanafan said the city has already spent about $11 million fighting this year’s flood and is faced with miles of damaged streets and other problems.

“We’ve had people, some people have worked 100 straight days working 12-hour shifts,” said Hanafan. “We’re looking at five years, in our judgment, just to get back to where we were.”

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Associated Press writer Mike Glover contributed to this report from Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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