NEW HARTFORD, Iowa — Even as he rowed his flat-bottom aluminum boat down New Hartford's Main Street, Jim Johnson didn't seem especially concerned Tuesday about the flooding that had inundated his small northeast Iowa town.
Much of New Hartford's 500-plus residents had been evacuated before dawn, but those who remained and others in a nearby evacuation shelter took the flooding and damage in stride.
"I have about 8 inches of water in my basement," said Johnson, 49. "I usually stay until everything is lost."
The flooding was due to more than 7 inches of rain that pounded the area Monday. The rainwater poured into Beaver Creek, turning a stream normally a couple feet deep into a fast-moving river that is far over its banks.
Authorities responded by notifying residents of the danger via a telephone emergency system on Monday night, and then issuing an evacuation warning early Tuesday. Up to 50 emergency workers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters went door to door starting at 3 a.m. and helped townspeople flee before the water got too high and when boats and high-centered vehicles would have been required for rescues.
Nordmeyer estimated about a third of New Hartford's residents remained, but the town was largely silent by afternoon. At one point, the water reached about 3 feet deep on the east side of town, and floodwaters poured into the west side of town as well. The creek topped a levy that surrounds the town on the east side near the elementary school, Nordmeyer said.
Residents said they took the danger seriously, but they'd seen Beaver Creek surge out of its banks before, including a devastating flood in 2008 that swamped the community with 4 feet or more of water. After that flood, many residents raised their homes when they rebuilt to better withstand future flooding.
"I've seen it a lot worse," said Sue Ragsdale, 60, who evacuated her home in the early hours but returned later in the day. She found a flooded barn but a dry home.
Ragsdale's home was severely damaged by flooding in 2008, and she rebuilt and raised her home. Still, she heeded the warning from officials and moved her livestock and dogs away from the potential flooding, then stayed with family nearby for a few hours.
"It's something you're used to when you live in New Hartford," she said.
James Bergfelder, 57, stayed in his house on the southeast corner of town. He said his two-story home is on higher ground and remained dry, but by Tuesday afternoon it was surrounded by water.
"It got right up next to my house," said Bergfelder, a day trader whose home received water in 2008. "I thought for sure it was going to come in because I kept putting a stake out there in my lawn to see how it was coming up. And I kept having to move it. I thought, 'Yeah, it's going to come in.' And then all of a sudden it just kind of stopped. And now it's just gradually going down."
The National Weather Service said most of New Hartford floods when the creek rises to 14 feet. This time, it crested at 15.15 feet by 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. The weather service said the creek was at 14 feet as of 4 p.m. Tuesday and the water continues to recede. It is expected to return to the creek by Wednesday evening.
The crest, or when the river overflows its banks, is about a half-foot short of the record of 15.7 feet set in June 2008, and it is two feet higher than when the creek caused flooding last month.
An emergency shelter was set up six miles away in Shell Rock, but by Tuesday afternoon it was empty.
"There comes a point when you face the fact that you can't beat mother nature back and today was one of those days," said Kip Ladage, Bremer County Emergency Management Coordinator running the shelter. "We had some people sick to their stomach as we did the hourly cresting levels but still there's nothing you can do and you just take it."
The rest of Butler County is under a flash flood watch until Wednesday morning. The weather service said New Hartford is along a path in northern Iowa that may experience showers and thunderstorms Tuesday afternoon into the overnight hours. Meteorologist Kevin Skow said between 2 and 3 inches of rain could fall per hour from the systems moving through the area.
Any rain that falls over the town will flow back into Beaver Creek because the ground is saturated, said Skow, resulting in standing water possibly staying around longer than expected.