Charlie Neibergall, AP
New Hartford firefighters Clint Olmstead, left, and Jon LeBahn walk through floodwaters on Tuesday in New Hartford, Iowa. Hundreds of residents obeyed an order to evacuate their homes in this northeast Iowa town before floodwaters from a rising creek could strand them.
The northeast Iowa town of New Hartford was mostly deserted Tuesday after authorities went door-to-door before dawn, warning residents a flooded stream would inundate most of the small community.
"Everybody was notified and told to evacuate," said Butler County emergency management coordinator Mitch Nordmeyer as he surveyed the town, about 90 miles northeast of Des Moines. "If they stayed they were staying at their own risk."
Although most of New Hartford's 500-plus residents heeded warnings and left town, some stayed behind and there was no sense of panic.
Residents had seen the normally placid Beaver Creek flood before. And after some areas upstream received more than 7 inches of rain on Monday, few seemed surprised the stream was surging out of its banks again.
Jim Johnson, 49, rowed down Main Street just before noon. He's lived in town since the 1960s and said he's been through it before.
"I have about 8 inches of water in my basement," he said after getting out of the flat-bottom aluminum boat and tying it to a small tree.
He said a flood in 2008 was worse. That one flooded his home with about 4 feet of water.
"I've got this boat and another one with a motor," he said. "I usually stay until everything is lost."
But Johnson and authorities said most people had left, especially elderly people and residents with young children.
Residents were notified via a telephone emergency system on Monday about the danger, and an evacuation order came early Tuesday.
Up to 50 emergency services workers, sheriff's deputies and firefighters began to help townspeople flee at 3 a.m., 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 the town's residents remained, but the town was largely silent by afternoon.
"Pretty much everyone who wants out is out, at this point," Nordmeyer said, adding that a sandbagged road to the north presented the only remaining route out of town. An emergency shelter was set up six miles away in Shell Rock.
Sue Ragsdale, 60, said she evacuated her home in the early hours but returned later in the day. She found a flooded barn but a dry home.
"I've seen it a lot worse," she said.
Nordmeyer estimated that the water was already 3 feet deep on the east side of town, and said floodwaters were pouring into the west side of town as well. The creek has topped a levy that surrounds the town on the east side near the elementary school, Nordmeyer said. He also suspected a breach had occurred Tuesday morning on a gravel road about three miles west of town that works as a makeshift levy. Officials couldn't get there to confirm his suspicions, he said.
Beaver Creek rose 3 feet above flood stage and crested at 15.15 feet by 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. The National Weather Service said most of New Hartford floods when the creek rises to 14 feet. The weather service said the creek was at 14.8 feet as of noon Tuesday and the water continues to recede. It is expected to return to the creek by Wednesday evening.
The crest is about half a 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.
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 for a bit longer than expected.