While some areas of the country may not remember June 2008, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, does. Along with much of the Midwest, the city experienced significant flooding. The city's previous flood record, set in 1993, was about 20 feet. When predictions were made about the flood last June, the police department paid close attention not only because they knew they would have to be prepared to respond to calls for help, but because the 10-year-old police headquarters was built along the river.
"We're built up in the 500-year flood plain so we didn't think the flooding would be a big issue for us," says Cedar Rapids Sgt. Joseph Clark. But just in case it was, a temporary dirt dike was built behind the police station to provide protection up to 26 feet.
That wasn't enough. On June 13 the water crested over 31 feet and covered about 10 square miles. Since the Cedar River runs through the center of town, the downtown flooded. No lives were lost but nearly 5,000 residential properties (about 25 percent of the residential homes), about 2,000 businesses and 750 nonprofit organizations were affected. Power was lost, and the police department's emergency generator was flooded, causing the police department to lose power and evacuate the building.
Most of the damage at police headquarters occurred in the basement, which housed the crime laboratory and evidence storage area, the locker rooms, a workout facility and a mechanical room.
"We didn't expect to get flooded," says Clark. "They built a temporary levee. They were predicting a 24-, 25-foot crest. We thought we would be good."
Thinking they were being overly cautious, they moved the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) to the second floor. Items on the bottom two shelves in the evidence section were moved to the upper shelves, and anything on the floor was moved in case the sewer backed up or water came in.
But water filled the basement 8 feet high, just 2 feet below the ceiling.
"We lost everything in our ID lab except the AFIS," he says. "All of our evidence, more than 250,000 pieces, was flooded with water mixed with sewage, diesel fuel and everything you can imagine."
A foot of mud and muck was left after the water receded in the basement.
Working to clean the evidence storage area, the police department obtained a court order to destroy everything more than 3 years old that did not involve a felony. Anything salvageable for homicide or active felony cases was packed into one of two freezer trucks to stop mold and microbiological growth and structural deterioration. Maintaining the chain of custody was part of the entire process as the semi trucks transported the items to a regional Munters Corp. document recovery center, where they were inventoried, dried and restored (see sidebar on opposite page).
When the police headquarters at 505 First St. SW was evacuated, it was relocated outside the flood zone to the city's ice arena for about three days, and then to an old office building about 5 miles from downtown for two or three weeks.
Finding a crime lab ASAP
Figuring out what to use for a crime laboratory was more than a predicament.
"In the middle of the flood, we had a homicide," Clark explains, adding that fortunately there wasn't a lot of evidence to process because the homicide occurred outdoors. While plans were made to rebuild the lab on First Street, the police department had to do something.
About 25 percent of the city was flooded, the rest of the city was not and business — including crime — went on as usual.
"We couldn't go without a lab," he says.
Police Chief Greg Graham instructed Clark to find one regardless of what it cost. However, Clark says he was told a mobile forensics laboratory could take months to build.
He remembers saying, "That's not going to work."