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Sunday, June 15, 2008 - Page updated at 10:32 AM

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Cedar Rapids still wary as flood ebbs in Iowa

While the Cedar River ebbed in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, a levee breach in the state capital of Des Moines flooded Birdland, a neighborhood near downtown of more than 200 homes, a high school and about 36 businesses.

The Associated Press

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Flooding in the Birdland area near downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is shown Saturday after a levee breach on the Des Moines River. Authorities ordered 270 homes evacuated.

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KEVIN SANDERS / AP

Flooding in the Birdland area near downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is shown Saturday after a levee breach on the Des Moines River. Authorities ordered 270 homes evacuated.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The dark, filthy water that flooded Iowa's second-largest city started to recede Saturday after forcing 24,000 people to flee, but those who remained were urged to cut back on showering and flushing to save the last of their unspoiled drinking water.

A surge of sandbagging saved the last of the city's four collection wells from contamination by the record flood. But officials warned that if people didn't cut back, the water will run out within three to four days.

"Water is still our primary concern," said Pat Ball, the city's utilities director. An estimated 9.2 square miles, or 1,300 blocks, were flooded in Cedar Rapids, fire department spokesman Dave Koch said. Early estimates put property damage at $736 million, he added.

While the Cedar River ebbed in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, a levee breach in the state capital of Des Moines flooded Birdland, a neighborhood near downtown of more than 200 homes, a high school and about 36 businesses.

Des Moines city crews and National Guard units started to build a temporary berm in a bid to stop the water, but by midmorning the water had cut through mounds of dirt and sandbags and inundated the homes and other buildings, including North High School.

"Things happened really fast," said Toby Hunvemuller of the Army Corps of Engineers. "We tried to figure out how high the level would go. Not enough time. We lost ground."

The rest of the city's levees were holding, and downtown Des Moines was safe. A voluntary evacuation order was lifted late in the afternoon except for Birdland, and several river bridges reopened.

In Iowa City, more than 200 homes were evacuated because of the flooded Iowa River, expected to crest Monday or Tuesday. People filled thousands of sandbags at the University of Iowa but officials were conceding some buildings to the expected flooding.

"We've pretty much just abandoned any effort to try and protect the Arts Campus because we are just overwhelmed by the amount of water," university spokesman Steve Parrott said.

At least three deaths in Iowa have been attributed to the storms and subsequent flooding, and 12 more have died in two recent tornadoes. The storms have prompted the governor to issue disaster proclamations for 83 of the state's 99 counties.

Elsewhere, Illinois emergency authorities said a levee along the Mississippi River in far western Illinois burst Saturday morning and voluntary evacuations were under way in Keithsburg, a town of about 700 residents.

Farther south, rising water prompted officials to close a bridge over the Mississippi connecting Quincy, Ill., to Missouri.

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