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July 2008

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Planning and Foresight Put Court Back in Business After Flooding In Iowa

The Cedar River poured over its banks last month, flooding much of downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, including the basement and first floor of the courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. The nearby bankruptcy court also was forced to evacuate its building due to flood waters. .

On Monday, June 23, 2008, Chief Judge Linda Reade in the Northern District of Iowa gave members of the bar tours of her new court facility, a one-story brick building in an industrial park several miles south of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Around her, painters were still painting, electricians were still wiring, and court staff were working on folding tables. But the court was fully operational. In fact, Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles already had held a hearing.

“I think that a lot of people in our community are suffering,” Reade said. “I think that the fact that we’re up and running will be a cause for optimism in the community.”

Just two weeks earlier the district court had evacuated its riverside courthouse as the Cedar River topped its levees and flooded 9.2 square miles of the city.

On Monday, June 9, 2008, the National Weather Service had predicted the Cedar River would crest at 21 feet, higher than during the devastating 1993 floods. On Tuesday, June 10, the prediction went to 24 feet. With more rain on the way, and a predicted crest Wednesday at 28 feet, “We implemented our Continuity of Operations Plan and told our staff to stay home,” said Clerk of Court Robert Phelps. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Iowa, located just a few blocks away, also implemented its COOP.

The district court’s website and its Case Management/Electronic Case Files system were transferred to a national server, and the court’s own CM/ECF server was sent to the Sioux City courthouse location for safety.

Websites for both the district and the bankruptcy courts announced the temporary closure of their respective courts, while reassuring attorneys that, “Throughout this COOP response/period of closure, the court’s electronic CM/ECF will remain available for electronic filing and research.”

As soon as the flood waters receded, computers and usable equipment were retrieved from the upper floors of the district courthouse.

By Thursday morning, June 12, the courthouse was an island in a river. The Cedar River eventually crested Friday, June 13 at 31 feet, well beyond the 500-year floodplain. All court facilities in Cedar Rapids suffered significant water damage, with water filling the basement and the first 4’4” of the first floor of the U.S. courthouse.

“On the following Tuesday and Wednesday, with the river down, we were able to enter the courthouse,” Phelps recounts, “and pull usable equipment from the second and third floors.”

The Probation Office on the first floor had been completely flooded.

“The sandbagging we thought would keep us safe was exceeded, so I anticipated severe damage,” said Chief Probation Officer Robert Askelson. “But we saved the computer server, we have everything backed up, and we hope to salvage some of the paper files.”

The first floor of the district courthouse was flooded with over four feet of water. Inside, the force of the flood ripped doors off their hinges. Outside, the current tore out plantings and gouged holes in the soil around the courthouse foundation.   

GSA initially estimated the courthouse might be closed for at least six months. But by Monday, June 16, just two working days after implementing its COOP, the district court announced they were back in business at a new location. Even before the water receded, GSA located temporary spaces for the district and bankruptcy courts approximately five miles from the flooded courthouse. Folding tables and chairs were set up until leased furniture could be delivered. Kathy Desmond, from the Administrative Office’s Office of Facilities and Security, flew to Cedar Rapids to help with the relocation arrangements. Meanwhile, the AO’s Judiciary Emergency Response Team (JERT), which had met throughout the crisis, assisted the court with emergency procurement authority, took the first steps to supply secure Data Communication Network lines to the new location, and worked with the U.S. Marshals Service to provide security both to the closed courthouse and to the new facilities.

On June 17, Cedar Rapids court employees were asked to report for work at the new facility.

Before evacuating the downtown courthouse, Askelson asked probation and pretrial officers to review which residences for released offenders would be affected by the flooding.

Clerk of Court Robert Phelps (photo right) and Chief Deputy Clerk Renea Solmonson (photo left) with docket clerks in the background worked at folding tables until leased furniture could be delivered.

“Our officers are out in front of those cases, as well as for the pretrial and post-conviction cases,” he said. “Officers have access to the Probation/Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System and phone contact is being made with every offender. Visits to offenders will continue if the roads are passable.”

“All our staff are working or able to work remotely,” said Askelson. “Thank goodness that we planned purchases over the last couple of years of laptops, wireless cards and smart phones for each officer and some administrative staff for normal work and for COOP reasons.”

Two Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals judges who had been displaced by the flood also found temporary quarters. After working from his home for several days, Judge Michael J. Melloy now has space at a local law school until August. Judge David R. Hanson temporarily has gone to St. Louis, but Phelps hopes to set up chambers for him in soon-to-be-delivered trailers.

Less than two weeks after evacuating their courthouses, the district and bankruptcy courts were back in business. Magistrate Judge Jon S. Scoles conducts a hearing in the court’s temporary quarters.

“It has been unbelievable how everyone has pulled together,” said Phelps. “It has been stressful, but our COOP worked fine. Having tested our COOP operations a month earlier, the staff has stepped up and performed like champions. We’ve had an EAP counselor in to talk with people individually and as groups to discuss the stress involved. I could not be more proud of the employees’ response and enthusiasm to get operational.”

Courts from around the country have pitched in.

“The court in New Orleans sent an email with 20 administrative orders developed after Katrina to deal with things like Speedy Trials and motions for continuance,” Phelps said. (Sample orders also are posted on the Judiciary’s Emergency Preparedness intranet website.) The court had offers from volunteers around the country to help remotely with electronic docketing. The Southern District of Iowa sent IT staff to assist, and an architect who is assisting District of Minnesota with their renovation project came to help plan renovations to facilities.

“We’re a little cramped here,” Phelps said, “but we’re still doing everything we’d normally do. We’ll be getting some trailers for overflow, and GSA is leasing a contiguous building in case we are here long term.”

It won’t be known for about 30 days when, or if, the flooded courthouse will be habitable. Depending on that answer, the court may be in its temporary quarters anywhere from six months to several years.

“It was sobering to see the high water mark on the side of our courthouse,” Reade said. “We knew the river was going to go to flood stage, but we never dreamed it would go as high as it did. I am very thankful because everyone survived and we saved most of the equipment and our records. I’m very optimistic about our court’s ability to recover.”