AMES, Iowa – Residents lined up for bottled water at sites throughout Ames on Thursday, a day after historic flooding caused pipe breaks that left the college town of 55,000 without drinking water.
City officials set up five distribution sites and urged people to use as little water as possible until eight broken lines are repaired and the water system is restored. Residents can drink water if they boil it, but officials implored them to limit such use because efforts to fill water towers and flush the system will be slowed unless people turn off the taps.
On Thursday morning, residents who stopped by one water site outside a Sam's Club seemed ready to conserve.
"Since were not supposed to use water I didn't shave this morning," said Jon Vial, toting a gallon of bottled water. "We're cutting down showers big time and trying to keep those under a few minutes."
Kate Reynolds picked up two gallons of water.
"We're scumming it up right now and not really bathing," she said. "For the most part we're just using bottled water and not showering."
Reynolds said she has family in Des Moines, about 30 miles away, where her family can go for help.
Workers were handing out one gallon of water to each person who showed up, and had gone through more than 400 gallons by midmorning.
Flooding in Ames came after three nights of heavy rain caused creeks and rivers in central Iowa to swell. Hundreds of residents have had to leave their homes in Ames, Des Moines and Colfax, and a 16-year-old girl was killed when a flooded creek swept her car off a road near Des Moines.
Ames Mayor Ann Campbell described it as "unlike anything we've seen in Ames before."
Ames, home to Iowa State University, shut down its water system after two large pipes broke beneath flooded areas. Crews then found six smaller breaks in lines. The leaks drained the city's water towers, raising the chance of contamination and reducing water supply to only a trickle in some areas.
Officials told residents not use water outside and to only use what they absolutely had to for flushing toilets and personal hygiene.
Many restaurants and coffee shops were closed Thursday after the city asked them to voluntarily shut down to help conserve water and protect customers from possible bacterial contamination.
Ames' drinking water likely won't be available until early next week.
"We need everyone to conserve everything they can," said John Dunn, the city's water and pollution control director. "This is not a normal day."
Kelly Moore and her two daughters picked up three gallons of water.
"We're putting glasses over our faucets to remind ourselves not to use them," Moore said. "We went out of town for showers last night."
Although life won't return to normal in Ames for several days, floodwaters began to recede Thursday. That allowed police to open Interstate 35 south of Ames.
Iowa State closed its campus Thursday, advising faculty and staff to stay home, spokesman John McCarroll said.
Eight university buildings took on at least some flood water as Squaw Creek quickly rose Wednesday. Up to 4 feet of water flooded the basketball floor inside Hilton Coliseum. Water was receding from the arena and its parking lots Thursday, but it was too soon to estimate how costly the damage was, said athletic department spokesman Mike Green.
Downstream the Skunk River in tiny Colfax, it will likely be sometime next week before residents will be able to return to their homes to survey the damage, said Mayor David Mast.
"The first thing is the river's got to drop far enough to get below the river banks," Mast said. "If the river bank is intact and the river falls below 20 feet we could begin pumping it back over."
The river had dropped to 21.5 feet Thursday afternoon after cresting at 22.5 feet Wednesday, the highest on record. It was expected to rise to a second crest later Thursday night but Mast said it was expected to be lower than the first crest.
He said once the water recedes, utilities will have to be restored before repairs can begin.
About 200 homes in the small central Iowa community were affected with some homes having up to 3 feet of water on the first floor, Mast said.
Hundreds of Des Moines residents were asked to leave their homes because of flooding along Four Mile Creek.
Police Sgt. Christopher Scott said water had receded enough Thursday to allow residents to return only to check on the damage and retrieve what they could.
A mobile home park and some homes "received a lot of devastation," he said.
Scott said it was unlikely any of the displaced residents would be returning home to live anytime soon.
"They're not going to have power, they're not going to have water, some of those places aren't a livable environment at this time," he said.