The Hawk Eye, Matt Ryerson/AP
As hail and rain pounds down, Russ Kozak of New London, Iowa, transports a load of
sandbags up the Mississippi River.

The Iowa Floods, One Year Later

June 16, 2009 06:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
This past weekend local people and state officials came together in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to remember the floods that swept through the region one year earlier. State leaders applauded volunteers and government agencies for their swift action, while others discussed flood-prevention strategies.

Remembering the Iowa Floods

In June 2008, floods ravaged the Midwest, doing their worst damage in Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hundreds in the state left their homes.

Vince Fiala, a man whose grief over the flooding was captured in a poignant photo seen “round the world,” recalled for Cedar Rapids ABC affiliate KCRG how he and his family waited for hours at a checkpoint before they were allowed to go home. He said, “Then they told us to go home. And there’s no home to go to.”

Fiala said his family had taken everything from the basement and stacked it on the beds and floor, but the water level rose past the beds.

In the course of a year, KCRG reported that Fiala said, “he re-learned just how important family is.” Fiala and his family recently moved back into their home.

Last year, Bruce Brown, 64, a retired radiology professor at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, told USA Today about how demoralizing it was trying and failing to save the church where his daughter was married from the rising waters.

He also recalled sandbagging alongside a football player more than twice his size, who had also volunteered to help. Brown said, “He would ship these thing that were like dead bodies to me. But that was fine. We worked together and got it done.”

Flood waters “swamped more than a dozen campus buildings” at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, USA Today reported last year. And they devastated corn and soybean crops, which led to delayed shipments and further financial strain, findingDulcinea reported.

At a commemorative ceremony Saturday, Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge recalled how quickly hospitals evacuated patients. She thanked the National Guard, communication networks, and the Linn County State delegation. She said the fact that no one died in the Cedar Rapids flooding is a testament to the sound judgment of everyone involved.

For Judge, who leads disaster recovery for the state, the moment is still bittersweet. Although she feels proud of the sense of community embodied by the city and the progress that’s been made, she also recognizes that people are frustrated with the recovery process.

Judge told the Iowa Independent, “[B]elieve me, you’ll never know all of the back story on getting to where we are today.” She added, “If there are things we need to do to prevent this type of flooding again in Cedar Rapids, we need to do that.”

Background: Flood recovery and prevention efforts

Dennis McKinley, a manager for BMS Catastrophe, a private company that deals with emergency relief, was called on to “un-muck” the University of Iowa campus. McKinley told Newsweek that the floods in Iowa were some of worst he’d seen.

In comparing the Midwestern floods with Hurricane Katrina, McKinley said, “It doesn’t matter if even one home is flooded: If it’s your home, it is your Katrina.” Still he added that those affected by floods in the Midwest had more resources available to them. For example, people could stay in friends’ homes or at hotels, because the flooding wasn’t as extensive.

Members of the Rivers Systems Panel said that Iowa’s land use policies and practices did not take into account changing river systems. They noted that one contributing factor to the flood was an increased reliance on crops that produce annually, such as soybean and corn, which create more runoff than other crops.

Urbanization has also exacerbated the problem. Iowa State University Natural Resources Ecology Management assistant professor Tom Isenhart added, “It’s a law of physics … Anything we do to land use, to channelization that increases the amount or speed of water, we will be transporting more sediment in the stream and add to stream meandering.”

In a newsletter, published by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the panelists suggested “buy-out programs for existing structures on flood plains” and “permanent conservation easements.”

In a 2007 article, Indiana University environmental and geological scientists Matthew Auer, Gabriel Filippelli and Greg Olyphant argued that “many cities and towns in the Midwest lack adequate infrastructure to cope with the higher volumes of rainwater” that occur because of warmer temperatures. Levees and bridges simply aren’t built to meet the rising prevalence of floods and other natural disasters.

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