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5 years later, Iowans learning to live with floods

It has been five years since the floods of 2008. Now, a week after another round of flooding in Eastern Iowa, IPR’s Durrie Bouscaren looks at how many Iowans are adapting to changing times.

More than a thousand runners participated in “Run the Flood,” an annual race through Cedar Rapids to commemorate the anniversary of a flood that would change the landscape of many Iowa cities and towns. Carmen Covington says she participates every year.

“It was shocking,” Covington said. “It was sad to see everything I had known my entire life to be destroyed under so much water,”

The past five years have been a long recovery for the city of Cedar Rapids. Abandoned, flood damaged homes still stand next to new, rebuilt ones.

Larry Weber of the Iowa Flood Center says the 2008 flood was caused by intense bands of rainfall that followed the flood waves as they crested—a devastating coincidence.

“That persisted over a 7, 8, 9, 10 day period. Understanding that, modeling that and using that data to better prepare ourselves for future flooding is something we need to do,” Weber said.   

Today, the Iowa Flood Center is able to model where water goes during flood events, allowing local government and residents to prepare for potential damage or evacuations. They’re also researching ways to make Iowa communities more flood-resistant.

Weber says one option is to create a distributed network of farm ponds and wetlands in less productive agricultural areas, to hold back the floodwaters.

Weber says today, conventional flood mitigation efforts can exacerbate the problem.

“We protect our homes, and our business, and our ag-lands by building levys and flood walls, and we keep that water in the stream and in the river, and we pass the damaging effects to our neighbors downstream,” Weber said.

Being able to predict these floods is becoming more and more valuable. For the past few months, Eastern Iowa has been a testing ground for this technology.

In rural Traer, a radar antenna rises high above recently planted cornfields. NASA project manager Walt Petersen tells a small group of students that this project will be able to predict precipitation up to five times more accurately than current technology.

“What we’re trying to figure out is how does that rain and ice interact with that radiation we’re measuring in the top of the cloud, and from that how do we estimate how much rain is in the cloud,” Petersen says.

By using an orbiting satellite called the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, Petersen says NASA will be able to predict weather patterns over the entire globe.  He says that even if the climate wasn’t changing, it would be important to study. But he says extreme weather has become more and more frequent.

“The climate is changing. We want to know as it changes, how it’s going to change. In this country, over a hundred people a year are killed in floods, there are billions of dollars in damage. It’s something we need to pay attention to, understand, and be able to monitor,” Petersen said.

He says the project has benefits worldwide because the satellite will be able to map weather throughout the globe. Many countries cannot afford weather prediction technology, leading to major losses of life when floods and other natural disasters occur.

And for residents living in flood prone areas of Iowa, the effects of changing weather patterns are very real. 

Floodwaters have still not fully receded in Iowa City, where Donnarae MacCann lives along Normandy Drive. Last week, the Iowa River was once again creeping up the slope of her backyard. Thanks to volunteers, layers of sandbags were stacked outside her house like a fortress. She says she’s lived here since 1970, and rebuilt her home after it was destroyed in 2008.

“The first thing is, we were encouraged to rebuild. The city didn’t have a thought about anything else. But then the idea became clearer that floodplains belong to rivers, not to people, you know?” MacCann said.

The neighborhood is dotted with empty lots, where residents allowed their properties to be bought out by the city after flood damage. But MacCann says she’ll stay as long as she can.

“I remember people saying to me, it’s so risky how can you stay, but I say how can you leave? It’s the most beautiful place on the planet.”