© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Davenport, learning lessons from 2019, prepares for a flooding Mississippi River

Downtown Davenport, Iowa, on Friday. Much of the downtown faced flooding in 2019.
Brian Frank for NPR
Downtown Davenport on Friday. Much of the downtown faced flooding in 2019.

Towns along the Mississippi River are no strangers to severe storms and flooding. But 2019 flooding took Davenport by surprise. Cars floated. People were evacuated. Is it ready for the next flood?

Davenport thought it was ready for flooding in 2019.

While preparations took place across the city, some were easily visible at 2nd Street and Pershing Avenue. There, the city set up a single row of sand-filled HESCO barriers as a temporary protection from the forecast 20.5-foot Mississippi River. They even increased its height with an additional 15 inches of sandbag. They had prepared. It just wasn’t enough.

A security camera overlooking the barrier caught the whole thing. At 3:33 p.m. on April 30, a person in a fluorescent vest takes off running from the wall. And after him, the water gushes over the sandbags. Seconds later, people inside the bar and restaurant Roam sprint to their cars hoping to get them out of the way of the rapidly rising water.

“I don't even want to call it a false sense of security. Maybe there was some complacency in thinking that this was the way to handle the floods,” said Pete Stopulos who owns the several buildings damaged by the downtown flooding.

Two dozen people were evacuated. A three-block section of downtown was underwater. Some businesses like Roam and Great River Brewery never reopened.

Floods haven’t stopped. The Mississippi River basin is getting more precipitation than it got even 50 years ago. That’s made the river more erratic and prone to flooding. The National Weather Service is forecasting serious flood risks this spring.

Prior to the flood, Davenport stood out among its neighbors: rather than erecting major flood walls, it tried to “live with the river” through retreat, mitigation and active flood fighting. While it hasn’t abandoned that approach, it’s gearing up to add $165 million in new infrastructure.

The city plans to upgrade its aging sewer with valves to prevent pipes from backing up. It plans to strengthen a berm southwest of town. It plans to raise intersections and to build pumping stations.

But four years later, construction hasn’t begun yet.

“Completing this is not something that the city necessarily can do on its own,” said Clay Merritt, the assistant public works director of Davenport. “So it’s hard to put a timeline on something because there are a lot of outside factors that are beyond the city’s control.”

Merritt emphasized the work city staff and council have done to secure tens of millions in infrastructure funding and state and national permitting. These are big projects that take time to do right, he said.

“I think we've moved pretty quickly and been able to look at how the short-term operational efficiencies can be made,” Merritt said. “We've tried we've tried to make those … as well as then quickly pivoting to try and work through those structural solutions.”

In downtown Davenport, business owners are watching this year’s threat of flooding closely. Dan Bush runs several downtown restaurants and bars, including Armored Gardens and Devon’s Complaint Dept., as well as a Quad-Cities hospitality group called Bummer City. He said he’s all in on downtown. But four years later, investment feels more precarious.

“We were expected to have a major flood in 2020 as well. And now we are in 2023 and expected to have another major flood,” Bush said. “This is going to be more frequent and this going to be something we are going to have to deal with quite a bit. And if we want to maintain a vibrant community, protection is going to be crucial for us.”

For Bush, the major failure in 2019 wasn’t infrastructure but communication. He said that while downtown businesses received a check-in from the city, it was far from an evacuation.

But since 2019, Bush said he’s been heartened by downtown’s bounce-back. He said it's as strong as it's been in his 40 years living in the Quad Cities.

“But it’s kind of a fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me situation, right? I think people are willing to take on flood water and the ones who can survive it, reopen. But if it happens again in a few years, it’s going to be really hard for downtown to bounce back after that,” he said.

Tim Baldwin, the owner of Front Street Brewery and Tap Room, said he is optimistic about Davenport’s short and long-term plans. He said he’s seen a change in the city’s flood responsiveness. Even if its big infrastructure plans are some years off, that has him feeling safe.

“We wish everything could happen with a snap of a finger but a lot of those things are going to make a significant difference,” Baldwin said.

Downtown building owner Pete Stopulos said that while the city prepares for the next flood, so too is downtown.

“There's been a lot of talk. They've spent money. But I can assure you that no property owner in downtown Davenport will ever take for granted seeing a HESCO barrier on their front steps,” he said.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa