UI officials "knew we were in serious trouble"

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IOWA CITY — A small team of University of Iowa officials began meeting in February 2008 to discuss flood planning for the spring.

But for many who remembered the 1993 flood, it seemed inconceivable 2008 could be worse. The 1993 disaster, which up to that point was the worst flood for this stretch of the Iowa River, caused $6 million in damage at the university.

“To most people, including me and others, 1993 was the flood to end all floods,” said Rod Lehnertz, UI director of planning, design and construction. “We had done a lot of work after 1993 to better protect the campus and to prepare for events if another 93-level flood occurred.”

But by mid-May, as the news became more serious and projections more dire, the daily flood meeting grew to 50 or 60 university officials. By early June, they were told to prepare for flooding worse than 1993.

“By June 7th or 8th, we knew we were in serious trouble,” recalls UI President Sally Mason, who had been on campus less than a year. “It was quite clear that we were going to experience something unprecedented, and something that none of us could have seen or could have prepared for previously.”

In the 10 days leading up to the June 15 crest of the Iowa River, thousands of volunteers joined with UI staff to fill sandbags and build temporary dikes around campus buildings on the west and east sides of the river. Faculty and staff scrambled to empty classrooms and offices, moving equipment and materials to upper floors. More than 12,000 pieces of art valued at half a billion dollars were evacuated from the Museum of Art.

Kristin Thelander, then director of the School of Music, remembers word coming down June 12th that flood water would come into the first floor “a significant amount.” There was a rush that day to move as much as possible to the second floor of the Voxman Music Building, including dozens of grand pianos and musical instruments. Students used rolling chairs to ferry items to the freight elevator.

“The upstairs hallway got to be so full of pianos that you couldn't even get by,” she said. “It think it was just a completely amazing thing, what people did to save as much as they did.”

Those efforts leading up to the flood saved a lot of things, but late on June 12, officials knew the sandbag dikes would not keep the rising water out of some buildings, Lehnertz said.

The Iowa River crested at 31.53 feet on June 15th.

As the water slowly receded, UI officials tallied the damage: 22 buildings damaged; more than 2 million square feet — one-sixth of the campus space — affected; 24 percent of general assignment classrooms lost; and the campus power plant knocked offline by 22 feet of standing water.

The final tally of damage, recovery and mitigation is expected to approach $1 billion for the university.

“So we had a bit of a shock,” Lehnertz said. “Everybody wanted to know what happens next, and it was tough to know what happens next.”

Mason soon announced summer classes would resume and the campus would reopen, after just one week of being closed. She was even more determined the university would not postpone or cancel the fall semester, at this point a short eight weeks away.

That meant finding new locations for hundreds of fall classes and temporary homes for two displaced programs — art and music. University officials zeroed in on four major repair projects critical for the fall semester to proceed: Mayflower Residence Hall, which houses 1,000 students, and three academic buildings on the east bank of the river. Round-the-clock work also helped ready a former Menards store as the new home for art programs, and the School of Music found space in nearly 20 locations around campus and the city.

“There was a huge effort to get up and running that first year,” said John Beldon Scott, director of the School of Art and Art History. “I remember the families of some of the workers would bring out their dinners in the evening, so they could continue working.”

Once those four critical facilities were reopened in August, the power plant became top priority, with an ambitious date of Nov. 1, in time for the winter heating season. Mason blew the power plant whistle, to mark reopening, on Oct. 28.

The power plant and several other buildings actually were flooded via underground utility tunnels that connect campus buildings to necessary heat, cooling and steam. Repairing the tunnels and finding ways to protect buildings from future tunnel flooding also was a top concern in the months following the disaster.

There was the immediate flurry of repair work and relocation of programs, but behind-the-scenes planning and work has continued daily in the five years since, officials say. And more visible signs of progress are coming, with construction starting soon on the three major building replacement projects — Hancher Auditorium, the School of Music and the Art Building.

“I think we can all look back and feel very proud about the way we conducted ourselves and in the way in which we have forged ahead, even in the face sometimes of what seemed like insurmountable odds,” Mason said.

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