IOWA CITY — The 2008 flood has forever changed the landscape of Iowa City.
Dubuque Street is being elevated, the city sewer plant has been moved and a new district is being redeveloped along the water’s edge.
But while the city has changed since the Iowa River crested at 31.53 feet on June 15, 2008, life for Cathy and Joel Wilcox is strikingly similar — who live in an elevated home along Taft Speedway, next to the river in the Peninsula Area Neighborhood — to what it was before the flood.
“We’ve had multiple offers. The city would like to get all these properties off the street,” Joel Wilcox said. “But we like it. And I think everything’s sort of settled into the current status quo.”
The couple bought the one-story ranch, which backs up to the Iowa River, in 1992. After floodwaters reached the home’s countertops in 1993 flooding, the couple rebuilt the interior and chose to do what many of their neighbors didn’t — raise their home 10 feet.
So 15 years later, in 2008, when floodwaters cut a wide swath through Iowa City and the University of Iowa, the Wilcoxes were much better off than their neighbors. Their home’s first-level, basement-like room and its raised, three-seasons room flooded, but the main living area was spared.
“It’s very stressful to go through a flood, and I suffered a lot in the buildup to 2008,” Joel Wilcox said, adding that if floodwaters had reached the home’s main level in 2008, they would have taken a buyout. “I think we’d have given up.”
Since the flood, the city has bought more than 100 homes in the flood plain around Normandy Drive on the Iowa River, said City Manager Geoff Fruin. More than $40 million in state and federal funding was used in those buyouts.
“The best way to protect property and people is to remove them from the flood plain itself,” Fruin said. “So let’s buy out as many properties as we can.”
Additionally, new or “substantially-improved” buildings in the flood plain must be “elevated or floodproofed to 1 foot above the 0.2 percent annual-chance flood elevation,” said Julie Tallman, a certified flood plain manager with Iowa City.
Previously, the city required 1 foot about the 0.1 percent annual chance.
The city changed the way it defines flood levels to a percent-annual chance because floods are likely to happen more often than the previously used 100- or 200-year descriptions, Tallman said.
“We’re hoping to make people aware that floods aren’t a ‘once-every-100-years’ or ‘once-every-500-years’ occurrence,’ ” Tallman said.
DUBUQUE STREET, PARK
A half mile from the Wilcoxes’ home is one of the largest public works projects in the city’s history — the $40.5 million Gateway Project.
Dubuque Street, the main artery into downtown Iowa City from Interstate 80, is being raised to 1 foot above the 100-year flood level.
The nearby Park Road Bridge, which created backwater flood problems in 2008, is being replaced and raised to a foot above the 200-year flood level.
Construction is scheduled to be completed this fall after more than two years of work.
The other major project is just south of downtown where the Riverfront Crossings Park is being built at 1101 S. Clinton St., site of the city’s former North Wastewater Treatment Plant. The plant flooded in 2008, and city sewer operations were consolidated at the south plant.
Fruin said the new 17-acre park, which is being designed to take on floodwater when it needs to, will be an anchor for redevelopment, including hotels, apartment buildings and office space.
“You come out of an event like that, there’s a lot of things that you have to do, particularly around utility work,” Fruin said. “But there’s also that opportunity to envision how a community can rebuild in a way that’s stronger. That was certainly a case for us with the Riverfront Crossings District. It’s been a wild ride ever since.”
Old: Flood waters cover Dubuque Street near the Park Road bridge in Iowa City Tuesday, June 10, 2008. Flooding is expected to worsen in Iowa City in the coming days as water is predicted to top the emergency spillway at the Coralville Lake Wednesday morning. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
New: Traffic moves along Dubuque Street as work continues on the Iowa City Gateway Project in Iowa City on Wednesday, May. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Other projects that followed the flood included construction of a new animal shelter, funded mostly by local dollars, and the West Side Levee, which received more than $5.5 million in federal funding for flood protection in southwest Iowa City near McCollister Boulevrad.
“There’s not too many weeks that go by where we don’t have some type of discussion or planning efforts going on related to flooding,” Fruin said. “That is just part of doing business in Iowa City now.”
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