IOWA CITY — Rest was illusive in those muggy June days of 2008 when incessant rain defeated riverbanks and swelling reservoirs toppled levees. The fantasy of sleep evaporated like a mirage. Water was everywhere, and it was going nowhere.
“I was able to get home,” Rod Lehnertz, the University of Iowa senior vice president for finance and operations told The Gazette, noting that was more than many of his colleagues could say during the historic flood that ravaged the campus and forever changed its narrative.
“But generally, knowing what was happening on campus during those times, I think most of us were getting maybe a couple of hours of sleep and then would sort of be jerked awake, wondering what was going on and head straight in,” Lehnertz said. “I knew waiting for us at dawn would be dozens and hundreds of volunteers.”
That, he noted, was a good thing. A crucial thing.
“Except none of them came with sand, sandbags, wire clips to close the sandbags, shovels,” Lehnertz said. “We almost had to work overnight to have new sandbag hills positioned for them. And, keep in mind, we weren’t the only flood going on.”
University Buildings during the 2008 Flood
Click on a building to see details regarding the cost to repair, or build new.
Eastern Iowa this month remembers its most epic flood in history and the lessons learned, including many fueled by the sweat dropped on those sand piles.
“I watched trucks pull up with all the Amish people, and then right after that orange-jump-suited prisoners from the county jail get out and start sandbagging,” Lehnertz said. “People didn’t care. You were all working next to each other.”
In the end, none of the university’s berms and makeshift dams kept the water at bay. It sneaked in through underground steam tunnels, devastating research labs and equipment.
It rebuffed volunteer efforts around the generations-old Iowa Memorial Union, barging through doors.
It inundated art classrooms and occupied music halls, drenching walls that have exhibited and echoed the work of legends.
It swamped Hancher Auditorium, one of the state’s premier arts venues.
But those volunteer pains — and all the coordination that kept hundreds of UI campus employees awake in those fraught days — were not for naught, Lehnertz said.
“We do know the greatest damage to the buildings can be created by the flow of the river and the debris,” he said, and the sandbag walls muted that flow. “So while the buildings were wet ... they weren’t being damaged on the outside by a flow of river.”
The campus did sustain immense and far-reaching damage, though. The flood affected more than 2.5 million square feet of building space, evacuated or closed 20 buildings and totaled more than $743 million in damage and recovery costs.
Thanks to federal funding, taxpayer support, grants, gifts and bond sales, the university has erected in its fallen structures’ shadows a new $176 million Hancher Auditorium, the $150 million Voxman School of Music and the $77 million Visual Arts Building.
It renovated Art Building West, Iowa Memorial Union, Iowa Advanced Teaching Laboratories, English/Philosophy Building and Mayflower Residence Hall — among many other projects.
Last to come is a new Museum of Art, a $50 million project slated to rise above the flood plain next to the UI Main Library.
The university also has undertaken flood mitigation projects — elevating sidewalks, installing supports for temporary flood walls, building pump systems and creating removable external walls.
The UI-based Iowa Flood Center has advanced its technological capability to predict where water would go at various flood-stage levels. And the university has strengthened its partnerships with community leaders and within its own campus.
UI AS MODEL
Lehnertz said he wouldn’t want to experience June 2008 again or, for that matter, the months and years that followed. But he wouldn’t revise history, in that it would erase the lessons learned.
“We now are a model — certainly in higher education, if not elsewhere — for both surviving and then also learning from and protecting from flooding,” he said. “We are very confident about a future living with the river.”
TIME, EXPERIMENTS LOST
UI chemistry professor and researcher Chris Cheatum, on the other hand, might take it all back. Not to get his lost time and experiments — or the extra year he had to wait to attain tenure. But for his students — those graduate researchers who put their families on hold to focus on their doctorate degrees.
“To give away a year of life at that stage in your 20s, for everything to be on hold for them, was much more painful than it was for me,” he said. “If I could undo the ways it impacted the lives of my graduate students, I absolutely would.”
When the raging river was rising, Cheatum said, he had a hard time believing his lab — on the third floor of the Iowa Advanced Teaching Laboratories — would be impacted.
But administrators told him to pack up, an order he pushed back on — arguing that doing so, and interrupting his experiments, would have the same result as devastation by flood.
So he and others were rendered helpless when authorities evacuated the building and barred entry.
The wait lasted all summer, with a first return coming in August. Water hadn’t reached his lab, but grease, grime and humidity had.
“There was a greasy, hazy film over everything,” he said. “Every optic in my lab was garbage.”
Steve McGuire, UI art professor and director of the School of Art and Art History, said he, too, wouldn’t want to revisit the insurmountable task of staving off an epic flood that not only devastated his UI program but his home and his neighborhood.
But he’s glad for the maturity it instilled across the campus and community, summed up in one imperative flood-survival skill: “adaptation.”
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