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University of Iowa debuts renovated student union

Handful of projects remain to recover from 2008 flood

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IOWA CITY — Exactly seven years ago, the University of Iowa put into action its flood emergency plan as the Iowa River swelled and ominous forecasts threatened the campus.

In the days that followed, UI President Sally Mason, her husband, Ken, and thousands of volunteers rushed to the defense of historic buildings bordering the rising river — including the now 90-year-old Iowa Memorial Union — filling sandbag after sandbag.

“We failed miserably,” Mason said of the efforts to keep floodwaters from inundating the beloved student hub. “But, as you can see, we’ve come back rather magnificently.”

Mason made the comments Wednesday morning while standing in a fully restored ground floor of the IMU — a $27.5 million renovation that nearly completes the campus’ recovery projects following the 2008 flood.

After this summer, the university will have just a handful of replacement projects to complete — including Hancher Auditorium — before claiming a full comeback from one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

The flood affected more than 2.5 million square feet of UI building space — one-sixth of the campus — and forced 20 buildings to be evacuated and closed, resulting in $743 million in damage and recovery costs.

Tom Rocklin, vice president for student life, said the reopening of IMU’s ground floor comes at a perfect time.

“We have more students today than when this place flooded and more on the way.”

Wednesday, about 500 incoming freshmen swarmed the campus for the first of 13 summer orientation sessions. And, in anticipation of its largest incoming class in history this fall, the university expects more than 4,000 students to participate in orientation programming throughout June and July.

During initial planning for the IMU restoration, administrators looked into modernizing the space and adding amenities — including a bowling alley like one that graced it years ago.

But, to maximize reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the university chose to restore the ground floor to the same function and design as before the flood, said Rod Lehnertz, director of planning, design and construction and interim senior vice president.

“Putting it back the way it was the only viable option,” Lehnertz said. “And a lot of this building is just what the students want and need.”

The renovated space includes a food court, convenience store, coffee shop, TV and study lounge, performance space, learning commons with technology and printing access, and a new Iowa Hawk Shop and bookstore.

Getting the ground floor back online is paramount in the campus’ efforts to keep up with a growing student body, officials said. But it also holds weight in memories for generations of students, staff and faculty who were stunned to see it devastated.

“It is much needed space,” said Brenda Toribio, 29, who attended UI as an undergraduate in 2004 before dropping out to start a family.

Now set to resume her education in the fall, she stopped by the renovated IMU to scope it out.

“It looked a lot like this, but this is newer and brighter,” she said. “It’s nice to have it back after such a long time.”

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