IOWA CITY — Even as rains bloated the Cedar River on June 9, 2008, Cedar Rapids didn’t expect the 500-year flood it got.
At first, officials predicted a 20-foot crest, matching a previous record. They increased the prediction to 24.7 feet a couple days later and began evacuations. When the river finally crested at more than 31 feet on June 13, floodwaters impacted more than 10 square miles and about 18,600 residents.
Nearby in Iowa City, also facing historic and devastating flooding, researchers with the University of Iowa’s world-renowned hydroscience and engineering center felt helpless.
“This was a very, very frustrating experience for us because we are here at the University of Iowa at the research institute that has 90 years of history of research in river mechanics, hydrology and all the flood-related stuff,” said UI civil and environmental engineering professor Witold F. Krajewski. “Yet, at that time, we really couldn’t be of any help. We just carried sandbags like everybody else.”
Today, with Cedar Rapids again threatened by a swelling Cedar River expected to crest at 25.3 feet Monday evening, a lot has changed.
Krajewski directs the Iowa Flood Center, a legislated and state-funded UI-based hydrologic modeling, monitoring\, and prediction enterprise created after the 2008 floods to, among other things, help communities prepare and mitigate potential damage.
The center has produced an interactive online tool — the Iowa Flood Information System — capable of providing weather conditions, flood forecasts and other flood-related information for more than 1,000 Iowa communities. The platform features a flood risk calculator and maps showing how far out of a river’s banks water would flow depending on the flood stage.
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“Thanks to the wisdom of the state Legislators, they put their trust in us … they recognized that we have relevant expertise, and they formed the Iowa Flood Center,” Krajewski said. “They totally trusted us that we would develop a vision and a direction that would be helpful to the people of Iowa, and we have done this. We took this charge very seriously.”
The tool has both aided river communities facing imminent flood threats and informed mitigation projects like the Iowa City Gateway Project that is raising Dubuque Street along the Iowa River by 10 feet.
“It’s really an invaluable resource,” said Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin. “Unfortunately, what is happening up along the Cedar River underscores the need for that type of resource in Eastern Iowa and throughout the state.”
Although September is supposed to be a quiet time of year in his field, Krajewski said, his team on Friday was working aggressively to be as helpful to Cedar Rapids as possible. They created and posted tutorial videos for first-time users of the Iowa Flood Information System and organized a webinar for emergency responders.
Center staff members also are keeping close tabs on the system’s basic functions.
“We are watching, making sure everything works,” Krajewski said. “If something is not working, we try to fix it right away. This is a high-adrenaline moment for us.”
In the near future, the information flood system will produce a map that color codes Iowa’s rivers depending on flood stage. The interactive tool would allow users to move through time and see a flood wave move downstream.
“By stepping through time you will be able to see the movement of the portion of the river that is above some flood stage,” he said. “It will be something much more visual.”
That level of technology, Krajewski said, is unique in the country — possibly the world.
“We are the leaders,” he said. “We already have here in Iowa what the federal government is trying to do for the rest of the country. They are three to four years behind us.”
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The center receives $1.5 million a year in state funding. Krajewski said it leverages that to obtain more money through grants and projects, but “we could use more.”
“Roughly it comes to 50 cents per citizen of Iowa per year,” he said. “If you look at the service we provide — like in the moment like this — and you look at the service you tip people when you go for dinner, I’ll stop here. You see my point.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, was among the lawmakers who backed the center’s creation and said “there is no question” it has resulted in significant savings for communities.
“There is much less property in harm’s way today than there has been in the past,” he said, noting Cedar Rapids residents right now can jump online and gauge their personal risk of being flooded. “There is the opportunity for people to protect their property in a way that just didn’t exist in 2008.”