Guest Columnist

Reflecting on 10 years since the flood

Rod Lehnertz explains that sand and sandbag walls didn’t keep the water out of the buildings, but did keep the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories building in a pond of water and protected from the strong currents of the Iowa River in Iowa City on Wednesday, July 9, 2008. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Rod Lehnertz explains that sand and sandbag walls didn’t keep the water out of the buildings, but did keep the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories building in a pond of water and protected from the strong currents of the Iowa River in Iowa City on Wednesday, July 9, 2008. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Like so many people, as spring 2008 unfolded, I could not have anticipated the changes to my life and career that were about to occur. The seemingly endless and harrowing days of a campus (and thousands of its friends) fighting against an unstoppable force of nature will be difficult to forget. They were the most difficult and yet most inspirational days of my career.

On a sunny June 15, 2008, standing at the new water’s edge, and looking toward once-vibrant University of Iowa buildings now submerged and unapproachable, I never could have imagined we would be where we find ourselves now.

We had no choice but to “pull up our boot straps” and race into the water to get the campus back on its feet ahead of the largest class in UI history arriving only two months after the flood’s crest. No one had time to step back and worry that it couldn’t be done, or that we would not overcome the challenges to be faced during the next eight years.

As Iowans do, we just got to work. There would be too many hurdles, challenges and difficulties to count, but perseverance and optimism (and many great local, state and federal partnerships) kept us moving forward.

I was honored to be part of a small group of UI representatives, referred to as the Core Flood Team. We met every week during the recovery to address challenges, meet with state and federal officials and strategize about the many recovery decisions along the way. By the time our campus had reached a point of physical recovery that would allow us to discontinue our meetings, we had clocked more than 430 of them!

Recovery from the flood became a way of life and, for many of us, a most memorable decade of our careers. The result should make all of us proud. UI was transformed by its recovery and has become a model for understanding floods, and how to protect or recover from them, thanks in no small part to our very own Iowa Flood Center, collegiate and administrative leaders and hardworking units within finance and operations, including facilities management, business services, public safety, financial management and so many others. There still is work to be done as we complete paperwork, address audit efforts by the federal government, and deliver the one remaining project associated with the 2008 flood, the return of our storied UI Stanley Museum of Art (nearing construction and scheduled to open by 2021).

The flood and its effects have helped strengthen UI bonds with Iowa City and Coralville; we survived and recovered together and, as occasions have allowed, we have celebrated together. Now, 10 years later and after so many lessons learned from our river, together we turn our attention to it — bringing people and events to the river that connects us and sets us apart.

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We will have much to celebrate on the revived banks of the Iowa River, and I share an objective that this renewed attention also will bring a spotlight to the health of our Iowa River. By pushing and working with others to improve Iowa River water quality, we will enjoy it more and can make it a model for other waterways in our state. I am confident the flood of 2008, for all of its challenges, has made and will continue to make us better for generations to come.

• Rod Lehnertz is senior vice president, finance and operations at the University of Iowa.

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