Dennis Harper loves to be asked if Iowa is better prepared for next major flood than it was in 2008.
“I think we are,” he said without hesitation, which is the answer that might be expected from the chief of the Disaster Operations Bureau at Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Harper backs up his answer by pointing to flood mitigation projects, including local governments acquiring property and removing structures from flood plains.
Harper doesn’t look only at the physical damage avoided, but the social and environmental impact avoided.
Based on what’s happened since 2008, Harper believes there will be less damage when Iowa suffers its next major flood.
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, agrees that Iowa is “unequivocally in better shape” to face a peak flood event than it was when Cedar River flooding caused nearly $6 billion damage in the Cedar Rapids area.
But he’s worried that a decade later, as the memories recede, Iowa has lost some of the momentum for flood mitigation.
“I think there are some signs that flood amnesia is coming on,” he said.
Hogg refers to the 6 percent funding cut for the Department of Natural Resources flood plain management program, the more than 20 percent cut for the Iowa Flood Center and the 37 percent cut to Resource Enhancement and Protection program.
“I’m worried that we’re not continuing with the vigilance that we need against flood disasters and, really, all disasters,” he said.
What Hogg calls “flood amnesia” is a natural response, said Tim Waddell, community development division manager at the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
“As soon as national media coverage ends, it goes away in people’s minds. It’s no longer relevant. It’s done, over, fixed,” Waddell said. “Once the pain is over, people begin to forget.”
There have been a handful of tangible projects completed, but we are woefully short of where we need to get to if we want to significantly reduce the next peak flood in Cedar Rapids.
- Rob Hogg
State Sen. D- Cedar Rapids
“As policy planners, we have to make sure people are protected, that businesses are protected, that the economy is protected,” Waddell said. “That’s what’s always on our mind.”
While the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management runs point on the immediate response to floods and other disasters, Waddell said his agency looks at how to build stronger and better.
“We don’t just want to just build it again but build it in a way that wouldn’t be part of the problem” when there is another disaster, he said. “So mitigation was part of everything we did.”
That also was the goal of the $830 million I-JOBS program the Legislature created to upgrade and rebuild Iowa infrastructure after the 2008 flood. Then-Gov. Chet Culver said it would create tens of thousands of jobs, helping Iowa recover from the floods and the recession.
I-JOBS included $5 million to rebuild Cedar Rapids’ Central Fire Station, $100 million for the University of Iowa flood recovery projects, as well as water quality, housing and public broadband projects.
Another key policy development was the 2014 creation of the Flood Mitigation Board that has awarded more than $269 million to Cedar Rapids for a long list of flood protection and mitigation projects. At the urging of Cedar Rapids city leaders, lawmakers approved a plan to allow cities to keep some of the sales growth they experience to fund flood mitigation projects. That approach, Harper said, is unique as far as he knows.
The upshot of a flood mitigation policy approach, Harper explained, is that Iowa is better prepared to deal with the increasing number of rainfall events of greater magnitude.
That’s a change from the past when there was less concern about the next disaster and more emphasis on rebuilding, Harper said.
The most common response was to modify infrastructure — remove residential housing from the flood plain, elevate and lengthen bridges, raise the abutments, and build and improve levees around critical infrastructure.
That means that as Iowa experiences more rainfall events of greater magnitude, planners and policymakers are taking a more long-term approach, Harper said.
In the past, there was less concern about the next disaster and more emphasis on rebuilding, Harper said.
The most common response, he said, was to modify infrastructure — remove residential housing from the flood plain, elevate and lengthen bridges, raise the abutments, and build and improve levees around critical infrastructure.
Today, that still goes on, but policymakers also seek to reduce the flood risk itself by taking a watershed approach. That involves changing the landscape to hold more water upland in a watershed, Harper said. That work can run the gamut from flood walls and flood gates to requiring green space in developments, to writing stormwater mitigation plans, and adding rain gardens, bioswales and porous pavers in parking lots.
It also includes deploying technology, including a statewide network of sensors and weather stations to monitor stream levels as well as rainfall so emergency management officials are better informed about conditions.
‘BE ON STEROIDS’
For Hogg, the change in the way folks like Waddell and Harper are “thinking about the watershed approach, not only just for water quality but for flood mitigation and flood plain management,” is one of the most encouraging policy changes.
However, he’s worried it’s not happening fast enough, on the magnitude needed, to make a difference in the next peak flood in Cedar Rapids.
“There have been a handful of tangible projects completed, but we are woefully short of where we need to get to if we want to significantly reduce the next peak flood in Cedar Rapids,” Hogg said.
“We need the whole thing to be on steroids to make the kind of impact that we need to make,” he said.
Progress should not be overlooked or minimized, Waddell said, pointing to the 2016 flood threat in Cedar Rapids as evidence of what was learned from flooding in 1993 and 2008.
“I went over to Cedar Rapids to be part of the groundbreaking of the Sinclair levee,” he said. “The river was inches away from top of levee, but the city had figured out — even without a levee on west side — how to contain the river. The city understood what to do and not to do.
“That’s the kind of thing we benefited from,” Waddell said. “We were able to implement those strategies before another event.”
In an effort is to be better prepared for the next flood — and Harper and Waddell are confident there will be another — the Iowa Economic Development Authority has prepared a book to document many of the ideas that were implemented in the wake of the 2008 flood. It includes the flood history and timelines as well as descriptions of the responses of state agencies.
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