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University of Iowa Flood Center director equated America with 'the moon'

Growing up in Poland during Cold War, 'You couldn't just get up and go to America'

Iowa Flood Center Director Witold Krajewski demonstrates the capabilities of the Iowa Flood Information System during a
Iowa Flood Center Director Witold Krajewski demonstrates the capabilities of the Iowa Flood Information System during a news conference March 1, 2018, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Growing up the son of a professor in post-World War II Poland, Witold Krajewski never imagined he’d spend most of his adult life in America — let alone Iowa — leading efforts to pioneer internationally esteemed hydrologic technology aimed at quelling the devastating effects of Midwest flooding.

“Coming to the U.S. — in Poland back then — it was in the category of going to the moon,” Krajewski, 68, told The Gazette. “There was an Iron Curtain between the east and the west. And so you couldn’t just get up and go to America. You just couldn’t.”

But, having just graduated from Warsaw University of Technology, a 27-year-old Krajewski in 1980 received an unexpected invite from a former colleague now working at Utah State University seeking help on a project.

“I got the permission to go,” Krajewski said. “And it changed my life.”

While he worked in Utah, the anti-bureaucratic solidarity movement advanced in Poland — complicating the political landscape and helping make his decision to take a yearlong position at the National Weather Service in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

It was there Krajewski met his wife, an American whom he married in 1984, solidifying his decision to stay. But, having been raised in a small apartment observing his father’s pursuits pioneering environmental technologies, Krajewski had ambitions to follow in his parents’ academic footsteps.

So when the hydrologist received word of a research post at the University of Iowa in 1987 — and the suggestion he apply — Krajewski took the advice and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He also served as a research engineer in what was then the Iowa Institute of Hydrologic Research — known today as the IIHR.

And just as social unrest decades earlier directed Krajewski toward his tenure in American higher education, Iowa’s historic flood of 2008 set the stage for Krajewski’s consummate career post as director of the esteemed Iowa Flood Center nearly three decades later.

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Lawmakers in 2009 established the center, which over the last decade — and under the direction of Krajewski — pioneered the Iowa Flood Information System, a Google Maps-based virtual tool capable of producing real-time data on stream levels, flood alerts, forecasts and other hydrologic conditions for the state. Not only do Iowa communities, lawmakers, emergency personnel, residents and business owners use the technology, but it’s also become a model for other states, garnering more than 3.5 million users and inquiries from hydrologists across the nation.

Although the Flood Center years ago faced a threat of de-appropriation, lawmakers have upheld support with steady annual funding for the enterprise — which has generated more than $100 million in external funding for Iowa “to address flooding and water resource concerns at the watershed scale.”

Despite the devastation of the 2008 flood, Krajewski told The Gazette the event seemed to fuse his life’s work into a specific role and purpose.

“It was like I was ready for that,” he said. “Everything that I had done before suddenly put me in a good position to then take on the leadership of that larger group, where I formulate a technical vision for our work.”

Krajewski recently was elected to the National Academy of Engineering — deemed among the “highest honors conferred in the field of engineering.” He was chosen for his advances in flood prediction and flood risk reduction, according to UI officials.

“Election to NAE is a well-deserved recognition of Witold’s groundbreaking flood research and dedicated outreach to communities across Iowa,” Harriet Nembhard, dean of the UI College of Engineering, said in a statement. “Because flooding is a nationwide issue, Witold’s work and the work of the Iowa Flood Center is sought after by governments and agencies from across the country who know that this expertise can benefit their communities and protect their local economies.”

Although Krajewski never predicted his path would wind through Iowa and its waterways, he told The Gazette he’s in no hurry to leave.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing, and I still have ideas and energy,” he said. “And we have an excellent team.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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