Staff Columnist

Address the causes, not just the flood walls

Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Rep. Rod Blum sit down for a luncheon to recognize the Iowa congressional del
Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Rep. Rod Blum sit down for a luncheon to recognize the Iowa congressional delegation for their role in securing federal flood protection funding on Wednesday, August 8, 2018, at the DoubleTree Hotel convention center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In the end, after celebrating a now-fulfilled promise of federal flood protection funding for Cedar Rapids, the honorables and luminaries who gathered for a downtown luncheon this past week were offered complimentary umbrellas.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz conceded the reason might be a little “corny.”

“The umbrellas protect us from rain, just as all of you have helped protect Cedar Rapids from rain in the future,” Pomeranz told his audience, which included U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, as well as 1st District U.S. Rep. Rod Blum.

It is, as was said many times that day over lunch and chocolate cake, a testament to stubborn persistence that Cedar Rapids finally pried $117 million from reluctant federal fingers. Local leaders and our congressional delegation never gave up, even when it looked bleak. It took skillful salesmanship and bipartisan cooperation to land the emergency appropriation.

Sure, it took the feds the better part of a decade to come around. Water under the bridge. And sure, there were plenty of whispers claiming the real “emergency” was the risk of the GOP losing Blum’s House seat this fall.

Let them talk. Blum’s own whispers go into President Donald Trump’s ear.

Blum told the audience, whenever he saw Trump, he would always say “Cedar Rapids loves you, Mr. President.”

“But the second thing I’d whisper in his ear is, ‘Cedar Rapids needs a flood wall,’” Blum said.

Meanwhile, Ernst used her military experience and connections to work the Army Corps of Engineers, which finally came across with the promised dough and more.


Give ‘em medals. Actually, everybody who attended the luncheon also received a medal-like commemorative coin from the city.

And the umbrellas. Which they’re going to need, especially here in Iowa.

At the risk of being a wet blanket, Iowa is getting wetter. Scientists here have been saying, repeatedly, to anyone who will listen, that extreme precipitation events have become far more frequent in recent decades. That means more frequent flooding.

Among them is Iowa State University researcher Gene Takle, who says what were once considered so-called “100-year” floods now are four times more likely. In Cedar Rapids, that’s a flood similar to the deluge the city mobilized to dodge in 2016.

Our atmosphere is warmer, and warmer air holds more moisture. That’s especially true over the Gulf of Mexico, the source of juice for our big storms, which are getting bigger.

The culprit is, well, I’d rather not say.

It wasn’t mentioned at the luncheon, nor is it generally brought up when leaders talk about the need or flood protection. The federal government has nearly stopped mentioning it entirely. It’s not a topic for polite company. It gets people worked up. They stop listening almost immediately.

I will say it sort of rhymes with rifle range, or maybe quiet rage. How about tire chain? Just between you and me, it’s a carbon-oxygen conspiracy the reaches the highest levels.

Anyway, flooding potentially intensified by this, um, anthropogenic atmospheric angst has been hard on Iowa. According to a recent study by the Iowa Flood Center’s Antonio Arenas Amado, property losses from flooding in Iowa between 1988 and 2015 totaled $13.5 billion. Direct crop losses topped $4 billion.

During that period, there were 951 flood-related FEMA disaster declarations in Iowa, fourth most in the nation behind Texas, Missouri and Kentucky.


So, clearly, we need flood mitigation. Walls and levees. That’s why the $117 million is so welcome.

But while the Trump administration hands us money for flood protection, it’s taking other reckless actions that will only intensify what you might call the people-powered sky shenanigans that are directly contributing to a heightened flood threat.

Trump and his pals at the Environmental Protection (?) Agency are pushing to weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions responsible for harsh, science-proven, high-altitude realities. The increase, the New York Times reports, would exceed the total annual emissions of Greece. It could be more, if gas remains relatively cheap.

And Trump’s team is determined to stop states from adopting tougher standards, while promoting the use of coal and scaling back scores of other efforts to promote clean, renewable energy. They’ve been hampering scientific research. And we’ve turned our back on global cooperation.

Just this past week, the president blamed horrendous, historic wildfires in California on environmental rules. Fact checkers are facing a Pinocchio shortage. Pants to light on fire are in short supply. Actually, California funds its fire prevention efforts using money it raises by limiting carbon emissions and selling permits to industries. Federal funding is stuck in Congress.

The real culprit likely stoking these destructive, historic fires? Yep, you guessed it.

Maybe Rep. Blum could whisper something else in the president’s ear. “That’s crazy. Stop it.”

I asked the congressman after lunch if he thinks the federal government should turn its attention to the, well, stuff upstairs going haywire.

“I think the federal government indirectly does through some of these watershed studies,” Blum said, describing his visit to projects in his district, including county roads now being built without culverts to slow down runoff.


Runoff reduction is great. Watershed studies are welcome. Good stuff. But what about emissions and fuel efficiency standards? Will we address causes or simply build flood walls?

“I think we are with watershed analysis,” said Blum, conceding that a series of epic flooding events packed into a decade is troubling.

“You sit there and scratch your head and go, something’s different. I personally think the biggest part is the watershed analysis. We are studying it,” Blum said.

Something is different, to be sure. If we just deployed some stubborn persistence, skillful salesmanship and bipartisan cooperation, maybe something could be done to address this emergency. It looks bleak, I concede, but maybe we shouldn’t give up just yet.

Yeah, I’ll admit it sounds corny. But let’s try it anyway. Bring your umbrella.

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