Another Iowa governor is being tested by swollen rivers and epic flooding, with the threat of more to come hanging over a saturated state.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds deserves good marks, so far. She’s been on the ground and in the air surveying severe flood damage in western Iowa, where the Missouri River busted through and over levees, and other rivers have swamped communities. She’s called repeatedly for a strong and swift federal response while also marshaling state response and recovery resources. Disasters have been declared in 57 Iowa counties.
Congress is working on a $13.4 billion emergency funding bill aimed at addressing damage done by natural disasters in several states. Reynolds has estimated damage done so far in Iowa at $1.6 billion.
And more flooding is possible. Continuing snowmelt to the north and the prospects for above normal spring rains flowing into rivers already primed to rise has state and local officials on alert.
“There’s a possibility that more flooding is on the way, especially on the western side of the state,” Reynolds said at a news conference Thursday in Cedar Rapids, where the Cedar River has been teaching an incessant master class on flooding over the past decade or so. She spoke at the Linn County Emergency Management Center.
“Why it was really important for me to have the opportunity to talk with them is they’ve done significant things since the 2008 flood, whether it’s mitigation or just processes they put in place,” Reynolds said. “We saw the result of that in the 2016 flooding, how well prepared they were. We discussed strategies for taking proactive steps.”
But the real test for Reynolds will come after the helicopters have landed, the emergency response has ended and floodwaters have receded. It will come once she discovers, as other governors have, that the federal response only goes so far, and not far enough.
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Recovery will require a state response, and its success or failure could define Reynolds’ first elected term as governor.
Her predecessors’ tests can offer lessons.
Her mentor, former Gov. Terry Branstad, faced severe flooding across Iowa in 1993. A series of post-flood recommendations aimed at mitigating future flood damage, including flood modeling and watershed management, were largely shelved. During his second stint as governor, Branstad did sign into law a measure allowing communities, including Cedar Rapids, to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax growth to fund mitigation projects.
Gov. Chet Culver was a constant presence in Eastern Iowa after the flood of 2008, but took criticism for not calling a special legislative session in the late summer and fall of that year to respond to the disaster. He later championed the $875 million I-JOBS bonded debt program, which provided large investments in several Cedar Rapids recovery projects.
But Culver sold his plan mainly as job-creation effort in the midst of the Great Recession. As much as it succeeded as a flood recovery program, it created only a fraction of the jobs Culver promised. Culver, dubbed “Big Debt Chet” by Branstad during the 2010 election campaign, paid a hefty political price.
But for all the criticism they heaped on Culver, Republicans didn’t articulate an alternative strategy for meeting the challenges of a massive disaster. Now, with control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, they’ll get their chance.
Reynolds talked Thursday about the need for proactive, long-term and regional responses. That’s good to hear. She also suggested the Legislature would play a role.
“They’re in session, let’s do that now so we’ll be ready to go,” Reynolds said.
She talked of “mother nature at its worst,” a “bomb cyclone” and a “perfect storm” of factors feeding flooding.
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But there’s been no mention of climate changes feeding heavier precipitation events in the Midwest, considerably raising flooding risks. Scientists have been warning us of the implications for years. Reynolds, who has the ear of the Trump administration, could point out that Iowans’ lives and livelihoods are not being swept away annually by a hoax.
Water quality measures that control farm fertilizer runoff double as flood mitigation. A bill signed last year by Reynolds providing new funding for water quality is woefully inadequate. And there’s been no new gubernatorial or legislative proposals, so far, this year. Instead, some GOP lawmakers have been working to stop the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation from using a state loan program to buy land for conservation efforts and donate to government.
While local governments, such as Cedar Rapids, struggle to find the dollars needed to fund flood protection, lawmakers are talking about property tax caps that would hamstring local budgets.
The need for more flood mitigation infrastructure funding, land use changes and conservation projects is large and obvious. But we’ve seen no plans from the governor or GOP lawmakers. Protecting Iowa from flooding has not been a priority. That’s got to change.
Floods demand a swift gubernatorial response. Reynolds is passing that test.
But the far bigger test is how Reynolds will address the larger issues feeding these floods and increasing their severity. Tackling them in a meaningful way will demand political courage. Declaring disasters is one thing, but averting them is in the future is the mark of true leadership.
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