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Proactive Flood Containment and Disaster Planning – Responding to the Iowa Flood of 2008

Activism > Environment

Flood Recovery. As the water level of the Iowa River is finally receding, damage assessments are being made. Much time, energy, money, and resources will be needed to restore millions of square feet that were damaged by the flood including businesses, homes, city government buildings, transportation facilities, and buildings at the University of Iowa. [Photo of Coralville Reservoir Dam courtesy of Wikipedia]. This document explores what can be done to reduce the impact of flooding. More about recovery efforts from the recent 2008 flood is on the Iowa City Flooding and Emergency Volunteer Resources page.

Climate Changes. Because global climate patters and severe weather seem to be changing, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Therefore, flooding, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, mud slides, thunderstorms, lighting, damaging winds, hurricanes, tidal waves, volcanos, and other destructive forces may increase in frequency and intensity in the future. What we might have in the past called a 500-year flood may in the future be referred to as a 15-year flood.

Proactive Flood Containment. Because future severe flooding is likely, some people are beginning to think in terms of preventative flood containment and disaster planning (see article by Nicholas Johnson and also State29 blog which both quote this page). I’m encouraged to see that others are thinking about widening the green areas around the Iowa River. When I was in Chicago recently (photos), we had wonderfully pleasant weather on Monday (photo) and walked in the water on the beach. The next day it was cold and dangerous to even be near the lake. Waves were crashing against the shore furiously (photo). The beach was closed. Fortunately no property was damaged. No businesses were closed down. No residents were displaced. Why? Because Chicago has established beautiful parks, beaches, and trails along the lake shore.

I think Iowa City and other communities should do the same. Putting parks and trails in an area subject to flooding doesn’t mean that parks and trails aren’t as important as businesses. The point is that they are easier to clean up after flooding. Parks aren’t “mission critical.” It wasn’t until this flood that I realized that in addition to homes how many of this city’s most expensive and important resources are in flood areas:

  • The office complex for the Johnson County Administration
  • The Johnson County Jail
  • Transportation services for the University of Iowa (Cambus)
  • The primary source for steam (heating and cooling system) for the entire UI campus
    • Although the City of Iowa City and the University of Iowa were able to function with a reduction in steam available, there was serious concern about this and alternative sources needed to be relied upon. The University of Iowa “functioned” but only as an institution in crisis with most of its workforce and students having evacuated.
  • The central University of Iowa Computing Center at the Lindquist Center
    • Although not flooded, if water had reached anticipated flood levels and/or if pumps had failed and/or if upstream levies or sand bags had broken and/or if tunnels had flooded, equipment may have been damaged. There was sufficient concern about this, that much of the UI IT critical computing equipment was physically moved out of the Lindquist Center to another building.
  • The City of Iowa City waste water processing plant
    • While waste water processing plants typically need large amounts of water to function, there could be alternatives that are less susceptible to flood damage. More on this is below under the heading Facilities Needing Large Amounts of Water.
  • The City of Iowa City pure water processing plant
    • Note that the City of Iowa City water plant north of the city is placed on high ground. However, the other processing plant needed to have volunteers sent by boat to continue protecting it from the flood waters (photo). More on this is below under the heading Facilities Needing Large Amounts of Water.
  • The UI Power Plant
    • Although the City of Iowa City and University of Iowa were able to function with the loss of the UI Power Plant, there was sufficient concern about having too little power that buildings on campus were placed on power rationing and backup power generators were installed in the event that sufficient power was not available. More on this is below under the heading Facilities Needing Large Amounts of Water.
  • The UI Hydraulics Lab
    • While it isn’t considered by some to be a “critical asset,” the Hydraulics Lab contains millions of dollars in equipment that can only be installed and/or removed by using a crane. More on this is below under the heading Facilities Needing Large Amounts of Water.

If the above resources were taken off-line, portions of the city may need to be evacuated. Below are some suggestions for more practical and effective utilization of low-lying urban areas subject to flooding.

Facilities Needing Large Amounts of Water. Some of the facilities listed above use large supplies of water and need to be near a water source. However, they could be built in a way that flooding would not stop their operation (see examples provided below). Or, perhaps it is possible to build pipe systems to transport water to and from facilities that need it. Certainly there are urban centers that have similar facilities without the benefit of a river or lake being close by.

Sports and Recreation Resources. Some sports require large amounts of open space (and open green space) such as tennis, golf, soccer, baseball, football practice, and other such things. Why not have these in the low lying areas. Instead, in the case of the Iowa City flood of 2008, the football practice field was high and dry while the critical infrastructure of Iowa City and the University of Iowa was under water.

Clean Flooding for Easier Cleanup. What is clean flooding? There are two aspects to flooding: (1) wetness, (2) dangerous debris. While “wetness” is nearly impossible to contain even with sandbags, it may be possible to contain dangerous debris by putting up walls of nets or a filter system causing larger objects to flow down stream. Perhaps it would be possible to have artistically designed and placed angled fins (or cement walls) directing the flow of water (and objects) back toward the middle of the river. This would allow rising waters while at the same time keeping most objects flowing down stream. Large heavy objects flowing quickly in a river can cause significant damage.

Flood Proof Buildings. In most urban centers, finding sufficient space for parking (of cars or bicycles) is a challenge. If the lowest level of buildings could be reserved for parking, flooding would simply prevent access to the building while water levels were high. Yet valuable office property would be high above the water level. This would solve the parking problem and create a building that is resistant to damage from flooding.

Water Removal Systems. For existing buildings that can’t be rebuilt from the ground up, it may be possible to install off-the-grid (gas or biofuel powered) water pumping systems capable of ejecting any and all water that might flow into the building faster than it can flow in.

Water Damage Resistant Buildings. Lower levels of buildings could be remodeled to be water resilient by having carpeting removed (using polished cement instead) as well as any furniture or objects that may be susceptible to water damage. Walls could be sealed and covered with tile or a similar waterproof material.

Additional Reading. Below are links to resources and other readings on this topic.

Responding to Criticism. One person, who goes by the online name of American007, criticized the above article saying that I should “get the facts straight.” My response to their five points is found below. Rather than reprint the entirety of what they said, I’ve simply paraphrased the main points in quotes. Their full comments are available following Nicholas Johnson’s blog writing on this topic.
  1. “Some facilities must be near a river or lake.” If this is true, what is done in cities where there is no river or lake close by? It seems that some other alternatives must be available. Perhaps building near the river, but at a higher level — having a parking ramp on the lowest level of the building with expensive equipment at higher levels.
  2. “The servers in Lindquist Center saw no damage at all.” What are we to tell the thousands of volunteers who put sand bags around the building? That their work was really not needed? The fact is that there was grave concern about the computing resources. So much so, that the computers were moved out of the Lindquist Center and placed in another building on campus with a backup generator installed to ensure continuous power. Those computers have yet to be returned to the Lindquist Center. We can be grateful that the waters didn’t rise another 4 to 5 feet as anticipated. Yet, we should still have concern about putting computing facilities near large bodies of water.
  3. “The CIC Water Plant north of the city is protected by the highest levees in the area. Only a 1000 or 5000 year flood has the potential to breach them.” Great. Sounds like something we should do with the other valuable resources and assets we depend on — something I suggested and you said couldn’t be done (see point #1 above).
  4. “The UI and CIC were able to function with the loss of steam and power.” Yes, by shutting down and sending all employees and students home. Not an ideal solution. Despite this, there was grave concern about whether or not there would be sufficient power and steam. Backup generators were put in place in case the power services couldn’t keep up with demand.
  5. “The Hydro Lab isn’t a critical asset.” Who is to say what departments on campus are essential and important or not. What is true is that the Hydraulics Lab contains over a million dollars in equipment that was impacted by the flood.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com