Iowa at Tipping Point for Major Flood Event

By DAVID PITT | May 31, 2013

It’s the wettest spring on record in Iowa, and all that rain has set the stage for a potential major flood.

The average rainfall of 16.4 total inches during the months of March, April and May is the most that’s fallen in 141 years of records, state Climatologist Harry Hillaker said Wednesday. The previous record was 15.5 inches in 1892; normal is just over 10 inches.

Rivers around the state are overflowing – from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers in central Iowa to the Cedar and Iowa rivers in eastern Iowa – and the Mississippi River is expected to flood in southeast Iowa, including the city of Burlington.

All of this is leading to closed roads and flooded basements. Low-lying farmland with newly planted corn and some still unplanted sits underwater. Emergency managers are going into flood-planning mode. The concern now is that another storm system that’s forecast to move into Iowa on Wednesday and Thursday could produce severe thunderstorms and locally heavy rainfall.

“We’re susceptible now to flooding for the next seven to 10 days because it’s going to take us that long for this water to leave the state,” said Larry Weber, co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa. “Our vulnerability is directly related to the location and intensity of rainfall in the next 48 hours,” Weber said.

Statewide, multiple storms the past two weeks brought localized heavy downpours, saturating the soil and filling rivers and reservoirs. Portions of city streets in several cities, including Des Moines and Iowa City, have been closed and officials are closely monitoring forecasts and meeting with meteorologists.

One person has died from flooding in northeast Iowa, where the body of 71-year-old Howard Hodson was recovered Wednesday from a sport utility vehicle that had been submerged in a creek since Monday morning.

Emergency management officials are reviewing flood preparation plans and trying to protect the most vulnerable areas.

“We’re starting to see sandbag requests coming in,” said Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman John Benson, who expects those to increase Thursday from the areas that receive the most rainfall.

The 1993 and 2008 floods loom large in Iowans’ minds, the latter one causing an estimated $10 billion in damage and earning the title of the worst disaster in state history. After that, the Iowa Legislature created the Iowa Flood Center, which researches and provided detailed maps and flood data.

“It helps lessen the strain of not knowing. Now we know what the extent will be for various stage readings on the rivers and we know what facilities to protect,” Weber, a civil and environmental engineering professor and a hydraulics expert, said. “Communities have developed flood emergency response plans and we have an organized management and response plan for the most critical infrastructures.”

At the University of Iowa, for example, a plan is in place to place temporary flood walls around Mayflower Hall, a student dorm that was one of the first to flood in 2008. The 84 students who are living there during the summer semester have been moved and workers have begun placing aluminum flood walls anchored with concrete foundations around the building. Several other buildings on campus have similar flood protection plans to hold back the Iowa River which passes through the campus.

Iowa State University in Ames also began flood preparation Tuesday by closing the Lied Recreation Athletic Center for sandbagging. Flood gates were installed at Hilton Coliseum, the Scheman Building, Stephens Auditorium, and the Maple-Willow-Larch residence halls. The campus is preparing for potential flooding from Squaw Creek and the South Skunk River.

Hillaker said that despite last year’s drought, Iowa has had more wet years than dry ones since the late 1950s – including two exceptionally wet periods between 1990 and 1993 and 2007 to 2010.

The generational memory of today’s parents and grandparents may be of lots of droughts and heat waves from the 1880s to the 1950s, but those growing up today will recall the floods, Hillaker said.

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