— UI President Sally Mason
On June 13, 2008—a Friday—the Iowa River swept into Iowa City and other eastern Iowa communities, brushing aside efforts to contain its might. After months of gorging on record winter snowfalls followed by torrential spring rains, the river flexed its muscles and burst its banks.
In a swift and stealthy move, it captured land, roads, homes, and University of Iowa buildings. When the murky waters eventually receded, they left behind a dark stain of nauseating mud. Tidemarks branded buildings, while the flotsam of local residents' lives dripped from trees and bellied up to bridges.
The river left a campus temporarily without power or normal routines, people without homes, and business owners without livelihoods. What it didn't leave behind was despair. Only determination: to rebuild, to renew, to overcome.
Best of Times, Worst of Times
The red-velvet-decked hall, once a beacon of refinement and culture, was now a pungent cesspool of brown sludge.
Mud covered the carpets and floor and clung to the plush seats. At its peak, the flood swamped two-thirds of Hancher Auditorium's rows; water rose to 1.5 feet above the stage, completely drowning the orchestra pit and causing the wood floor to buckle.
When Rod Lehnertz saw the once-proud auditorium, he felt like he'd been stomach-punched.
"I was completely overwhelmed by the destruction of the river," says Lehnertz, 02MBA, director of planning, design, and construction for UI facilities management.
Lehnertz and other members of his department experienced a rush of shock and emotion as the gravity of the natural disaster unfolded. One day, they were placing sandbags around Mayflower Residence Hall. The next, as the Iowa River continued to surge, they scrambled in disbelief to protect the arts campus and a growing number of threatened buildings on both sides of the river.
During early sandbagging efforts, Lehnertz said he felt pressure, but the mood was lighthearted—even as heavy rains beat down in mockery. When water topped the Coralville Reservoir's spillway, though, the team snapped into full defense mode, frantically working with an army of volunteers against ominous predictions that this disaster would far surpass the flood of 1993.
Administrators, facilities directors, and other staffers took a military approach, quickly initiating a plan that included 24-hour shifts for utilities and maintenance workers to defend the university's infrastructure, power, and water plants. Then, all they could do was watch and wait.
A week passed before waters receded to 1993 levels so that Lehnertz could view the damage. He now refers to the days of that fateful, blurred week as some of the most tragic and inspiring he's experienced at the University of Iowa: tragic for the losses, inspiring for the way in which the university and community at large united in common purpose.
The Spirit of Iowa
Amish farmers and convicted felons, neurosurgeons and National Guardsmen, UI students and people who'd never previously stepped foot on campus—they all worked side-by-side in a last-ditch effort to hold back the unruly river.
Thousands of volunteers erected sandbag walls up to seven feet high and nine times the length of Kinnick's football field to fortify buildings along the river's east side. Countless other people sandbagged in Coralville and in low-lying Iowa City neighborhoods.
On the Friday and Saturday before the river's crest, more than 2,000 people reported to Madison Street to save the Lindquist Center and other buildings a block east of the Iowa River. Trucks poured sand mounds across the city block, so volunteers—some of whom had already lost homes in the flood—could fill, pass, and place sandbags.
Despite a looming thunderstorm, the crowd remained undeterred. Mike Andreski, 83BSPh, who sandbagged with his family around Danforth Chapel, where he was first married, said that, despite years of attending Hawkeye bowl games, "I never felt more connected with the real meaning of the UI community until that night in the rain."
Although floodwaters did break through the barricades in places, UI facilities management director Rod Lehnertz asserts the sandbags made a huge difference. Thanks to those barriers, the flooded campus buildings faced the destructive force of a calm pool of water instead of a wild current.
As another local UI alumnus, Joe Blair, 99MFA, wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, "A friend of mine is angry about the time we spent bagging sand. He says our levee didn't matter, the water having risen well over the top of it. 'Just more to clean up when the water recedes,' he said. 'It was a waste of time.' And he's right, I know.
"But he's wrong, too."
Sadness along the Strip
Murky water lapped near the top of the Wig and Pen's landmark red phone booth. Next door, water rose almost three-quarters of the way up the Coralville Vine's ornate mahogany bar.
Along Highway 6 and First Avenue, the Flood of 2008 swallowed about half of the popular Coralville Strip—climbing to the rooftops of fast-food joints and family-owned businesses. Water up to eight feet deep rendered this commercial stretch of Coralville a wasteland.
"It was so much worse than I ever imagined," says Coralville city administrator Kelly Hayworth, 83BBA, 85MBA, of the first boat ride he took to assess the chaos along parts of Highway 6, as well as segments of Fifth Street and First, Third, Fourth, and Sixth Avenues. Although he'd led the city through two prior floods of Clear Creek and the 1993 Iowa River disaster, nothing could prepare him for this.
Overwhelmed, he dropped his head into his hands.
Roughly 300 homes in Coralville were evacuated and damaged; more than 200 businesses took on water. As of press time in July, it was still too early to project the financial losses the city will suffer or which establishments will close for good. Even the restaurants and businesses that stand a chance of reopening probably won't be ready until at least late September or early October.
Weeks after the flood, driving the Strip at night remained a journey of darkness, with power not yet restored to many buildings and streetlamps. Business doors hung wide open as workers tried to dry, clean, and salvage what they could. Several owners placed messages of hope and humor on their billboards: "20 years and two floods later," read the sign at Slugger's restaurant. "Wanted: Swimming car hops," advertised the folks at Sonic.
"These are really difficult times, but we'll be back and the city will be better than ever," says Hayworth. "People work hard around here and they'll turn this around. We're going to be OK."
No Stopping the Presses
As floodwaters inched toward the Adler Journalism and Mass Communication Building, the Daily Iowan staff faced a new kind of deadline pressure.
Already churning out articles about the flood, reporters soon became part of the story as they raced against rising waters to evacuate their first-floor newsroom. Without electricity, staff members carried computers, office furniture, and other equipment up two flights of stairs by the faint glow of a battery-powered lantern. All the while, they could hear water pouring into the building's basement.
Circulation and business employees moved their offices a few blocks away and uphill to the Gazette's Iowa City newsroom in the Old Capitol Town Center, while the news desk relocated to Schaeffer Hall. Though the flood scattered the staff, it didn't damage the newsroom—or the reporters' morale. DI editor-in-chief Emileigh Barnes said, "Our staff handled the coverage with the thick skin and resolve you'd expect from reporters who have been in the business for decades, as well as incredible kindness toward everyone they've interviewed."
The presses continued to roll through the weekend for the paper, which typically only publishes on weekdays. Special Saturday and Sunday editions of the DI provided the UI community with the latest flood-related reports.
Said Barnes, a UI senior from Oxford, Mississippi: "[Failure] was never even on the table."
The flood brought the UI one of its biggest challenges in history—but it couldn't dampen the university's spirit of service.
Even as they worked to repair the campus's damaged infrastructure, staff, faculty, and students offered a helping hand to people across the Midwest facing a similar crisis. In an e-mail to the university community, President Sally Mason said, "I am inspired by the way the UI family has come together in support of each other, our neighbors, and all of our state's citizens who are in peril."
A special website (www.uiowa.edu/floodrecovery) set up within hours of the flood provided a wealth of vital information and regular updates. UI librarians and conservators lent their expertise to the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa and the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. University Hygienic Laboratory staff distributed hundreds of water testing kits to county health departments in flooded areas and provided consultations to affected homeowners and businesses.
After the threat of further flooding to campus had passed, the UI sent 250,000 unused sandbags to neighbors in other vulnerable southeast Iowa communities. And, despite having to relocate to a local high school after Hancher flooded, Iowa Summer Rep offered free tickets for its plays to flood victims.
The university community also benefited from reciprocal acts of kindness. Individual alumni staged various efforts—from musical concerts to commemorative T-shirts to handbags fashioned from unused sandbags—to help raise critical funds.
Many UI alumni and friends made gifts online through the UI Foundation (www.givetoiowa.org/floodfund) to help the university recover from flood-related damage not covered by insurance or other resources. Gifts to the fund will be used at President Mason's discretion; the first priority is to assist UI students and employees who have been displaced from their homes by flooding.
By early July, the fund had received almost $500,000—with gifts that ranged from $5 to several thousand dollars—from nearly 2,000 people in all 50 states and 12 countries outside the U.S.
As the state's leading medical and research institution, UI Hopitals and Clinics is the place that Iowans depend on for the critical, specialized care they need. In the face of rising floodwaters, the hospital remained open for business—even accepting patients from other medical centers threatened by the disaster.
Nursing, laboratory, and medical staff essential to the hospital's patient care and support services—as well as utilities, facilities, and security employees—reported for duty throughout the first precarious week of flooding. To work around the many road closures, hospital administrators arranged a shuttle bus from the Cedar Rapids area and airlifts from the Quad Cities to bring staff to work, while the university provided temporary living quarters in Hillcrest Residence Hall.
To reduce the inpatient burden, medical staff discharged as many patients as possible and canceled non-essential clinic appointments, surgeries, and procedures.
The situation looked grim when water from the Iowa River began to enter the university's power plant, which provides hot water for steam/sterilization, air conditioning, and chilled water to the hospital, but backup generators quickly preserved these functions.
When it appeared as if the Burlington Street Bridge—the last remaining link between the east and west sides of Iowa City—might close, UIHC staff prepared to dispatch medical helicopters, including Blackhawks offered by the National Guard, to retrieve patients from across the river.
Luckily, that day never came, and the hospital resumed normal operations on June 18.
A New Normal
Mere days after the Iowa River's mighty surge, the nation's top catastrophic disaster teams descended on campus. In T-shirts and hardhats, workers swarmed to remove debris and pump water out of flooded structures. Building inspectors worked to fully assess the damage, while UI officials, local business owners, and residents began to see what they could salvage.
Recovering from this disaster will take years, but the process is under way. Armed with resilient spirits and Midwestern pluck, Iowans looked to the future.
In the aftermath of the crest, federal lawmakers approved a $2.65 billion emergency spending bill for disaster assistance to Iowa and the Midwest. By the third week in June, 18,700 Iowans had applied for disaster aid (almost 1,000 are Johnson County residents) and our state had received roughly $32 million from FEMA. In addition, the university announced that it would provide assistance to affected faculty, staff, and students through its own special flood relief fund.
Meanwhile, the UI endeavored to embrace a "new normal" with the optimistic message that university life marches forward. On June 23, classes resumed after a weeklong campus-wide cancellation and hundreds of employees returned to their offices.
Even though the flood disrupted summer orientation programs, UI officials and relief crews busily readied campus for incoming students this fall. Mayflower, the UI's largest residence hall, is expected to open after its flooding, but some ten other buildings will probably remain inoperable. Departments like the Division of Performing Arts and the School of Art and Art History are searching for new places to hold class without compromising the academic experience of their students.
The Flood of 2008 is likely to affect many more people than UI students, though. While the UI community and the state continue to process the impact of this disaster, economic implications loom on a global scale. The floods devoured two million acres of corn and soybeans in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and other critical food-producing states—driving up corn and grain prices that were already on the rise and promising an uncertain future for corn-based alternative fuel.
(All figures are for 2008 unless otherwise indicated)