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IOWA CITY — Don Guckert’s job is keeping the buildings on the University of Iowa’s charming campus up and running, and safe. His most important lessons came from the worst days of his career, in June 2008, when the waters of the Iowa River washed across the campus, causing catastrophic damage.
The night before the waters flowed over the backbreakingly stacked sandbags, Mr. Guckert recalled, “I walked into the house, and looked at my wife and said, ‘We’re going to lose the campus.’”
In all, the raging waters caused $750 million in flood damage, with $36 million in equipment lost in one building alone. Twenty-two major buildings were damaged, some of them irreparably; a quarter of the school’s classroom space was lost, and one-sixth of the university’s 2.6 million square feet of space was closed. The level of flooding “was unfathomable to those of us who lived through the previous record flood” of 1993, said Rod Lehnertz, the university’s senior vice president for finance and operations.
Now Mr. Guckert has a side gig. He travels the country, telling other institutions what he and the University of Iowa have learned from the disaster, and explaining how others can prepare for the worst. Mr. Guckert said that in a changing world, people might not know what the worst could mean.
In his talks, he presents the lessons he learned from the 2008 flood, with slides titled “Plan for your next disaster, not your last one” and “Plan for Failure (Because Mother Nature Always Wins).”
Climate change is already affecting extreme weather events around the world. Hurricanes are wetter, and wildfires are bigger. And scientists expect conditions to get worse over time.
Little wonder, then, that Mr. Guckert said that his presentations were increasingly in demand: “I’ve gotten more requests in the last five years than the first five.” His audiences are realizing that they have to be prepared for events they haven’t seen before, or even thought were possible.
With flooding along the Mississippi River at record levels in parts of Iowa, an 11-year-old disaster has much to teach about what it takes to recover. Parts of western Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and nearby states, including Native American reservations, are cleaning up from recent intense flooding. The city of Davenport has been inundated by a levee breach, and last Friday, the Coast Guard temporarily closed the Mississippi River near St. Louis to boat and barge traffic because of high water levels, a blow to the multibillion-dollar shipping industry that uses the river.
The story of Iowa’s effort to restore its campus shows how hard it is to come back from a disaster, even with the university’s myriad resources. While the school reopened quickly with makeshift power and cramped facilities, it took eight years to fully rebuild. And 11 years later, the school’s art museum has yet to be replaced.
Flooding is a complex phenomenon that depends on many factors, including the lay of the land, development and the amount of precipitation, as well as the ability of the ground to soak up water. But climate change is, increasingly, part of the mix, said Larry Weber, a professor of engineering at the University of Iowa and a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center, an internationally recognized resource that the state legislature created at the school after the 2008 flood.
Research has shown an increase in the frequency of flood events in parts of Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest. The Iowa Flood Center estimates that what was once considered a 500-year flood in Iowa City is now an 80-year flood, meaning the probability of a flood of that magnitude occurring in any given year has risen from 0.2 percent to 1.25 percent.
Back in 2008, Mr. Guckert and thousands of volunteers had been working to fight the rising Iowa River for more than a week, and it looked as if the makeshift defenses would hold.
Then the skies opened up again.
Three inches of rain fell in less than an hour, and forced the school to tell its workers to stand down. By the next morning, the river had overwhelmed the makeshift barriers. The level of water in Hancher Auditorium, the school’s largest performance space, would rise to more than a foot above the stage, and moved up the slope of the audience seats, reaching Row O.
Floodwaters knocked out the university’s power plant, inundated the Iowa Memorial Union’s basement, which housed the school bookstore, and badly damaged the school’s art museum. (Though a herculean effort in the preceding days had gotten thousands of pieces, including the museum’s well-regarded collection of African art and a Jackson Pollock piece, to safety.) Many buildings sitting high enough to avoid being flooded from ground level got water in their basements when the steam tunnels that connect campus buildings became a conduit for damage.
The destruction would have been far less severe if the school had listened to advice offered more than 100 years before. The school, expanding from the small amount of land given to it by the state when the capital moved to Des Moines in the 1850s, had been warned in 1905 by its landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers, not to build close to the water.
Squeezed by a growing city around it, however, the university built critical facilities close by. “It struggled to find the land that it did,” said Charles Connerly, the director of the school of urban and regional planning at the university, “and some of them turned out to be bad choices,” he said.
Waterside construction expanded after the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed the Coralville Dam upstream in 1958.
The dam “gave them a sense of safety,” Mr. Connerly said, but “in the end, that was not the case.” In 2008, the dam slowed the water and allowed more time to prepare, and even reduced the level of flooding that might have otherwise occurred. (Nearby Cedar Rapids had no such protection on its Cedar River, and the damage to that city was enormous.) But the Coralville Dam could not control nature. And the waters came.
In the ensuing years, the school replaced two structures that had been destroyed, including Hancher Auditorium, which it rebuilt at a safer elevation. Some of the damaged architectural gems on the campus, including an art building designed by Steven Holl, are now protected by barriers that can be erected and put in place in a matter of days. The Iowa Memorial Union had a sunken courtyard facing the water before the flood; now a high patio sits atop a flood barrier, protecting the building and giving the university community commanding views of the waterway.
Working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the federal portion of rebuilding costs was “a challenge,” recalled Sally Mason, the president of the university during the flood and its aftermath. The complications included navigating arcane federal rules and dealing with a changing cast of officials. That the process ended up a success story is a testament to the university’s persistence, patience and the deployment of the university’s resources to address the problems.
Jerald L. Schnoor, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, noted that the school’s success suggested what such crises could mean for places without similar resources and expertise: “You can imagine if you’re the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, how hard it is to come back from these events.”
The school has come under criticism for its decision to continue building in the floodplain, including a 1,000-bed dormitory near the water. An extensive 2016 study, which is co-authored by Mr. Connerly, argued that such decisions mean “the University’s historical mistakes may be compounded rather than negated.” School officials said, however, that the university built the dormitory, like other new and repaired buildings near the water, at a higher elevation than it previously required, designing it to be quickly repaired if water strikes and without important equipment or facilities on the ground floor.
In his presentations around the nation, Mr. Guckert shows slides that depict efforts to protect the school before the 2008 flood, and the startling images of the aftermath. He tells the audience to lay in the supplies for fighting floods, because when a crisis hits a region, everyone is scrambling for sandbags, pumps and generators.
But many people don’t like to hear bad news, said Mr. Weber, the flood expert, recalling a speech he gave in the western part of Iowa in 2009 on the newly founded Iowa Flood Center. A man in the audience said, “As far as I’m concerned, you may as well call it the Eastern Iowa Flood Center, because here on the Missouri River, we don’t flood.” The man has since been proven wrong.
Of all the lessons from 2008, perhaps the most important is that “mother nature’s changing on us,” Mr. Lehnertz said, and although the campus is better protected than ever before, “you can never feel quite comfortable about something you don’t control,” he said.
As Mr. Guckert put it, “We haven’t seen our worst flood yet.”
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John Schwartz is part of the climate team. Since joining The Times in 2000, he has covered science, law, technology, the space program and more, and has written for almost every section. @jswatz • Facebook