Ben Fish leads a writer and photographer down two flights of stairs into the bowels of the University of Iowa’s power plant, the temperature quickly rising to what feels like 100 degrees, give or take a bead of sweat.
Noisy, dark, and a little claustrophobic some 30 feet below Burlington Street, the cave-like space is actually the beginning of a utility tunnel filled with gauges, lighted control boards, valves and two large silver conduits that deliver 420-degree steam to campus, heating buildings, providing warm tap water and even sterilizing medical equipment at the hospital.
It’s a little damp, but not nearly as damp as it got in June 2008, when water from the rising Iowa River is believed to have entered a ventilation duct upriver at the Iowa Memorial Union and sent millions of gallons of water rushing into the tunnel—enough to float a canoe, recalls Fish, assistant director of utilities and facilities management and manager of the power plant.
The breach caused an estimated $40 million in damage to the tunnels and plant, which might have been even worse but for the quick thinking of the plant staff (more on that later). So in addition to a host of repairs made over the past five years, the university installed five reinforced concrete bulkheads and doors at various spots throughout the roughly six-mile tunnel system.
Resembling bank vaults, the bulkheads have eight independent locks that must be manually unlocked before the door can be heaved open. They are always kept closed except during maintenance, and while they can’t prevent a flood, like bulkheads on submarines they can contain water to a single section of tunnel—and prevent it from entering the plant, where it can cause the most damage.
“Our goal is protect the campus as much as we can, and we need tools to do that." —Donna Pearcy
The bulkheads are just one aspect of the university’s broad mitigation plans, mitigation being a fancy term for steps taken to prevent or minimize the harm a flood may cause to people, infrastructure, operations, academics, housing, research, and other university assets.
Mitigation isn’t especially sexy; unlike Hancher, the School of Music, and other replacement projects, no ribbon cuttings, groundbreaking ceremonies or speeches mark their implementation. There are no architectural renderings or models to ooh and ahh over.
The truth is, mitigation work is by definition often out of sight—at least until it’s needed. But according to UI Risk Management Director Donna Pearcy, it’s a critical component of the university’s flood recovery efforts. And as the flooding of 2013 has demonstrated, it can mean the difference between a building that gets swamped and one that remains dry, which, happily, is the case so far this summer at Mayflower Residence Hall, Art Building West, Music West (in the Museum of Art building), and Theatre Building.
“Our goal is protect the campus as much as we can, and we need tools to do that,” says Pearcy.
Some of those tools, all of which were used or considered over the past few weeks, include:
- Invisible walls, which include concrete pads that look like simple walkways until a flood threatens and they can be used as bases for temporary flood barriers, as is the case this summer around Art Building West. Locations for the first phase of this project include the sidewalk north of the IMU footbridge to North Hall on the east side of the river, and from the Museum of Art building to the Hancher footbridge on the west side. The second phase will extend south from the IMU footbridge to Iowa Avenue on the east, and from the Museum of Art to the Crandic Railroad crossing on the west.
- Reinforcement and (where possible or financially feasible) relocation of building utility systems. In the Theatre Building, for instance, mechanical equipment is being moved to a penthouse on the roof, and foundation walls are being reinforced to make them more resistant to water.
- Siting of new buildings above the projected 500-year flood line, including the new Hancher.
- Creation of dedicated backup power loops on the west campus to protect UI Hospitals and Clinics and other critical research and health care facilities.
- Storing on or near campus of temporary barriers, pumps, and generators that can be deployed quickly should the river again threaten to overspill its banks. One of the more visible, and effective, supplies deployed this summer were about 8 linear miles of HESCO barriers—4-foot square mesh containers that are filled with sand and can be stacked three high to create a 12-foot flood wall.
- Creation of real-time Web-based flood prediction tools that can help communities anticipate and prepare for flooding. A version created specifically for the UI campus, called Hawk EVAC and developed by UI professor of geography Kathleen Stewart built on earlier modeling work by UI civil and environmental engineering professor Larry Weber, helps campus leaders determine when and in what order to evacuate buildings. Used in tandem with the UI’s Flood Emergency Response Plan, or FERP for short, Hawk EVAC is a powerful tool for merging real-time weather data, the latest flood modeling and engineering know-how to guide campus leaders in managing flood response activities.
“One big change over 2008 is that the UI has more self-reliance,” says Don Guckert, associate vice president and director of UI Facilities Management. “When the campus was hit by the flood in 2008, and again in 2013, so were other communities, and there was lots of demand for sandbags, barriers, and other resources. So we’ve increased the inventory of on-site equipment, which ensures that we have what we need while freeing resources for other communities along the river.”
With new tools and mitigation in place, Guckert says the campus has also adjusted its strategies for combating floods. For instance, the Theatre Building was one of four the campus has closed this summer because of the flooding threat. But if it seemed likely water would actually enter the building, crews could intentionallypump the basement full of clean water, which would accomplish two things: balance the hydrostatic pressure to avoid structural damage and keep dirty river water outside the facility, which would make cleanup faster and easier once the waters retreat.
“We love the river. We just have to learn to live with it.”
— Don Guckert
Guckert says mitigation also includes clarifying the roles of campus officials who have to make tough calls when natural disaster strikes, from public safety, to facilities management and even finance and operations. Chuck Green, director of UI Public Safety, recently organized special Federal Emergency Management Agency training for a spectrum of campus leaders that provides guidelines and models for effectively managing disasters both large and small. That model was put into play this summer, when roles were assigned to key UI staff who could steer everything from operations to communications.
The past five years, Guckert says, have been a “difficult and challenging journey” for Facilities Management as well as the rest of campus.
“We’re used to moving our projects along quickly and efficiently,” he says. “This experience has included many twists and turns. The project managers have done all they’ve been called upon to do and more. The experience has demanded much from them and from many on campus.”
Back to the power plant, which despite its name is actually most valuable for the steam and chilled water it provides to campus (only about 20 percent of campus energy is generated on campus). On June 14, 2008, when the water entered the utility tunnels, power plant operators were forced to shut the plant down, knocking out steam production entirely and at the height of summer severely restricting air conditioning across campus for 16 weeks—a first in the history of campus.
Explore an interactive timeline that recounts the flood of 2008 and developments since, including flood preparations this year.
Facilities Management crews were successful in installing temporary boilers and chillers immediately following the flood to allow university operations to continue. Full recovery of the power plant was accomplished late fall 2008 in time for the oncoming winter.
To ensure that both sides of campus get steam and chilled water should another flood threaten the plan (which has not been the case yet this summer), the UI installed two new boilers on the west campus near where the football practice bubble was located. And it’s in the process of putting in connection points for temporary boilers on the east and west campus so backups can be activated more quickly.
The bulkheads, though, are key to keeping the plant up and running if all else fails because tunnel flooding isn’t just inconvenient and messy, it’s potentially very dangerous. When cold water comes into contact with super-heated steam, bad things can happen. Vaporized water can suddenly condense and create a bubble or “water hammer” that can speed along the steam lines and blow out the pipes wherever there’s a bend.
Fortunately, in 2008, plant workers thought quickly and cooled down the steam lines before things could get out of hand.
Guckert says that even with all the improvements, it’s foolish to believe the river will never flood again. This summer proved that flooding is always a possibility given the right conditions.
“We have to assume it’s going to flood again and that it’s going to be worse,” he says.
That said, he harbors no ill feelings toward the river, which flows just beyond his office window on the second floor of the University Services Building and at the time of the interview was swollen by recent rains but still well within its banks.
“We love the river. We just have to learn to live with it.”