Nancy Kraft organized a human chain of volunteers that moved books one at a time out of the flood-threatened Main Library basement

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Editor's note: During June 2008, the University of Iowa sustained the worst natural disaster in its history when severe flooding sent the Iowa River over its banks and into the campus and Iowa City communities. As the UI celebrates near completion of its flood recovery efforts this fall, Iowa Now looks back at that challenging time when thousands of faculty, staff, students, and volunteers joined forces to ensure the UI remained open for business. This is just one of many inspiring stories.

Nancy Kraft watched the rain fall in May 2008 and felt a sense of foreboding.

She’d seen the heavy rain the previous autumn and the huge snowfalls over the winter, not just in Iowa but in southern Minnesota, the drainage area for the Iowa River. Now, the spring was adding to the waterlog with one torrential storm after another.

The flood of 2008 affected more than 2.5 million square feet of building space at the University of Iowa (the equivalent of one-sixth of the campus), forced the evacuation and closing of 20 buildings, and resulted in $743 million in damage and recovery costs.

This fall marks the completion of three major construction projects affiliated with recovery efforts—the Art Building replacement, Voxman Music Building, and Hancher Auditorium. The UI Museum of Art replacement is the final flood recovery project. Officials hope that building will open in 2019.

As she scanned the basement of the UI Main Library, she wondered how, if her worst fears were realized, the 500,000 books stored there would be moved to safer ground, along with holdings from Special Collections and a rare film collection.

“I didn’t see how we could do it,” says Kraft, head of UI Libraries’ preservation and conservation department.

In June, her worst fears came true. Early projections said the flood water would rise to the Main Library’s first floor, and a basement evacuation was ordered Friday, June 13. Workers used boxes and book carts at first, but that didn’t work—space was too tight.

Word soon got out that the library needed help. Hundreds volunteered, including many who were filling sandbags on Madison Street and needed an air-conditioned break. The volunteers formed a human chain, and soon a book brigade snaked through the library basement and around the stacks, moving one volume at a time up the stairs to the second floor.

“It was an adrenaline rush to see so much community support,” says Kraft.

Volunteers worked until they were ordered to evacuate at 9 p.m. They moved about 50,000 volumes, only a small percentage of the total, but nature spared them. The basement took on only about 2.5 inches of water, coming a half-inch short of the stacks’ bottom shelves.

To prevent the need for a future book brigade, UI Libraries has secured a safe storage facility off campus and well out of the flood plain.

The flood was also a catalyst for the development of a UI–led statewide network of experts to provide hotline assistance to libraries, archives, and museums that face a physical crisis. The Iowa Museums, Archives, and Libraries Emergency Response Team (IMALERT) can quickly provide assistance to help libraries and museums contend with disaster.

“We connect staff with the information and expertise needed to respond to and recover from any level of incident, from a leaking pipe to a major flood,” Kraft says. The hotline number is 319-384-3673.

Kraft has no accurate count of the number of volunteers who came to the library’s aid in 2008, but she’ll remember them forever. The volunteers remember too.

“For years I’ve had people tell me that they were part of the human chain helping us to evacuate books,” she says, “and that we sure had a lot of interesting books.”

Eight years after the flood, the University of Iowa will celebrate the grand opening of the new Hancher Auditorium on Friday, Sept. 9; the grand opening of the new Visual Arts Building on Friday, Oct. 7; and the grand opening of the Voxman Music Building on Friday, Oct. 21. For details about the events, visit