A story from the 2008 flood
Wednesday, August 31, 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.

Lola Lopes picked a heck of a time to come out of retirement.

The former associate provost and management professor had been happily puttering in her garden and taking Master Gardener classes for more than a year when then–UI President Sally Mason asked her to step in as interim provost in September 2007.

Lopes agreed. Little did she know that come June 2008, she’d be fighting to keep the university’s academic operations open during the biggest crisis in its history.

The Iowa River flooded 20 university buildings that summer, many that were set to host summer session classes and labs. The flood also disabled the UI Power Plant, which affected every building on campus and required reductions in energy use.

The timing was terrible, too, as the flood crest coincided with the first week of the summer session. Some talk was given to cancelling classes, but Lopes quashed that idea.

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 associated 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.

“Too many students had graduations and internships and job placements dependent on getting that one last class, so we had to move forward for them,” she says.

The first week of class was canceled, but the session successfully began on Monday, June 17, with the Iowa River just a hair below its crest from the previous Friday. New classrooms and labs were found in other university buildings, as well as churches, libraries, and other public facilities away from the river. The Iowa Summer Repertory Theatre moved its productions from the Theatre Building to the theaters at City High and West High schools. The Department of Art and Art History moved to the former Menards store on Highway 1, where it remained until this past summer.

It was strange, Lopes acknowledges, watching the routine teaching and learning work of a university continue amid a rampaging river, mountains of sand in the streets, and roaring electrical generators parked outside buildings.

“But there was a calmness to it, and my enthusiasm was very high because the work was so important,” she says. “We knew we had done what we could, and then we focused on recovery. And through it all, not one person complained. The whole community took ownership of the problem.”

As a result, every student graduated on time, she says.

Lopes re-retired in July 2008 as the water receded and has spent the last eight years back in her garden and traveling to places like Borneo, Peru, and Tanzania.

“I’m very good at being retired,” she says.

Editor’s note: 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 inspire.uiowa.edu.