After an unusually wet fall, the rising Iowa River has caused unease for University of Iowa faculty and staff who remember failed attempts to hold back the floodwater in 2008. But, UI officials say the risk is minimal and the lessons learned and improvements made to campus since then have positioned the university to prevent repeated catastrophic damage.
“The UI has an up-to-date Flood Emergency Response Plan that details the protective steps we execute building-by-building with each increase in river flow levels,” says Don Guckert, associate vice president of facilities management. “For the river flows we are currently anticipating, these are generally minor and invisible protective steps we take such as plugging drains that could back up on us as the water rises.”
UI officials are meeting daily with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as officials from Iowa City, Coralville, and Johnson County to assess the forecast and discuss river levels. The Corps has twice increased the outflow from the Coralville Reservoir north of campus to reduce the future flood risk and prevent the reservoir from breeching the spillway. UI Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz says this has resulted in higher water levels in areas of campus along the Iowa River, but is not expected to disrupt or alter university operations.
“The campus will be safe and open to all visitors. We know the high waters can attract onlookers, we just ask that they are mindful of their personal safety and stay clear of any fast-moving water,” says Lehnertz.
The university also relies heavily on the expertise and flood prediction models provided by the Iowa Flood Center, founded in 2009 and residing in the C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Lab, home of IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering.
“It is rewarding to see our flood emergency response plan in action and feel confident with the alterations made since 2008,” says Lehnertz. “I’m proud of the hard work of everyone involved and believe the University of Iowa is a national model for emergency preparedness.”
In June 2008, historic flood levels affected more than 2.5 million square feet of UI building space (the equivalent of one-sixth of the UI campus), forced the evacuation and closing of 20 buildings, and resulted in more than $700 million in damage and recovery costs. Guckert says the disaster has influenced every campus planning decision since, and points to several proactive flood protection measures.
- Raising the riverbank sidewalk system to 18 inches above a 100-year flood elevation, generally protecting the campus from surface flooding similar to that experienced in 1993.
- Updating buildings affected in 2008 to protect against flooding up to two feet higher than the 2008 flood level.
- Adding the capability to install temporary boilers on both sides of the river to prevent the disruption of steam service if flooding occurs at the Main Power Plant.
- Installing an invisible wall system around Art Building West that allows Facilities Management to quickly erect a 12-foot-high prefabricated metal wall.
- Maintaining 6.5 miles of temporary HESCO barriers that can be installed along the west and east sides of the Iowa River, to a height of 4 feet. This height will protect UI buildings along the Iowa River to flood levels matching the 2008 flood (500-year flood level).
In addition, facilities close to the river, such as Beckwith Boathouse, were designed to allow water in while protecting the finishes and systems inside.