Jason Wright vividly remembers the historic flood that inundated the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids in 2008.
“The water tore open heavy doors that I never thought could be moved,” said Wright, vice president of development for the museum and library. “Water rushed through the building at such a high speed, it ripped down walls and crushed our exhibits. It actually lifted our baby grand piano up and flipped it over onto its top.”
Wright also remembered the first time he saw the aerial picture of muddy river water 8 feet high around the building that had been built only several hundred yards away from the Cedar River.
“That picture went around the world, and I knew we would become the poster child for the flood and whether this city would recover,” he said.
Like Des Moines and Davenport in 1993, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in 2008 were the epicenter of Iowa’s flooding disaster. The Cedar River crested at a record-high 31 feet in Cedar Rapids, where the museum is located. The flood cut a swath of destruction so deep through the two cities that each is still in recovery four years later.
In the past, many people would conclude that the possibility of such devastating flooding is something that occurs only once or twice in a lifetime. After all, only the floods of 1929 and 1993 – when the Cedar River crested at 26 feet in Cedar Rapids – caused much damage.
Even flood plain maps for Linn County, which estimated the impact of a so-called 500-year and 100-year rain, didn’t come close to estimating how deep the water would get in 2008. According to Iowa Flood Center maps, a 500-year flood is estimated to raise flood waters to a level of 28.5 feet, and a 100-year flood would raise flood waters to a level of 23.5 feet.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” said Dr. Steven Sohn, who grew-up in Cedar Rapids. “I would have never believed that the river would essentially cut downtown in two.”
With two devastating floods hitting Iowa urban centers just 15 years apart, state and local leaders throughout Iowa decided to establish a central place in Iowa for advanced research and education on floods. In 2009, state lawmakers established the Iowa Flood Center and housed it in the University of Iowa’s IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering Center.
Nate Young, associate director of the Flood Center, said that the center’s top priority is to provide Iowans – urban and rural – with accurate, state-of-the-science based information to help them and their communities better understand their flood risks.
“After the ‘93 floods, everyone in eastern Iowa breathed a sigh of relief and thought that they wouldn’t be exposed to anything like that for a long time,” Young said. “Well, in 2008, they experienced what can happen.”
As a result, the Center now provides Iowans in more than 500 cities with real-time rainfall and stream level information as well flood inundation maps that estimate the impact of flooding on major population centers.
In addition, with the assistance of a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development, the Flood Center is in the process of developing flood plain maps for the 85 counties declared disaster areas because of the ’08 floods. Those maps should be completed within the next four years, Young said, and will be used in the development of flood plain regulation and management.
Another priority is to begin addressing what steps should be taken within Iowa watersheds to lessen the impact of flooding in those areas. Four watersheds, including a portion of the Cedar River in Floyd County northwest of Cedar Rapids, have been selected for pilot projects.
Those projects are expected to find ways for soil to hold more water during periods of heavy rainfall as well as minimize soil erosion and major water runoff when the ground is saturated.
“Floods happen and will again,” Young said. “The question isn’t how to prevent them from happening, but how to monitor and manage them through any number of alternative practices, ranging from levies to broader practices that could include the use of reservoirs, wetlands or other creative methods that can slow the water down.”
Young also said that Iowans need to understand that flooding is a reality that everyone needs to accept.
“Generally speaking, the frequency and intensity of major rainfall events has increased. To what extent those events occur again is something that Iowans are going to have to deal with,” Young said.
But dealing with the possible future flooding isn’t an easy task, particularly when consensus is difficult to achieve.
Since 2011, Cedar Rapids voters turned down extensions of the city’s and county’s 1% local option sales to help pay for flood protection projects in the city and the county.
Last March, City voters rejected a 10-year extension of the tax that would have generated $200 million to help pay for a flood protection system on both sides of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Wright acknowledged that the rejection raises a question about whether residents haven’t learned their lesson about floods, but insisted that a solution can be found.
“It is hard to predict what the answer might be because of the lack of agreement right now,” Wright said. “But, in my heart, I know there is answer, and it is just how we get to the answer and how long will it take.”
He also pointed out that the tax proposal called for spending of money on flood protection over a ten-year period.
“To get final touches on walls, berms and levies, it is going to take years,” Wright said. “There is going to be rain between now and then.”
Meanwhile, residents in Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area continue to rebuild their lives four years after the last devastating flood. The recent reopening of the Czech and Slovak Museum is the city’s most visible and recent accomplishment.
Officials spent $25 million, raised in 19 months from all over the world, to rebuild. The museum is still located on the Cedar River, but here’s what they did to hopefully avoid future flood damage: first, they picked up the whole building and moved it 330 feet further back and 270 feet further upstream; second, they placed the museum on top of a parking garage, where flood water could be diverted and cause less destruction; and third, they built the museum 11 feet higher than it was – 3 feet higher than the crest of the Cedar River in 2008.
Wright said that the grand reopening in early July attracted an estimated 13,000 and showed the kind of resolve that exists in Cedar Rapids and certainly among those of Czech and Slovak ancestry.
“My grandfather always used to say: Water wins,” Wright said. “But I just couldn’t accept that, and I vowed then to be part of the effort to disprove that.”
Instead of fighting the natural ways of water, communities like Cedar Rapids are learning to live alongside it.