How the University of Iowa Recovered From the ‘Unfathomable’ Flood That Ruined It

Working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the federal portion of rebuilding costs was “a challenge,” recalled Sally Mason, the president of the university during the flood and its aftermath. The complications included navigating arcane federal rules and dealing with a changing cast of officials. That the process ended up a success story is a testament to the university’s persistence, patience and the deployment of the university’s resources to address the problems.

Jerald L. Schnoor, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, noted that the school’s success suggested what such crises could mean for places without similar resources and expertise: “You can imagine if you’re the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, how hard it is to come back from these events.”

The school has come under criticism for its decision to continue building in the floodplain, including a 1,000-bed dormitory near the water. An extensive 2016 study, which is co-authored by Mr. Connerly, argued that such decisions mean “the University’s historical mistakes may be compounded rather than negated.” School officials said, however, that the university built the dormitory, like other new and repaired buildings near the water, at a higher elevation than it previously required, designing it to be quickly repaired if water strikes and without important equipment or facilities on the ground floor.

In his presentations around the nation, Mr. Guckert shows slides that depict efforts to protect the school before the 2008 flood, and the startling images of the aftermath. He tells the audience to lay in the supplies for fighting floods, because when a crisis hits a region, everyone is scrambling for sandbags, pumps and generators.

But many people don’t like to hear bad news, said Mr. Weber, the flood expert, recalling a speech he gave in the western part of Iowa in 2009 on the newly founded Iowa Flood Center. A man in the audience said, “As far as I’m concerned, you may as well call it the Eastern Iowa Flood Center, because here on the Missouri River, we don’t flood.” The man has since been proven wrong.

Of all the lessons from 2008, perhaps the most important is that “mother nature’s changing on us,” Mr. Lehnertz said, and although the campus is better protected than ever before, “you can never feel quite comfortable about something you don’t control,” he said.

As Mr. Guckert put it, “We haven’t seen our worst flood yet.”

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