Last June’s flooding in the Midwest was the worst since 1993, inundating parts of seven states. On June 10, government stream gauges showed 38 locations with major flooding and 77 locations with moderate flooding, spanning a huge chunk of the nation’s heartland.
In some of the hardest hit areas, the floods were the worst in memory. Nine rivers and a hundred towns saw record flood heights. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Cedar River crested at nearly 20 feet above flood stage, eclipsing an 8-foot flood record set in 1929 and soaking thousands of houses over a 9-square-mile area. All but 10 of the 423 homes in the nearby town of Palo were flooded — even though most of them lay outside the official 100-year and 500-year flood plain boundaries.
As flood waters receded, there were some nuggets of good news. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, drew kudos across the region for a quick and effective response — a far cry from the fiasco of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in 2005. Insurance payouts and emergency relief funds began to flow almost immediately. And volunteer efforts also geared up quickly, coordinated by organizations including Americorps VISTA.
But along with these bright spots, Midwesterners also face the daunting reality of a major cleanup and reconstruction effort that has just begun, with winter weather fast approaching. And policymakers, along with individual homeowners and business owners, face tough questions about the future.
Flooding: Getting Worse?
This year’s flooding may be a harbinger of things to come, scientists say. Several major factors are converging to create conditions where future river flooding may outstrip that of years past. Climate change, some researchers predict, will increase the region’s total rainfall only slightly. But they expect most of that increase to come in the form of large rain events – the kinds of sustained, torrential downpours that saturate ground and create flooding. Meanwhile, urban development and agricultural land modifications are increasing the tendency of rain to run off into streams, rather than soak into the earth. At the same time, people continue to settle and build in the floodplain, where they’re vulnerable to whatever floods do occur. Taken together, these factors mean that events like the 2008 floods are likely to be repeated sooner, rather than later.
Outdated Flood Plain Maps: What Do They Mean?
Contractors and homeowners trying to plan for that soggy future may turn to official flood-plain maps to help inform their choices. But in much of the country, those maps are far from a clear guide. Through much of the country, maps depend on outdated, inaccurate surveys, imprecise historic records of rainfall and stream flows, and antiquated prediction methods. While FEMA has spent a billion dollars updating the maps, the revamping is still far from finished – and the floodplains themselves continue to change.
In any case, the public doesn’t fully understand what flood-plain maps mean. Researcher Carolyn Kousky, who studied flood risk perception and behavior as a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says, “After the 1993 floods there were homeowners who said, ‘Oh! The hundred year flood has happened! I’m safe now for the rest of my life.’ It’s sort of a fundamental misunderstanding — the term means that every year there is a 1% probability that a flood will occur. And you could have two 100-year floods right in a row.”
Levees: What Can They Do?
To the uncertainty of sketchy flood maps, add the complexities of the levee system. Side by side with large structures built to US Army Corps of Engineers standards, Midwest communities shelter behind thousands of scattered smaller levies administered by state or local governments or by private parties. Army Corps spokesman Ron Fournier says, “They are out there, all different sizes, different heights, different lengths, different widths, different everything, maintained by different people — and some of them are not being maintained.”
Some of the levees date back to the mid-1800s, says Fournier; many incorporate left-behind sandbags from previous flood fights in the 1950s or 1970s. “They just said, ‘Hey, we’ll just leave the sandbags here,’ and the sandbags deteriorate and become a levee, so to speak, of old sandbags; but it’s really just sand now. And that can protect you to a certain water level, but then the river gets higher and it washes out and it’s gone. We saw that happen in some areas during this flood.” Other parts of the system are more robust: “The main stem levees on the Mississippi are tall levees built to a 2% chance of flood, and most of them are pretty well built. But they’re not huge — they’re built to a 50-year standard, they are not 100-year or 500-year levees. So of course during the 2008 flood the water rose so high it went over the top of them.”
Now, Midwesterners who gambled and lost on levee protection or the flood-plain odds are feeling the pain. Residents of Oakville, Iowa, flooded to the rooftops by a levee failure, are contemplating federal and state buyout offers and deliberating whether to rebuild the town at all. The same hard choice faces many homeowners in riverside neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids, where only a fraction of the damaged houses are covered by flood insurance, and about half of those are “substantially damaged” (more than 50%) — so that rules require elevating the house above the official flood level as part of the repair job. Meanwhile, Iowa officials see a funding gap of at least $1.2 billion between the available funds and the recovery need.
Meanwhile, people across the region are rolling up their sleeves and dealing with the situation. Iowa contractor Randy Harris runs a ServiceMaster franchise in Cedar Rapids along with his own company, Harris Reconstruction. “We must have done $10 million to $12 million worth of cleanup business in the first 45 days,” said Harris in late July. “Now I’m busy doing residential damage estimates.” Flood restoration specialists from ServiceMaster and other national companies outside the region are arriving to help, says Harris: “There’s more work than the local people can handle.”
Cedar Rapids building officials are requiring all contractors, even old established ones, to sign up for the city’s emergency contractor registration program. “We want to make sure everyone is registered with the state, that they have insurance, and they’re bonded,” explained building official Greg Buelow. “We want everyone playing by the same rules.” By August, the program had already resulted in ten arrests of individuals with outstanding warrants, reported Buelow. “We are absolutely pleased that these people are not inside people’s homes working,” he said. “This is to protect the citizens.”
Local contractor Jason Beauregard, who runs a Cedar Rapids cleaning company and manages a few rental properties of his own, saw an investment opportunity in the flood’s aftermath. When some residents decided to take their insurance money, sell their houses, and move on, Jason stepped in to snap up a few units as rentals, hoping to hold for a while and sell when the market recovers. “There were some retired folks who just didn’t want to rebuild or reinvest the money. They got their money out, and I got a good deal.” Beauregard’s janitorial service is set up to do mold remediation, he says: “We’ve got the dehumidifiers and the carpet cleaning vans and the equipment to do it. So we go into these properties and make sure they are gutted properly, cleaning everything up and powerwashing everything down. We kill the mold with a peroxide solution, and then we put in dehumidifiers and get everything dried out right away.
Next, Beauregard plans to repair the units with a few handy-man employees and his own labor. “You could go into the units that I bought right now and it doesn’t look like they were even wet, other than the fact that they have half the drywall gone.”
Other properties he viewed were not in such good shape, however, said Beauregard in July. “I’ve looked at around 75 houses. Some of them had water almost to the second story. Some are so far gone that I don’t know what you would do with them, short of bulldoze them over. Some people have done nothing with them. There are places that not only aren’t gutted, but they still have furnishings or personal belongings in them. People have just let them sit out there and rot.”
That’s the situation homeowners should avoid, notes Bill Driscoll, a field coordinator with Hands-On Disaster Response (www.hodr.org), a Massachusetts-based non-profit that has been organizing volunteer efforts since mid-June. “The longer you wait, the bigger a hurdle you create,” said Driscoll in a phone interview. “So we tell our people, even if they’re not sure whether or not they can afford to rebuild or want to rebuild, if they wait to make that decision to go and clean out, it will hurt them in the long run. So we encourage people just to take advantage of volunteer help, and get in there side by side with us and get it down to the studs.”
Arriving on the scene within days of the flood, Driscoll’s teams had scored significant successes by late July. “I think we’ve completed the phase one, gutting, mucking, cleaning out, on about sixty homes in Palo by now. Between Palo and Cedar Rapids, we are at just over a hundred and fifty homes at this point,” he said. “We estimate that we have removed over 10,000 cubic yards of debris in 43 days.”
Hands-On works mostly with people Driscoll calls the “unaffiliated” or “spontaneous” volunteer. “They know they want to help, but they don’t necessarily know how to get plugged in. So that’s what we provide: a direct way for someone to help. A lot of times people come very unprepared — often they don’t even bring gloves. So we equip them with some personal safety gear, and then we send them out with a team leader who can show them how to perform various tasks in an efficient safe way.”
By late July, said Driscoll. Hands-On had coordinated more than 8500 donated hours on the Iowa flood response. “We estimate the value of the donated labor is around $180,000 dollars saved to the residents,” he said. “It’s a pretty incredible response so far.”
—Ted Cushman is a photojournalist in Great Barrington, Mass.