After the Flood

Three weeks after the river crested, I drove twenty miles one evening and took an exit ramp off of I-380 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I expected to see flood victims cleaning up their houses. Many of them had been impatient to return to their homes. Maybe some of them wouldn’t mind talking to me.

But as I drove up and down the familiar streets on the west side of the Cedar River through the gathering darkness, I saw that all impatience had vanished and the people had vanished with it. The only humans I saw were two policemen in two separate patrol cars. Neither expressed any interest in me.

Not surprisingly, there was no electricity for anything. The streetlights, stoplights, and lights in the houses were not about to come on. For block after block, I saw nothing but houses with huge piles of debris in front of them. Because Iowa is a farm state, flood waters spread a variety of toxins on everything they touch—pesticides, herbicides, nitrates, manure, and raw sewage. Because of these toxins, everything immersed by the flood water has to go—lath and plaster, wallboard, furniture, appliances, everything.

I drove through the devastated Czech Village, pausing to look at the National Czech and Slovak Museum, which had opened amid much local pride only a few years before. Václav Havel had traveled all the way from the Czech Republic to help dedicate the museum. The flood had now spoiled all memories of that event.

I drove on across the bridge to the east side of the river. I wanted to look at St. Wenceslaus Church, but the street and sidewalks were fenced off. I turned in the opposite direction and drove past blocks of deserted bars, restaurants, and other businesses. Night life had gone away on the east side, and I wondered if it would ever return. I headed downtown to see what might be going on there.

Cedar Rapids is one of the few small cities in the Middle West that still has a vibrant downtown, and when I reached it on the day of my visit, that’s where I saw the first people other than the two police officers seen earlier. Although “vibrant” would have been an inflated word for what I found, I did see some men energetically pumping dry air into a tall office building. Because the streetlights were useless, the workers had set up their own portable streetlight, powered by a gasoline engine. Here, at least, life would one day return to something resembling normal.

But in the residential neighborhoods, the flood had soaked 5400 houses over an area of 9 square miles, making them unfit for immediate occupation. Out of a total population of 120,000, over 18,000 people had been evacuated. In spite of everything, no one got left behind, regardless of race, color, age, or income. And no one died as a result of the flood.

But on the day of my visit, I saw no one who had moved back home. Most of the houses could be repaired and restored. But some had already collapsed into their basements. About 50 had been marked for demolition, but many owners of houses that could be repaired had expressed doubts about whether they wanted to do it. Something about this flood has changed the perceptions of those affected by it. As one man told the New York Times, his house had stood across the street from the Cedar River since 1890 and had never received a spot of flood damage. Now he had no idea what to do. What, everyone wondered, will the river do in the future?

* * *

In the Flood of 2008, the Cedar River crested in Cedar Rapids at 31.1 feet. That’s far above flood stage and 11 feet higher than the previous record of 20 feet set in both 1851 and 1929. Those floods had inconvenienced relatively few people. None of us thought a crest of 31.1 feet was possible. None of us thought the river would rise so quickly. Some people mowed their lawns just one day before they had to evacuate.

All of these expectations about the Cedar River were wrong. We were also wrong about events along the Iowa River, which has now conquered an unconquerable flood-control dam in both 1993 and 2008. In each case, the flood damaged buildings that the University of Iowa had built on the flood plain because the flood-control dam would allegedly protect them forever. In one of these buildings, a large auditorium, I once attended a performance by Vladimir Horowitz. But now, nobody will perform there anytime soon.

On June 29, Todd Dorman wrote an article for The Cedar Rapids Gazette in which he asked why the National Weather Service had not given accurate predictions about when the Cedar River would crest and how high it would be. With that knowledge, Dorman said, people could have reacted sooner and done more to protect their houses and save their possessions. A hydrologist who works for the National Weather Service in Kansas City explained to Dorman that better forecasts would become available in about five years, which is, admittedly, a little late for the Flood of 2008.

But many of us, including 18,000 people in Cedar Rapids, have a question that reaches beyond 5 years into the future. Why is it that in the 157 years since the Flood of 1851, the Cedar River has never done anything remotely like what it did during the Flood of 2008? In all of recorded history, nothing like this ever happened before. Why did it happen only 15 years after the Great Flood of 1993, an event that lasted for months and broke all previous records for the entire state of Iowa? It rained as if it would never stop. I recall one evening when a television news announcer casually stated that the whole state, all 99 counties, was under a flash-flood watch. There’s a pattern here, folks. What’s going on?

On May 27 of this year, shortly before the rain began to fall with record-breaking intensity in the Cedar and Iowa river watersheds in northern Iowa, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released a study called The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources, and Biodiversity in the United States. Many people worked on this project. The lead authors were Peter Backlund, NCAR; Anthony Janetos, PNNL/Univerity of Maryland; and David Schimel, National Ecological Observatory Network.  The study is 193 pages long and is written is the brain-killing style of all federal documents. But I gave it a careful reading, and it has now revealed its secrets.

President George W. Bush requested the study. I don’t know if he plans to read it.

The authors of the study make it clear from the outset that greenhouse gas emissions have already altered the climate of the continental United States, and that those changes are likely to continue. The changes in the East and the Middle West differ dramatically from those in the West and Southwest. Because of global warming, the amount of precipitation has already increased in the East and Middle West. “Most of the United States experienced increases in precipitation and streamflow and decreases in drought during the second half of the 20th century,” the study says. “However, there is some indication of increased drought severity and duration in the western and southwestern United States.”  Increased precipitation and streamflow would explain the increased flooding in the Middle West, but the report says much more.

Because of events that have already occurred, these changes in precipitation are likely to continue for 25-50 years, irrespective of what we do now. According to the study, “Warming is very likely to continue in the United States during the next 25 to 50 years, regardless of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, due to emissions that have already occurred. U.S. ecosystems and natural resources are already be­ing affected by climate system changes and vari­ability.”

By now, most of the people in the United States have noticed an increase in wildfires in the West. The report suggests that we’re likely to see more. “Climate change has very likely increased the size and number of forest fires, insect outbreaks, and tree mortality in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska, and will continue to do so.”

Finally, the amount of food produced in the East and Middle West is likely to decrease. “As temperature rises, crops will increasingly experience temperatures above the optimum for their reproductive development, and animal production of meat or dairy products will be impacted by temperature extremes.” Let me tell you what that ungainly sentence means. Corn, soybeans, dairy cattle, beef cattle, and hogs have made the American Middle West the breadbasket of the world. As temperatures rise, the basket will get much smaller.

I used to have many doubts about the idea that greenhouse-gas emissions would cause changes in the world’s climate. Those doubts have now floated away with the floodwater. I live in an apartment building at the top of a small hill. During the Flood of 2008, I watched as the waters of the Iowa River came up the hill. As the water rose foot after foot, the doubts sank. The water never reached my apartment, but it came close enough. I’m a new believer in the causes and effects of climate change. With our cars and our trucks, we’ve created a hell of a mess, and that mess is not about to go away anytime soon.

I’m very much aware that the climate of the world has changed in the past. Glaciers have advanced and retreated entirely on their own because of the slow alterations of global temperatures. But in the past, human beings didn’t speed things along by driving their SUVs to the Handimart every time the dial on the beer keg started leaning toward empty.

I am also familiar with the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. During those events, you could search the world and never find a single SUV. If the weather is going to change all by itself, why speed things along with your internal combustion engines? Natural changes allow more time for humans to adapt.

I’m unlikely to live another 25-50 years, but I retain a sentimental attachment to my children and children in general. And I have to confess that I own no shares of ExxonMobil, General Motors, or whatever construction company is building another unneeded four-lane highway to a place I don’t want to visit. When I do find a place to go, I always travel by rail; and for shorter trips, I still remember how to walk. Try it sometime. It’s good for your heart. You might live another 25-50 years.

PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at pwirelan43@yahoo.com.


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