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A Story of Flood Preparedness

by Shianne Gruss

Living in Iowa means living with floods, and historically that has led to loss of property, farmland and even life. Today, however, Iowans have the resources of the Iowa Flood Center behind them, providing information that was unavailable in 2008 or in 1993. Where will the floodwaters go? Will my house be flooded? When will it crest? Thanks to the Iowa Flood Center (IFC), Iowans now have better answers to those questions. With this new information, residents won’t find themselves wading through water to rescue belongings or family members — they’ll know in advance what to expect and how best to respond.

HESCO University of Iowa flooding

HESCO barriers go up on the UI campus.

The Iowa Flood Center

Since its founding at the University of Iowa in 2009, the Iowa Flood Center has benefited not only Iowans, but also the nation.

The Iowa Flood Center is ready to help whenever flooding occurs. Online tools such as the Iowa Flood Information System’s (IFIS) real-time stream-sensor data and flood inundation maps offer reliable information about flood conditions hours or days in advance. In addition, IFC researchers are often called upon to provide expertise at county-level emergency operations meetings and city council meetings, and to help communities understand the possible scenarios they could face.

“Flood preparedness is an investment that pays off,” says IFC Director Witold Krajewski. “The tools and strategies we developed after 2008 have left Iowans and our communities in a better state of readiness for future floods.”

Krajewski says that the many research efforts underway have turned the IFC into a braided river—a network of interconnected ideas and partnerships.

Stream Stage Sensors

Located in a region known as the Iowa Great Lakes, Dickinson County is Iowa’s smallest county in total land area—due largely to the presence of Okoboji and Spirit lakes. With that much water and a $300 million tourism industry on the line, the county has to be prepared for flood events.

Mike Ehret, Dickinson County emergency management coordinator, is used to keeping his eye on lake and river levels. He had attended conferences where the IFC expressed interest in expanding its network of stream-stage sensors to help communities remotely track stream and river heights. Ehret was quick to sign on, and a sensor was installed on the Little Sioux River in 2013. He has since put in a request for two more upstream sensors in Dickinson County.

Ehret says the best thing about the sensors is that he can get updates every 15 minutes without physically going to the stream himself.

stream stage sensor

One of the IFC’s stream-stage sensors. Even when overtopped by floodwaters, the sensors keep on working.

Since 2010, the IFC has deployed more than 200 monitoring devices on rivers, streams, and creeks across the state—including a 50-sensor expansion installed last fall. What started as a student project has become an important partnership between the IFC and Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which has requested and funded most of the sensors.

The stream-stage sensors serve primarily as an indicator of flooding on agricultural land and roads, Ehret says, but the sensors also benefit residents of Spencer and Clay counties, where homes are sometimes inundated when water levels are high.

Flood Emergency Management

In Johnson County, where the Iowa River is a constant reminder of flood risk, the sensors have proven to be a great link between emergency management coordinators and the general public. Dave Wilson, Johnson County emergency management coordinator, says he used to get several hundred phone calls from residents wanting to know specifically how high the water would get on their property. Assisting the property owners was very labor-intensive, and he’s grateful that he can now point them to the flood inundation maps on IFIS.

Wilson says the sensors have also been helpful in assessing potential damage from flood events. “We found out that ’08 is the new high-water mark, and there’s nothing to say that 2017 couldn’t be the next one,” he says. “You can’t sit back and be complacent about preparedness. I think all these tools and all these floods have helped us prepare for the next big thing.”

It doesn’t hurt that the IFC is right in Wilson’s backyard. He says he communicates regularly with Krajewski during flood events. Wilson says the IFC is also an essential part of the Johnson County Emergency Operations Center’s flood mitigation efforts.

“That’s the number one goal — to protect lives and property,” Wilson says. “If you’ve got a willing partner based right in Iowa, you’d be remiss not to utilize that asset.”

Flood Inundation Maps

In northeast Iowa, the community of Elkader is benefiting from another IFC project. The development of community-based flood inundation maps has been underway for four years, and now 13 communities have online access to flood maps specific to their areas through the IFIS website.

In 2012, the IFC released flood inundation maps for Elkader. Previously, maps were developed for large metropolitan areas such as Ames, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids. The tool allows users to view flood levels at various river stages. Elkader Mayor Robert Garms says that the IFC’s efforts to better prepare Iowans for flooding are very valuable. “It helps communities have a better understanding of what can happen,” he says.

Elkader Iowa flooding IFIS

Left: Flood inundation map of Elkader, Iowa, illustrating 2008 flood levels. Right: Flood inundation map showing 2014 flood levels in Elkader.

Jennifer Cowsert, Elkader City administrator, says people are very interested in viewing the IFIS website—she even had businesses cards printed with the web address to hand out. “I can show them a map and how it will impact their property,” Cowsert says. She believes that the IFC carries more weight in the minds of individuals when family homes and businesses are on the line, and that the IFIS maps have been spot on.

Cowsert says the maps were particularly useful during flooding in June 2014. “We moved campers out of the city campground, moved items out of two public buildings, started making sandbags, and then watched and waited,” Cowsert says. She admits that the real cost of the damage—debris removal, a damaged flood wall and levee, and an exposed sewer line— couldn’t be avoided, but that if the river had gone up more, the sandbagging could have helped prevent losses to businesses.

Turkey River Watershed Management Authority

Cowsert is very familiar with the IFC. She also represents the city on the Turkey River Watershed Management Authority (TRWMA), which has partnered with the IFC’s Iowa Watersheds Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to model flood reduction strategies.

The IFC’s involvement in the Turkey River watershed and in the TRWMA has been very positive, Cowsert says. The IFC helps the authority move forward and stay focused on its mission. She adds that the IFC helps elevate the TRWMA to a state level. “It isn’t just our little part of northeast Iowa and our flooding concerns anymore. It reminds everyone that our part of the state affects everyone else, and vice versa, and that flooding in Iowa is a concern for the entire state, not just the communities that feel the brunt of the flood waters.”

Roger Thomas, Elkader’s Main Street Coordinator and Economic Development Director as well as local state representative, says he believes IFC involvement will continue to help in technical ways that may open up funding opportunities for members of the TRWMA. “I think the Iowa Flood Center brings attention to flooding concerns in Elkader by bringing attention to the whole watershed, as well as the Turkey River itself.”

Iowa’s Flood Partners

Jeff Zogg knows that flooding, which has accounted for almost three-fourths of all presidential disaster declarations in Iowa, is a big deal for Iowans. And for Zogg, it’s one of the most important parts of his job.

As senior hydrologist at the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Des Moines, Zogg is responsible for making sure forecasters have the tools and training they need to provide accurate flood forecasts and timely warnings for the state. “We definitely take flooding seriously in Iowa,” he says. “We’re always looking for ways to improve those services, whether it is in the observation network, or in warning people of pending floods, or we’re always looking for opportunities for improvement in collaboration.”

A big step in that direction took place in October 2014, when NWS Director Louis W. Uccellini visited the IFC to discuss better partnering strategies to provide Iowa and the nation with top-notch flood forecasting services. The IFC is a “tremendous asset” to local communities, Uccellini said at an IFC staff meeting.

Zogg says the IFC has been an “invaluable tool” in helping the NWS carry out its mission in Iowa. One way the IFC does that is by sharing their stream-stage sensor data with the NWS in real time and coordinating the placement of new stream-stage sensors with input from the local NWS Forecast Offices. Zogg says they use IFC data, along with data from the USGS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all in one application. “It helps us paint a complete picture of what’s going on hydrologically within the state,” he says.

Zogg says the IFC has put Iowa ahead of the curve in terms of stream sensors. “There are not many states that can boast the kind of density that we have in terms of the sheer number of gauges,” Zogg says. “It really helps us out.”

Krajewski believes the IFC’s experience and successful efforts in Iowa could be applied nationwide by bringing together the resources and experience of the IFC with federal and state partners.

“That’s what we would really like to see,” Krajewski told a reporter from Iowa Now, “a strong collaboration between the Iowa Flood Center and the National Weather Service, in particular with the National Water Center as they ramp up their operations. We believe the tools we’ve developed in Iowa can be valuable to the nation.”

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Last modified on July 2nd, 2015
Posted on June 18th, 2015

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