Learning from the Floods of 1993, 2008

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. “Learning the lessons of the floods of 1993, 2008.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (December 17): 17A.

For the past 14 weeks nine students and I have been meeting in a First-year Honors Seminar titled “Learning from the Flood.” I wanted them to learn first hand from an outstanding array of guest speakers what happened in June, why it happened, how the flood affected the University, and what the administration has been doing to recover and prepare for future floods. The students could then articulate what they think the University (and others) should do to prepare for future floods and thereby to enhance sustainability of the University and the campus.

As hoped, the nine students and I learned many very useful facts about the flood and the University’s response. By themselves, these facts had no meaning. But when woven together they formed a story that took the form of a heroic response to a natural disaster. As Ray Wolf of the National Weather Service put it, it was the kind of tale you’d want to pass along to your grandchildren.

While true and inspiring, this heroic tale quickly becomes complicated by the fact that flooding is part of the natural rhythm of the river. Despite the normality of flooding, however, past University administrators placed important structures in the floodplain. Had they not done so, this “natural disaster” would have become nothing more than a temporarily bothersome puddle. Thus the heroic response to a tragedy also becomes a mystery: why did the University build in the floodplain?

According to Professor John Beldon Scott, the University’s move into the floodplain began with construction of the Iowa Memorial Union in the mid-1920s. Several other buildings were placed along the west bank in the ‘30s. By the late-60s the Art Museum, the Voxman Music Building, and other structures had joined them, partly because the Corps’ new Coralville Dam had reportedly eliminated the risk of flooding. Together these new structures formed an “Arts Campus” that helped give the University a unique sense of place and identity. Frank Gehry’s iconic Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratory enhanced this ensemble shortly before the ’93 flood.

At this point the facts turn the story in a politically sensitive direction. After studying the ’93 flood in detail, Stanley Changnon and other researchers wrote, “It remains to be seen whether government and the general populace have learned and will act upon lessons taught by the Great Flood of 1993.” In light of that “great and powerful” event, why did the University place Stephen Holl’s award-winning Art Building West in the floodplain? Had the University not learned the lessons taught by the ’93 flood?

If I understood Don Guckert of Facilities Management correctly, the University did in fact learn some important lessons. Consequently, it designed Art Building West to withstand a 1993-scale flood, and it prepared a Flood Emergency Response Plan that enabled the University to react very effectively when the waters started rising in June. But therein lies the rub. The 2008 flood proved to be far worse than what the University had anticipated.

What magnitude flood should the University anticipate now, and at what geographic scale should it be planning? To help answer these questions, an outstanding interdisciplinary group of researchers on campus is tying to devise better and timelier forecasting models and methods, and a Flood Mitigation Task Force is assessing how to minimize damage from future floods. Their combined efforts will inevitably lead to pragmatic balancing of mitigation costs against the benefits of avoiding possible damage in the future, all in light of uncertainty about long-term trends in flooding. This balancing will also entail accounting for less quantifiable features, such as effects on student recruitment and on the campus’ sense of place and identity.

At this point, where the future supplants the past, the story hovers at the doorway of science fiction. It is possible that we humans have altered (or are altering) the global climate and land uses in the watershed in such a way as to increase the likelihood that floods will become more frequent, more severe, and more damaging. And it is possible that that the effects of these alterations exceed the predictive capacities of normal science.

Said differently, it may well be that human and natural systems have become so intertwined that it is no longer possible to think of them as being completely separate. Conceived this way, our local story becomes part of a much larger tale about how humanly-transformed socio-techno-ecosystems have become “organic machines” or “cyborgs” that exceed the capacities of conventional management and control.

If we are part of a cyborg-watershed, can we imagine how to make it (us) better?

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