Des Moines Register Guest Column: Flood Center Can Help Us Learn, Recover

Sunday, June 14, 2009

By Larry Weber
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Director of IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering
The University of Iowa

On Monday, the University of Iowa campus will recognize the one-year anniversary of the historic flood of 2008. I reflect on the past year with mixed emotions.

The week of June 9 to 13, 2008, I was distressed by the evacuation and flooding of so many campus buildings, including the historic C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory, which sits on the bank of the Iowa River but has never before been evacuated or flooded. News from across the state, especially in Cedar Rapids, was even more disturbing.

As a hydraulics engineer, someone who studies the flow of water, I was awestruck by the floods. Under different circumstances, my colleagues and I would have reveled in the opportunity to collect rare data and make significant advances in our scientific understanding of floods. The Iowa River-Cedar River floods were far too close, too personal and too devastating for this to simply be seen as another data point in our hydrologic record.

A year later, IIHR - Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa continues to field questions about the flood: What caused the flood? Where is it safe to rebuild? What exactly does a 100-year flood mean? How can we reduce the risk of future catastrophic flood damage in our communities?

The answers require scientific research and an understanding of hydrologic processes at all scales. We must examine and consider an entire river system and the land that feeds the system - land use practices and other factors impacting all of the creeks and streams flowing to a river, climate change, flood mitigation structures, etc. Our ability to live with and to become more resilient to major floods depends on our ability to work together to develop watershed-scale plans that consider all of these factors.

In short, no single individual, community or agency caused the flood, nor can a single individual or entity resolve the problems associated with flooding.

Setting aside our personal and professional losses from the flood, IIHR - Hydroscience & Engineering, and indeed the entire University of Iowa community, did recognize opportunity. Engineers, geographers, sociologists and public-health researchers received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other sources to collect as much time-sensitive data as possible. This data will be instrumental in guiding future decisions related to flood mitigation and impacts.

State and federal agencies, community representatives, policymakers and researchers have come together often since last June to share what we have collectively learned from the flood, consider our greatest shortcomings and knowledge gaps, and to discuss how we can work together to better manage and live with inevitable future flooding. Some of the key things we agree that need to improve include:

- Flood inundation maps at many river-flow levels, to provide critical information to decision makers.

- Flood frequency models based on changing climate and land use patterns.

- River gauging networks across the state.

- And communication of the concept and application of flood frequency and flood risk to decision makers and the public.

One initiative we rallied around was establishment of a multidisciplinary flood center to improve scientific research, public awareness and community response to flooding. Such a center would bring together researchers from multiple disciplines to consider the physical, social, environmental, economic and health aspects of floods.

It would serve as common ground for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, National Weather Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other state and federal agencies to work together with academicians to implement the latest tools and methodologies. Such a center would also serve as a training ground for professionals who consider floods from a multidisciplinary, holistic approach.

This spring, the state took a historic step through establishment of the Iowa Flood Center to develop scientifically based, numerical models that will improve flood forecasting and mitigation in Iowa, establish community-based programs, share resources and expertise and train a new work force for our state.

A National Flood Center has been proposed to the National Science Foundation. If funded, Iowa would be a national leader in multidisciplinary flood research and education. It would become the resource for the many communities that flood each year - a resource we all needed one year ago.

While I am saddened by the destruction of the 2008 flood, I know we are doing what Iowans do best - recovering, learning and helping others.