UI experts, Dubuque officials improve city’s flood resilience one home at a time

Lynn Anderson Davy
Office of Strategic Communications

A one-of-a-kind partnership between the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa and the City of Dubuque is helping residents living in flood-prone areas of the city repair and flood-proof their homes while also providing health, education, and social support to help them build a more secure future.

Since 2016, the Bee Branch Healthy Homes Resiliency Program has helped 51 Dubuque households make necessary water damage repairs and renovations to keep families safe and dry during flood events. City officials hope to help a total of 300 homeowners before funding runs out and the program sunsets in 2021.

The program is part of the Iowa Watershed Approach, a multiyear flood-prevention and resilience project largely conceived and developed by the UI’s Iowa Flood Center. Flood Center experts leveraged their technical expertise and innovative flood-mitigation approach to help the state secure the $96 million federal grant in 2016. Since then, the Iowa Flood Center, Iowa’s other state universities, and state and local organizations have been working with communities in nine flood-prone watersheds, including Dubuque’s Bee Branch Creek.

The Dubuque project stands apart from the other watershed projects in that it has a much more intense focus on the human side of flood resilience. Participants in Dubuque’s Bee Branch Healthy Homes Resiliency Program get more than help with home repairs: they also get connected to resources such as job training, child care, and medical aid.

“We look at all the challenges a family might encounter to becoming more flood resilient, and that means we look beyond just the physical challenges of flood-proofing a house or rental unit,” says Sharon Gaul, resiliency coordinator for the Bee Branch Healthy Homes Program. “When we walk into a home, we are asking residents to share some pretty intimate details about their life and what kind of personal challenges they face.”

Working to diminish flood damage

In recent years, Dubuque has been plagued by severe flooding, resulting in a significant number of homes within the Bee Branch watershed needing renovations. In cases where residents or landlords can’t afford to make repairs and upgrades themselves, the Healthy Homes program offers assistance.

Participants receive a five-year, forgivable loan; agree to purchase homeowner insurance and, in some cases, flood insurance; and commit to staying in their homes for a minimum of five years.

“We started taking applications roughly a year ago, and so far we’ve received 450 inquiries,” says Gaul. “Our hope is that we can repair at least 300 of those units over the next three years. We have a waiting list, but it’s a good sign that people are hearing about the program and reaching out to take care of repairs that they couldn’t do on their own.”

UI experts who study flood recovery and resiliency say the approach Dubuque is taking to improve flood-prone neighborhoods as well as the lives of the people who live there is unique. They say most programs focus on rebuilding washed-out areas and reinforcing stormwater-management systems, an approach that often overlooks the human aspect of disaster recovery.

“There’s a reliance on science and technology to save us from flood disasters,” says Eric Tate, a UI associate professor of geography whose expertise is flood-hazard mitigation and resiliency. “Take for example Houston and Hurricane Harvey. The city will certainly upgrade its stormwater infrastructure, but they’ve been doing this for decades and flood losses keep going up, so that’s clearly not the only solution.”

The other part of the solution, Tate says, is for local governments and nonprofit organizations to support underserved populations, who often are most affected by disaster to decrease the impacts of severe flooding and to improve their quality of life overall.

“There’s a strong rationale for focusing on vulnerable populations as well as a strong moral case for it,” says Tate. “In Dubuque, we are focusing on helping people who are at greater risk during a flood in large part because they have fewer resources to safeguard their homes and health. In the long run, it’s not only an equitable solution to mitigating risks, but also cost-effective.”

As a researcher who studies flood-resiliency efforts nationwide, Tate says he’s excited to see a city tackling these social dimensions head-on. He’s also enthusiastic about the university’s role in the project. “The fact that the University of Iowa can be a part of the Dubuque project, and partner with the city from a research perspective, makes this a very different type of flood-resilience program,” he says.

Neighbors helping neighbors

Dubuque resident Allyson Noel used to dread the sound of dripping water because it meant the basement of her 1924 stone house was starting to fill up with water.

The water would seep into the basement after a heavy rain or flooding elsewhere along the Bee Branch Creek. As a result, Noel’s unfinished basement often was unusable, and she was unable to access her washer and dryer, which she had to place on concrete blocks to keep above water. Her furnace, also located in the basement, rusted and eventually stopped working, creating a financial strain for the young mother.

“When the heater stopped working, I was expecting my second child,” Noel says. “There was no way that I had $5,000 to spend on a new heating unit.”

At about that time, Noel received a postcard from the city promoting the Bee Branch Healthy Homes Resiliency Program. Intrigued, she submitted the necessary paperwork to participate and soon learned that her household income and location within the Bee Branch watershed made her eligible to receive a forgivable loan to waterproof her basement and replace and upgrade the broken furnace.

The work on her house was especially important, she says, because her two children have health problems that can be exacerbated by humidity, mold, and mildew.

“Since the work was done, no water comes in the basement, not a drop,” says Noel. “I am definitely grateful. Just keeping the basement dry is a huge improvement, and it’s made it much safer for my children. It’s healthier for all of us.”

Across town, Dubuque resident Melvin Keys also is grateful for a healthy home, one he has shared with his wife for 13 years. Keys says chronic flooding of their basement and the cost of repairs from those floods almost forced him and his wife to sell the house and move elsewhere. But the Healthy Homes Resiliency Program made it possible to stay.

“I replaced the carpeting in the basement three times, and we lost personal belongings worth more than $10,000,” says Keys. “I was about ready to get out of here. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t take the damage anymore.”

Through the resiliency program, Keys and his wife received a forgivable loan to waterproof their basement and make improvements to their backyard and alley to prevent rainwater from running into their home. Today, when it starts to rain, Keys, who suffers from numerous health issues, doesn’t worry about messy cleanup.

“Now I can actually enjoy my home, and before I couldn’t do that because I was always worried about getting the water out,” says Keys.

Families and individuals who participate in the Healthy Homes program are matched with advocates who help them navigate repairs and renovation and also connect them with educational, health, and social supports such as mental health counseling, job training, and after-school tutoring or activities for school-aged children.

Amy Smith has worked as an advocate for residents enrolled in the program for about two years and says she’s thankful she can help people improve their lives.

“With every family we do a comprehensive assessment that covers everything from the health of family members to environmental factors such as the presence of mold, mildew and drafts, things like that,” Smith says. “Every family situation is a little different, and some of situations are difficult, but I enjoy spending time with families and finding out what their goals are and how we can help them to achieve them.”

Using data to improve resiliency

As work continues in the Bee Branch watershed, Tate and UI graduate students will continue to analyze interview data and experiences from Healthy Home participants, as well as Gaul and social services representatives in Dubuque. Tate and others from the UI are working with Gaul to create participant assessments and questionnaires. By the end of the federal grant, Tate and Gaul hope to have enough data to assess the success of the program and to make recommendations about future flood-resiliency efforts.

“We’ve really leaned on the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa and its research team to help us generate assessments and then work with our advocates to see what mixture of questions works and how much time they need to spend with families to really give us that valuable data so that we can continue doing this work,” says Gaul. “I think it’s an innovative approach to bring in higher education and research to study flood resiliency on a much larger scale.”

Another unique element of the research portion of the Healthy Homes program is the opportunity to compare urban and rural flood-resiliency patterns, says Tate.

“We have a general understanding of populations that tend to be more vulnerable to floods, but we don’t really have a grasp of which circumstances are more important than others,” says Tate. “For example, is poverty a more important factor than physical disability or a lack of language proficiency? We have to find out what is the relationship between these things. In Dubuque, we have the opportunity to look very closely at the causal factors.”

A big factor in the success of the Healthy Homes and the Iowa Watershed Approach programs are the personal connections developed between UI experts, local officials, and community members, says Ashlee Johannes, flood-resilience program coordinator at the Iowa Flood Center for the statewide watershed project.

“The great thing is that we have many partners on this project and many local stakeholders who are very engaged and interested,” she says. “We’re really hoping that these relationships will continue to strengthen and grow so that together we can continue to do good work in our Iowa watersheds, whether they are rural or urban.”

Flooding in Dubuque

The city of Dubuque, located along the Mississippi River, is significantly affected by flash floods and recurring flooding. In 2001, to try to protect the city from reoccurring floods, city officials adopted a massive drainage-basin master plan. But after a series of intense floods in the years that followed, city officials revised the plan, adding more resiliency features, including opening up a mile-long stretch of a formerly enclosed section of Bee Branch Creek. More than half of the city’s residents live in the Bee Branch watershed, an area that also includes historic neighborhoods and much of the city’s affordable housing stock.

In 2013, city officials received $98.5 million in state sales tax increment financing from the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, and in 2016, the city received $31.5 million in federal funds as part of the $96 million Iowa Watershed Approach program, a collaborative statewide initiative that includes the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa and many other state and local partners. The funds are being used to make nine Iowa watersheds, including Dubuque’s Bee Branch, more flood resistant and resilient, with much of the work being done by local community leaders, land owners, and residents.

cyclist near bee branch creek
A cyclist travels along a sidewalk that's part of the mile-long section of Bee Branch Creek that city officials opened to help prevent flooding. Previously, this section of the creek had been enclosed.