In 2008, the Iowa River flooded Iowa City. This was nothing new – the University of Iowa has had to evacuate some of its classrooms and dormitories many times over the years – but this flood turned out to be so bad that it was called “Iowa’s Katrina.” It has its own Wikipedia page. The river crested at 31.5 feet.
I was taking a summer semester in Ireland at the time, and when I told people in Dublin that I was from Iowa, their eyes would get big and they would inundate me with questions. At first, it was kind of fun. My neighbor had emailed me to let me know our neighborhood was being evacuated, and mentioning this usually got me a free pint. I started to worry, however, when the University began sending out mass emails requesting assistance to remove the special collections from the library and clear out the art museum. Pleas for extra hands to build sandbag levees overloaded my inbox (Johnson County still holds the national record for most sandbags filled during a single weather event – over 6 million). I became anxious and felt guilty for not being there to help, watching the water rise in pictures from half a world away.
Twenty buildings on the University of Iowa campus flooded, including Hancher Auditorium. That’s what made me think of it today – I drove by the construction site where they’re tearing down the old building.
Sigh. I saw the Jungle Book on that stage when I was in grade school.
I’m not clear on the extent of the damage the floor did to Hancher, but I do know that the water rose above the stage, which warped the floorboards beyond repair. I hear FEMA is funding the new building, at least in part. My guess, however, is that university officials had to fight to get the new building approved, which they did because they refused to put a brand new stage in a 40-year-old building. More expensive, yes, but a ton of money comes to the school from wealthy alumni – they absolutely drool over shiny new things.
The new theater building is going up right across the drive – again, right by the river, which is just beyond those little green trees in the center of the picture. My best friend’s brother-in-law is pouring concrete for the new stage. There must be at least a couple hundred people working on this project.
Meanwhile, flooding in subsequent years has created a sandy beach in Lower City Park, a few hundred yards away from this construction site. Meteorologists called the flood in 2008 a millennial flood, and I think university officials may be operating under the assumption that this means it won’t happen again for another thousand years. What happens, however, if flooding continues to increase? Much of the campus is on the flood plane – 20 buildings were damaged five years ago. There’s not much space to expand, either. The city grew around the university, so campus is virtually surrounded with historical buildings and landmarks, houses that belonged to a governor at some point, or where one of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop’s most famous alumni wrote that novel we all had to read in high school.
For someone who never really had a lot of school spirit (I was vaguely aware we had a football team) I find myself quite worried about the future of the University of Iowa. I may be more worried about the Walt Whitman collection than I am about the new boathouse, but it’s worry just the same. I hope city and university officials are thinking ahead – like, waaaay ahead. Post-apocalypse. They’ve already had the practice.
That’s the old art building, by the way. They may have cleared out the museum before the waters reached it, but they forgot about the old ping-pong table in the basement! Sure, its wheels are a little rusted now, but it’s still good for a game of piddle-paddle (my niece told me that’s what the cool kids call ping-pong these days).