Rising Above the Flood

When a record-breaking flood in June 2008 damaged 2.5 million square feet of the University of Iowa, the campus and the community worked hard to recover as much as possible in time for that fall's semester. The university opened as scheduled that fall, but the flood left an estimated $743-million impact that completely transformed the face of its campus.

July 21, 2010

When a record-breaking flood in June 2008 damaged 2.5 million square feet of the University of Iowa, the campus and the community worked hard to recover as much as possible in time for that fall's semester. The university opened as scheduled that fall, but the flood left an estimated $743-million impact that completely transformed the face of its campus.

Two years later, many challenges remain. Foremost among them: the buildings that need to be planned, contracted and built -- a project that should take another 5 to 10 years, says Tom Snee, a university spokesman. Fifteen of the 20 damaged buildings have already reopened, and a new performing arts center, school of music, and art museum are in the works. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to pay for 90 percent of the rebuilding costs (and up to an additional 90 percent for protection against future damage), and the state of Iowa is also contributing funds. But the university still needs to produce a sizable sum to get the campus completely back on its feet.

“We realigned our capital plan in the wake of the flood,” says Don Guckert, associate vice president and director of facilities management. “Projects that were a priority before the flood were pushed back.”

In an unexpected blow, FEMA recently denied funds to replace the museum, saying the damage was not bad enough to warrant a new building -- meaning an additional burden for the university's budget if the university's planned appeal is not accepted.

As well as the continuing structural rebuilding that lies ahead, many departments and individuals had to adapt to changed circumstances, and some are still dealing with loss.

"There’s always definitely a sense of caution,” says Snee, the spokesman. “This has been a pretty rainy summer -- the river levels are up, the reservoir is up, and there’s a little bit of an edge with some people. It’s always there in the background.”

But the university has made a broad recovery and expects to see record-high enrollment this fall. Many people and programs have discovered new partnerships and priorities that are likely to stay, even when the campus is completely restored.

What follows is a look at how various aspects of the university have been reshaped in the two years since it flooded.

A Flood of Information

Perhaps one of the largest initiatives to arise from the disaster is the Iowa Flood Center, founded in spring 2009 as the country’s first centralized and federally funded center devoted to the study and research of floods.

“If this happens again, [Iowa] will go broke -- there’s no way that the state can absorb another event of this magnitude,” says Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center and a professor in the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research. “This realization, coupled with the fact that there is a lot of expertise on campus, was a big factor in establishing the center.”

As soon as the flood hit, Krajewski and other faculty members in the hydraulic research institute began to collect time-sensitive data such as contaminated sediment samples and measures of flood water elevation. Jump-started by small emergency grants from the National Science Foundation, but denied a competitive NSF Science and Technology Center award, the center eventually received $1.3 million from the state legislature and, this month, a four-year $10-million contract from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Institute scientists had been studying floods for years, but had never received this kind of recognition until the director of the NSF toured Iowa cities immediately after the 2008 flood. Krajewski says the funding and the immediacy of the situation helped accelerate the transition of the scientists’ work from theory into practice.

To date, the center has laid the groundwork for 50 sensors (at $3,000 each) attached to bridges to monitor water level; developed new flood inundation maps to identify at-risk areas; supported 20 students in their studies in the field; and overseen a slew of research projects related to rivers, flood forecasting and flood preparedness.

Though still in its early stages, the center is gaining momentum and attention. Krajewski hopes it can become a national center in coming years.

“The first argument is that the nation needs a center, not that Iowa needs a national center,” he says. “There were several big events this year alone, and there will always be floods.”

A Big Box of Artistic Inspiration

The university’s arts campus, which was right on the banks of the Iowa River, was among the areas hit hardest by the flood. Two art and art history buildings suffered irreparable damage and the art school lost virtually all its equipment. But artists are creative people, and recreating an entire studio art facility turned out to be a feasible task. The department took over a vacant big-box Menards store (a chain similar to Home Depot), bought cubicle partitions in bulk, and established a large area of temporary studios -- and an unexpected fusion of ideas.

“Before the flood, [the studio artists] were divided rather strictly by medium," says John Scott, director of the school of art and art history. He explained that the separation came from architectural constraints as well as the art-school culture that encourages working exclusively within one’s own discipline. But moving everyone into a single room changed the dynamics -- probably for good.

Photo: U. of Iowa

Faculty and students at work in Iowa's transplanted art school, in an abandoned big box store.

“Now we have much more of a universal space, in which you naturally run into people,” Scott says. “We’re finding that faculty, staff and students are engaging each other across media and across discipline much more freely than was ever possible before.”

Areas that have developed particularly successful collaborations include design and sculpture, photography and “intermedia” such as film, and even photography and physics.

John Freyer, an assistant professor of studio arts, was inspired to have his advanced photography class collaborate with a typography class in an adjacent “classroom,” separated by a partition. Because of the unique conditions, the two professors could hear each other and realized that when photography students needed to make a portfolio of their work, the design students could put their own skills to the test.

“My students became his students’ clients, and his students designed logos and CD portfolios and a portfolio book for my students,” Freyer says, adding that the photography students in turn helped the typography students with lighting and other equipment they needed.

Scott says that the new perspectives provided by the collaborations have really caught on and are likely to be formally woven into the studio art curriculum. The school is exploring opportunities for courses co-taught by professors from different disciplines. The school is also in the early stages of planning its new building, which is expected to be completed in three or four years.

“This new visual arts building will be based on this new experience that we have had and this more universal space,” he says, adding that the plans will also include spaces dedicated to cross-disciplinary student collaboration.

Student Life

The student experience is slowly returning to normal at Iowa. After the initial shock wore off, most students shifted quickly into their new routines, though parts of the campus’s destruction still affect their activities.

The Iowa Memorial Union’s bottom floor is still out of commission after it was inundated with four feet of water. The union’s services on this floor included the bookstore, food court, credit union, recreation room, and copy center -- all places students used on a regular basis.

“We wait for the day we can get our student union back,” Guckert says. “We’ve relocated our bookstore to a downtown location, the food service in the union is not what it used to be … and one of the rec rooms, they’ve been dealing without.”

As a result, there has been an increase in the use of student dining halls, and the student union has tried to create additional gathering spaces for students elsewhere in the building.

“I used to like to hang out in the lounge in the basement of the IMU before all the places there were flooded,” Nick Hughes, a rising senior, said in an e-mail. “A lot of the places have been relocated, but they’re just not the same.”

He added that with the relocations, the distribution of students has changed on campus. Where once the arts campus used to be crowded, it’s now “a ghost town,” and the Old Capitol Town Center, in downtown Iowa City, where the bookstore was relocated, is suddenly packed with people.

But apart from small shifts and a lingering feeling of abandonment around the ruined arts buildings, Hughes says that the effects of the flood haven’t affected his life as a student too much. “It seems like things have sort of gone back to normal, or at least I’ve been able to adjust to all the changes,” he said. Hughes’ class is the only remaining class to have experienced the campus before and after the flood.

Innovative Performance Space

The university is located near downtown Iowa City, and much of the faculty chose to spread beyond the confines of the campus after their buildings were destroyed.

Hancher Auditorium was a focal point of the university, which prides itself on its performing arts and emphasis on culture. The auditorium was unsalvageable after the flood, and the new building is slated to open around 2015. In the meantime, however, none of Hancher’s programming has stopped, and in fact has picked up momentum. Hancher has become a sort of nomadic venue, hosting performances all over the state in places like churches, high school gyms, country clubs and casinos.

“We probably wouldn’t do something like that if we had a building, like bringing a dance company and taking them to the schools [in the community],” says Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. “The last two years we were really kind of creating new partnerships, making new friends and really creating audiences for that new building that will open down the road.”

Though functioning without an auditorium has been a challenge, the experience has given Swanson some ideas. For example, many audiences responded well to small, intimate performances, so the new performing center will also include smaller, flexible stages to sustain such performances.

The Voxman Music Building was also displaced from its location near the river, and the music school was dispersed across several buildings throughout downtown Iowa City. Though the move was frustrating on many counts, David Gier, director of the School of Music, says that it influenced the school’s decision to stay downtown, which is actually closer to the heart of the campus than its previous location was.

“It’s a tremendous symbolic thing to have a new art building right near the center of campus,” Gier says. “And this is all in context of the downtown Iowa City scene, and the idea that the university can have an effect on the community.”

Working With the Community

The performing arts departments haven't been the only Iowa programs to bolster their engagement with surrounding cities -- but rather than looking for a suitable venue, other units are reaching out to community members to keep their work thriving.

The Museum of Art is among the buildings waiting to be rebuilt. The entire art collection was evacuated in time; now, part of it is housed in the Figge Art Museum in nearby Davenport, and part in the Iowa Memorial Union. However, new educational programs take some of the museum’s art beyond the walls of a gallery and into K-12 classrooms.

“Once we were confronted with the flood we changed our school programs to being not museum-based but outreach-based,” says Dale Fisher, director of education for the museum. “We had students visiting the museum and they would come to us, but since that wasn’t possible, we began going to them.”

Fisher says the classroom outreach has often allowed the museum staff to provide more thorough education than was possible during field trips to the museum, because he can allot more time to the students or spend a couple of days in the same school. The outreach program focuses on art from cultures around the world, and the museum will continue to purchase artwork specifically for outreach purposes. Fisher intends to maintain the initiative even after the museum is rebuilt and the art collections are back under one roof. But this has become a contentious issue since FEMA recently denied UI the funds to rebuild the museum in a new location, claiming the building is reparable and should remain on the floodplain. If the university does not comply with FEMA's conditions, it will be ineligible for future FEMA aid. But Iowa had already started making plans to build a new museum on higher ground, and the university intends to appeal the decision. If the museum is left on the floodplain, its insurer will refuse to insure the art in such a high-risk area.

Also working with local communities, the Tippie College of Business developed its MBA-Professionals and Managers program, which has been housed in downtown Cedar Rapids for 12 years. After the college's building was flooded, program administrators began to look for a larger facility to fulfill the needs of the growing program. Though only a few blocks from the old site, the new building is big enough to alleviate the need for satellite classrooms, and its technological capabilities will be able to support an evolving curriculum that includes new delivery formats, more modules and new interactions such as online lectures held in other cities.

“After the flood, downtown was literally a ghost town,” says Curt Hunter, dean of the Tippie College. “All the businesses had moved out, people were relocated to the outer fringes of town -- we thought it was important to bring our students back downtown. We thought that was a positive signal to the community.”

Inevitable Destruction

Despite the university’s push to make the most of its situation, not every loss has resulted in a new program. The flood also caused unstoppable damage that has left some researchers floundering.

Mark Arnold, director of the Optical Science and Technology Center, said the flood set his lab back at least a year in research and $34 million in equipment. He and his collaborators were given 48 hours to evacuate what equipment they could to the nearby chemistry building, but because of differences in temperature, humidity and vibrations in the air, the equipment didn’t function properly.

The researchers stayed there until November, and all their attempts at collecting publishable data during that time failed. Some pieces of equipment were lost in the floodwaters and some still have not been replaced, but Arnold says his labs have returned to their work by this point. The researchers are now working on their first grant proposals since they resumed work, but the outcome is uncertain.

“It could easily affect our funding because we weren’t as productive as we could have been,” Arnold says. Faculty members up for tenure were granted another year, graduate students wrote dissertations with the data they had or did research in other locations, and some projects in the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates were canceled.

Looking forward

While the 2008 flood resulted in massive damage to the university, its aftermath has included some unexpected upsides. Many of the campus's original buildings were outdated or inadequate for the number of students or the programs’ ambitions. Now, each department that needs a new building has an opportunity to rethink its priorities and design its facilities accordingly.

The situation also allows officials to examine the university’s response in retrospect. Now, new utilities systems and precautionary measures are being developed to protect the university from future disasters. Plans include building facilities beyond the flood plain, improving the underground tunnel system that failed to protect basements in 2008, establishing an evacuation plan, and erecting a flood wall around buildings near the river.

“There’s no question that the flood created stress,” Guckert says. “But the Iowa spirit is coming through and people realize the situation, and they realize that there’s a better day coming for these programs.”


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