Assessing Iowa Flood Damage
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. The destructive power of water, I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX COHEN, host:
And I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, we go to Myanmar six weeks after a cyclone there left 80,000 people there dead and millions more homeless.
BRAND: The situation is nowhere near as bad here at home, but flooding continues along the Mississippi River in the Midwest. So far, four people have died; thousands have been evacuated. Floodwaters in Iowa City are not expected to recede until this evening.
COHEN: The Iowa River crested a bit earlier and lower than expected because of levy breaches downstream. Governor Chet Culver called the crest a little bit of good news, but he says the situation there is still precarious. We're joined now by NPR's Martin Kaste. He's in Iowa City. And Martin, how are things looking there today?
MARTIN KASTE: Well, as you said, it's - the water may have crested, but it's not going to go down very quickly at all here. This river here is still just bloated. They've never seen the river this high. It's a good 9 feet higher than flood stage. It's higher than it was during the great floods of 1993.
Out on the - one of the main bridges across the river here in the center of campus at the University of Iowa - the water basically just rushing just a few inches below the deck of the bridge itself. And it's going to stay that way for a while because just the way the lay of the land is here, this water can't just spread out and drain away. It's sort of pinched into a riverbed here. And there are a lot of very sensitive buildings. There are a lot of homes right next to it.
So it's basically a holding action here. They've got to keep checking their defenses. They've got to keep these pumps running that are pumping out the steam tunnels that underlie the entire campus here to make sure that doesn't flood and then take water into other buildings. So it's a holding action here more than a sense of relief.
COHEN: I read this morning that the University of Iowa has suspended its normal operations. Do you have any sense of how bad the damage is there?
KASTE: Well, no one will really know for sure until the water drains away and you can see what happened. There are about, I think, 16 buildings right now - university buildings that have taken on water, some of them eight-feet deep.
Some of these buildings are new and quite fancy. There's a brand new - or relatively new building designed by Frank Gehry that's taking water on. Their concert hall here is expected to take water up to the stage. Just to give you a sense, the last time in 1993, during the floods then, the water only hit the orchestra pits. So a lot of water in some very expensive buildings.
They have tried to move the most vulnerable things out of the way. A lot of art has been moved. But there's also IT systems - computer records - that could get flooded if the water gets to the wrong basement. So they're picking and choosing their battles. They're sandbagging the most vulnerable buildings, and they're trying to limit the damages as best they can.
COHEN: So far, some 36,000 people have been evacuated, many of them just north of you in Cedar Rapids, but as the waters head southward, can we expect that more people are going to be moved out of harm's way?
KASTE: It's already happening right now as these - Iowa River, the Iowa River itself, the Cedar River, sort of dump this excess of water into the Mississippi River. That surge is just moving downstream, and already down in Burlington, Iowa, which is right down there on the Mississippi River, they're starting to sandbag, and some neighborhoods have already been evacuated.
I think you'll see the same thing happening in northern Illinois. And as you just go down the Mississippi River, there are going to be places where the water will definitely enter neighborhoods. So this story will just sort of repeat itself as it goes down the river.
COHEN: Martin, with so many roads and bridges being closed, what's it like traveling around Iowa?
KASTE: You have to check ahead. You go online with the state, see where the bridges are closed; look for washouts, advisories. Even I-80, the main interstate east-west here, has got a spot where you just can't get through because of a bridge.
And you can usually get to where you want to go because Iowa is blessed with this vast network of county roads, but oftentimes, you know, it means hours out of your way on gravel roads, that sort of thing. And then you've got to watch out for water seepage into possibly unmarked spots near flooded fields, near creeks and rivers. So you can get around, but it takes a lot longer than it used to.
COHEN: NPR's Martin Kaste reporting from Iowa City. Thanks so much, Martin.
KASTE: You're welcome, Alex.