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After the Deluge in Iowa City

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After the Deluge in Iowa City


After the Deluge in Iowa City

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Iowa and points south today some of the best news came in a form of a weather forecast. Meteorologists say the areas hardest hit by recent flooding will get a chance to dry out a bit over the next several days. Even with clear skies though, record or near record flooding is still possible in Iowa and Missouri.

Martin Kaste reports from Iowa City.

MARTIN KASTE: The Iowa River has crested, but that doesn't mean Iowa City is out of danger. The river's still running very high.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

KASTE: So high it even seems to be scaring the carp. The fish hugged the riverbanks, trying to stay out of the violent currents out in the middle. They're bunched up so close to the bank you could reach out and grab one. People here are also worried by the debris in the river, even a dumpster and beer kegs have been reported bunched up on one of the bridges in town. And then there's the stuff you can't see.

Water quality hydrologist Eric Smith is taking samples from the river, he's looking for signs of fertilizer.

Mr. ERIC SMITH (Water Quality Hydrologist): That's a problem for drinking water quality. And a lot of that's coming off of run-off from agricultural fields. And by getting these samples, we get an idea of the concentration, we know how much water's coming through here, we can get an idea of how much is moving downstream, through the state and out of the state.

KASTE: The University of Iowa occupies the heart of Iowa City's river valley and it's taking the brunt of the flooding here. Don Guckert is in charge of facilities. He says after the 1993 floods the university built up levees high enough for the level of water you might see once every 100 years, but not for a flood that you see every 500 years. There's no stopping water this high. Guckert says he's just anxious to get back in to the flooded buildings. One of the things he's wondering about is some sophisticated optical equipment that was left inside a laboratory building that was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.

Mr. DON GUCKERT (University of Iowa): We'd, in preparation for this flood, elevated that equipment a few feet off the ground and it's appearing that might be the difference. We're very anxious about getting back in there, seeing was that enough to save that equipment.

KASTE: Still, a lot was saved. Over the weekend a human chain of volunteers moved the library's rare book collection to higher floors. And the museum evacuated its art collection. Thousands of volunteers filled and stacked an estimated 100,000 sandbags. And now crews are pumping water out of the basements and steam tunnels.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

KASTE: Ron Lehnertz, the university's planning director, takes a golf cart down to the river to look at those defenses. He says the sandbags have made a difference but they're still vulnerable.

Mr. RON LEHNERTZ (Planning Director, University of Iowa): If for instance, a tree upriver breaks loose from a bank and heads downriver, it's like a missile along the river, and if it comes into the edges of the bank, it can impact the walls - especially when they're as tall of these ones at eight feet tall.

KASTE: The sandbag lines are holding but water is still making its way around, though at a lower level than the 30-foot high river on the other side. At the student union, Lehnertz stoops down to look inside a basement window well.

Mr. LEHNERTZ: You can see the standing water at the sill level. It is all the way up to the sill of the window. And off in the distance in that room, you can see the bookshelves which have fallen off of their edge - really floating into the corner of the room.

KASTE: Lehnertz points out Frank Gehry's steel sheet laboratory building next door, where the murky water comes up to the handles on the front doors.

Mr. LEHNERTZ: It's sad. This is a highlight portion of our campus, where there's the student union, a piece of our landscape architecture, or the Frank Gehry building. It's sad to look at it. There's no doubt about that.

KASTE: Despite all the damage, the university is already looking forward, tentatively planning to resume summer session classes next week. But the sandbags will stay in place for awhile, Lehnertz says. The university learned an important lesson during the floods of 1993 - when the water crested, fell, and then rose again.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Iowa City.

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