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How one Iowa city is planning for a rising Mississippi River

Climate change is contributing to more severe flooding in communities along the Mississippi River. In 2019, the Mississippi crested at its highest-ever recorded level in Davenport, Iowa, causing widespread damage in the city's downtown and reigniting a debate about how it should protect itself. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports as part of our climate change series, "Peril & Promise."

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We continue our series further down the Mississippi where this past May, the river crested in Davenport, Iowa at record levels, overtopping flood walls and inundating parts of downtown. Davenport, the largest of the quad-cities with about 100,000 people, is no stranger to flooding. The latest round has reignited a debate about how the city, the largest on the Mississippi without a permanent flood wall or levee system, should protect itself from future rising waters. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has the story.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Front Street Brewery first opened its doors in 1992.

  • Bartender:

    Did you like the "Raging River"?

  • Christopher Booker:

    A year later it introduced its Raging River IPA, a fermented reminder of the historic midwestern floods of 1993. But tonight, this beer being poured in recognition of a more recent battle with the Mississippi River.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    Inside the main floor of the restaurant building, we had about eighteen inches to two feet of water.

  • Christopher Booker:

    So in here, there was two feet?

  • Tim Baldwin:

    Yeah. Where we're sitting right now, there was about two feet of water.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Front Street's co-owner Tim Baldwin says the water came in in a matter of minutes when a section of temporary flood wall assembled to hold back a swollen Mississippi River slipped. The exact moment in late April was captured on a security camera.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    We ran, of course, got some things we deemed important. And by the time we were done rounding all that up, we found ourselves in the back of our building, in our parking lot, standing in nearly crotch-deep water.

  • Christopher Booker:

    It was that fast?

  • Tim Baldwin:

    It was that fast, yeah.

  • Christopher Booker:

    By the time the Mississippi crested a few days after the breach, the river in Davenport was at 22.7 feet, the highest level ever recorded and more than four feet above what is considered the level of a major flood. And Front Street Brewery and more than 30 other businesses in downtown Davenport were directly affected.

    Were you thinking it's done? The restaurant's finished?

  • Tim Baldwin:

    No, I didn't think that the restaurant was finished because, you know, we know the history of this place and we know that in 1993, the exact same thing happened. So it was, you know, okay, we'll just have to deal with it tomorrow.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Flooding has always been part of Davenport. But things have changed. Of the city's fifteen largest floods, 7 have been since 2008. The increased frequency of floods, including this spring's breach, has reignited a debate about how Davenport should protect itself from the river.

  • Frank Klipsch:

    There are people immediately when it happened said put up a wall.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Frank Klipsch is the Mayor of Davenport.

  • Frank Klipsch:

    We've had a long term position in the community that we want to embrace the river and not try to fight it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Davenport is the largest city on the Mississippi without a permanent flood wall or levee system. Rather than build a permanent barrier, the city invested in a temporary floodwall built from metal mesh containers filled with sand, called HESCO's.

    The city has also expanded green space by buying-out low-lying properties, creating a buffer zone that is designed to flood and hold water as the river rises. Mayor Klipsch says it's a model that has served Davenport well.

  • Frank Klipsch:

    When you have a record flood, it challenges you, and now it's a matter of trying to work through that. And how do you in fact continue to do a better and better job dealing with that temporary nature, but embracing the river overall.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In July, Mayor Klipsch formed a task force to study how the city should update its flood plan. It had representatives from federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plus local officials and business owners, including Tim Baldwin.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    This is Davenport's problem…

  • Christopher Booker:

    Yeah.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    This is Bettendorf's problem. Their problem is mitigated by that wall…

  • Christopher Booker:

    Driving around the region, Baldwin showed me what some of Davenport's options may be.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    You think about where our business is located on the river, this would be our view.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The town of Bettendorf sits right next to Davenport. It completed this permanent levee in 1987. It's estimated that a similar wall in Davenport, which is a much bigger city, would cost at least $175 million. But regardless of the cost, Baldwin doesn't want to see one in davenport.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    I certainly wouldn't want my customers to climb up on a levee to be able to take advantage of the river views. So sitting behind a wall like this just doesn't have the same appeal.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Davenport will have to do something, especially if it wants to protect its low-lying downtown. And it's not alone. Increased flooding is an issue that communities up and down the Mississippi are dealing with.

    Is climate change contributing to an increased number of floods?

  • Dr. Larry Weber:

    Absolutely.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Definitively?

  • Dr. Larry Weber:

    Definitively.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Larry Weber is an engineering professor at the University of Iowa and the co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center. It's an academic center created to help the state prepare and protect itself from floods.

  • Dr. Larry Weber:

    We get a lot of rainfall in Iowa. As climate change has impacted our weather in Iowa, we don't get the right amount at the right time as much anymore. You know, we have this intensification of rainfall. You know, it's the rainfall event where we had eight inches of rain and then we get another six inch rain and then another 10 inch rain and then no rain for several weeks or months.

  • Christopher Booker:

    So flood, drought, flood, flood, drought.

  • Dr. Larry Weber:

    Yeah, yeah, that's right.

  • Christopher Booker:

    He says the increase has been noticeable for Iowans over the last quarter century.

  • Dr. Larry Weber:

    In 1993, the general sense amongst many people throughout the Mississippi River was we had just experienced the flood of a lifetime. You know, we experienced the 500 year flood. And so we wouldn't expect to see an event like that again.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Lo and behold though. We've seen many more or 500 year floods.

  • Dr. Larry Weber:

    Yeah, In 2008 people were surprised when Iowa and Cedar River basins flooded again at levels that were equal to, or much greater than 1993.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In June of 2008, Iowa experienced the largest natural disaster in its history when the Cedar River flooded Cedar Rapids, causing an estimated $5.4 billion in damages.

    More than 11 years later, the city is still recovering as it implements a $550 million flood protection plan. Funded with federal, state, city, and private money, the plan includes levees, walls, and entire neighborhoods that were bought out and returned to green space. The cost and timeline of Cedar Rapids's recovery is not lost on officials in Davenport.

  • Nicole Gleason:

    It takes that long to plan and it takes that long to get the proper funding in place. So it's not a quick proposition, unfortunately.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Nicole Gleason is Davenport's Director of Public Works. She's responsible for implementing the city's flood plan, including the placement of temporary barriers.

    Is it possible to balance these two ideas: The idea that you want to have an accessible riverfront and you also want to have a dry Davenport?

  • Nicole Gleason:

    I think it is, but I think that it's going to have to be a balance of figuring out critical infrastructure, critical assets and maybe looking at protecting those specifically and then looking at other ways to turn those areas that are more difficult to protect or don't make as much sense and to protect into more more parkland, more wetlands, things like that.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But figuring out how to balance protecting different parts of Davenport's nine mile riverfront, and who should bear the cost, could be a contentious process with so many stakeholders.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    You start this battle between downtown business owners or those that live along the river and the rest of the taxpayers in the city of Davenport saying you're the dummies that built down there, operate businesses down there, lived there. Why should we pay for this? And on the surface, you know, that's probably a natural reaction and probably with some accuracy there. But, you know, what people don't think about is that this flood mitigation is a is a problem for the entire city.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And Baldwin concedes that permanent flood protection for Davenport might mean retreating from the river.

  • Tim Baldwin:

    If the city and FEMA came in and said, 'this is what we need to do,' we wouldn't have had a lot of push-back.

  • Christopher Booker:

    If they said we need to buy your buildings and tear 'em down?

  • Tim Baldwin:

    To tear them down, yeah. I mean, certainly we would want to be compensated appropriately. But, you know, we wouldn't have pushed back on that because it seemed to be the right thing to do. There's other places we can operate from, Right?

  • Christopher Booker:

    But for now, this pub remains on the riverfront, celebrating a grand-reopening seven months after it was flooded.

  • Frank Klipsch:

    I would like to call this special city council meeting…

  • Christopher Booker:

    Meanwhile, Frank Klipsch's term as mayor just ended, but he says that the city's flood task force has identified several short-term priorities. including commissioning a comprehensive engineering study.

    Has this changed the way that you think about climate change?

  • Frank Klipsch:

    I think the reality of it is there's still I have found there's some people that want no talk of of how it's happening. But everyone can understand there's a new normal now and we've got to deal with it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And officials note that this past fall has already been wetter than 2018. Not a good sign for keeping davenport dry this year as the winter snow melts and spring rains come.

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