Iowa City continues flood mitigation nearly two decades after the last major flood

The city has made great progress in flood mitigation efforts, with the most recent being a nearly $300,000 floodplain property buyout to mitigate flood damages.


Lindsey Walters

Floodwaters engulf Lower City Park on Tuesday, June 10, 2008.

Isabella Foland, News Reporter

Nearly 15 years after the 2008 flood, the City of Iowa City has made significant progress in flood mitigation efforts.

The city has changed city codes, made infrastructural improvements, and executed property buyouts with the aim of mitigating immediate and lasting flood damage and making it easier for residents to evacuate the city.

The City of Iowa City began updating its flood plain ordinance two years after the 2008 flood to designate where new buildings within a major flood-susceptible area could go, Iowa City Neighborhood and Development Services Director Tracy Hightshoe wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.

The city also purchased 104 properties within flood plains for demolition and preserved them as green space, she said. The most recent residential buyout the city approved was that of 500 Manor Drive for $276,000 at the Feb. 21 city council meeting.

These properties were purchased either by federal grant programs or by the city from its own general fund, she wrote.

Hightshoe added that the city was also awarded federal funding to build new homes to combat the tax revenue the city would lose from the demolition of flood-susceptible properties.

“In addition to buying out homes, we were also awarded funding under the Single Family New Construction program that built 141 homes outside the floodplain and provided down payment assistance to income-qualified homebuyers,” Hightshoe wrote. “It spurred an investment of approximately $25 million in new construction to help in our recovery efforts and to replace lost tax revenue from the buyouts.”

Regarding future buyouts, Hightshoe wrote the funding would most likely come from the city rather than federal assistance because it has been so long since a major flood has hit the area, and the eligibility to qualify for this kind of federal funding is narrow.

“You also get more assistance for repetitive flood loss, and if they could show repetitive flood loss, we’re more likely to get funded in greater flexibility. But after the flood, not so much anymore,” Hightshoe wrote. “Our rationale with buying out is that we’re permanently reducing the risk of flood [damages], and our rescue efforts of evacuating keeps reducing as we keep getting people out of the floodplain.”

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The city also made several infrastructural changes following the 2008 flood, Iowa City Public Works Director Ron Knoche said. The city focused on two major projects and several smaller ones to make the city easier to get in and out of during a flood event and to treat wastewater, which was severely impacted during the 2008 flood, he said.

Following the flood, the city started its first major infrastructural recovery effort, the Gateway Project, which raised Dubuque Street and Park Road Bridge one foot above the 100-year flood level reached by the flood.

To combat the wastewater treatment issue, the city increased its treatment capacity at the city’s southern wastewater treatment plant to demolish the northern treatment plant and turn it into Riverfront Crossings Park, Knoche said.

Smaller mitigation projects included sandbagging and flood-proofing necessary infrastructure in flood plains as well as the construction of a levee, a flood gate, and a pump station at various vulnerable areas of the city, Knoche said.

Knoche said the city is currently looking at flood mitigation efforts in the area of the Peninsula neighborhood, which had its only access point, Foster Road, entirely flooded in 2008.

“There has been some talk of redevelopment in [the Forest View neighborhood] … If that area would redevelop, we would look at gaining access to the Peninsula neighborhood through the Forest View area, which is much higher and wouldn’t flood,” Knoche said. “Or if that area doesn’t redevelop, then we will be looking at the potential for a Foster Road elevation project in the future.”

In terms of preparedness for the next major flood in the area, IIHR­–Hydroscience and Engineering research engineer Nathan Young said Iowa City is more prepared now than it was before the 2008 flood.

“The previous major flood in Iowa City was the 1993 flood. A lot of people in the community didn’t appreciate that the 1993 flood could happen again … until the 2008 flood hit,” Young said.

Young said the 2008 flood’s disastrous outcome inspired the community to take the appropriate precautions and mitigation efforts needed to lessen the blow of a flood like in 2008 or greater.

“They’ve really put a lot of effort into reducing our flood risk and reducing the likelihood of something like 2008 happening again here in our community,” Young said.