Saturday, May 03, 2008

Interesting Article on Davenport Flood

I wanted to pass along an interesting article that ran in the Wall Street Journal this week:

Davenport Resists Flood Wall as River Swells
Iowa City Leaders
Stand By Decision
For Levee-Free Town

April 29, 2008; Page A8

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- The rain-swollen Mississippi River is rising out of its banks here once again -- flooding a city park with debris-filled water, shutting down a busy freight-rail line, and lapping against a 4-foot-high temporary berm built down the middle of River Drive.

For city leaders, the mess and disruption is worth it. Davenport is one of the biggest towns on the river to resist building a flood wall, a decision city leaders stand by. "We're trying to work with the river and not trying to tame it," said Bill Gluba, mayor of the town of about 100,000, which had been dealing with a minor flood that turned major after storms dumped as much as five inches of rain in 24 hours in eastern Iowa last week.

For years, federal officials and the media have pilloried Davenport for failing to shut out the river with a permanent flood wall. Residents were long reluctant -- and often short of the required cash -- to build a wall that would keep the river out of the town but would isolate the town from the river.

Davenport is betting that walling off the town from the river would cause more damage than the occasional flood. Cities up and down the Mississippi are increasingly moving structures out of the flood plain and limiting new construction, rather than building physical barriers. And some with flood walls are trying to get back some of the gains -- including economic ones -- of an open waterfront.

State and federal officials increasingly are pushing the idea that levees aren't the answer to every river town's problems. Walls can protect towns against many floods. But as Katrina and other disasters have shown, they also can break with catastrophic consequences.

"We have two kinds of levees -- those that have failed and those that will," said Paul Osman, head of the flood-plain management program for the state of Illinois.

In the wake of the devastating floods of 1993, some towns moved whole neighborhoods to higher ground. Grafton, Ill., at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, lost hundreds of houses to the flood.

Rather than rebuilding in the flood plain, the town used federal money to buy out many homeowners and help construct a subdivision on a bluff, out of danger. Now, most of the riverfront has been turned into parkland and the city has made an economic comeback through tourism.

Last week, the river was at flood stage but was causing little harm in Grafton. "Before the '93 flood, you would have impacted 50 houses," said Richard Mosby, a local cabinet maker who serves as the town mayor. "Now, it won't get on anybody's floor." The river is now projected to rise three more feet. When that happens, "it'll get interesting," he said Monday.

In other places damaged by the floods of 1993, walls were repaired and damaged properties were rebuilt -- to the disappointment of some experts.

"We've been building levees for a hundred years," said George Riedel, deputy executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "We're not going to change this in five to 10 years. It's going to take longer than that but we have to start some place."

Davenport was hit by the 1993 flood, too. Another socked the area in 1997. A third hit in 2001. As the city assessed the damage from the 2001 flood, city leaders sparred with top officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency over whether Davenport deserved federal dollars because it had left itself vulnerable to a flood.

Davenport had been weighing whether to build a wall as far back as the 1960s. Congress authorized a wall in 1970. The Army Corps of Engineers first did a comprehensive study in 1982, setting the cost of a levee at $34 million. The city, which had fallen on hard economic times, balked. Some were against a wall on economic grounds. Others didn't want to destroy the views of the water from the downtown area.

Meantime, the city bought out many low-lying homes and businesses and others relocated away from the water.

By 2002, the last time the Corps looked at the issue, a levee no longer made sense. The cost of building a wall had risen to $55 million with few buildings to protect, said Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Corps of engineers.

Today, Davenport's waterfront features a downtown park with a historic bandshell and a minor league ballpark protected by its own floodwall. A new skateboard park is vulnerable to floods but easy to clean up. A large art museum was built in the last few years atop a flood-ready parking garage.

Under a plan called RiverVision, Davenport and Rock Island, Ill., right across the river, are making other river-friendly changes. Davenport is seeking $10 million in federal funds to develop another stretch of riverfront with special landscaping and materials that will allow the water to come in and make cleanups even easier. The hope is that all the attractive green space will draw residences and more businesses downtown.

Rock Island, long protected by its 1960s-era flood wall, has lost some of its connection to the river, city officials said. It is building a city park with raised elevations so the river is more visible. A riverboat casino is being moved, to make way for more riverfront access.

On days like Monday with the river still rising, Al Kump, owner of Credit Island Bait Shop, just west of downtown Davenport, wouldn't mind having a floodwall. He had been sandbagging all morning. The river only reaches his business every seven or eight years, he said, and the occasional flood brings people together.

"It's a lot of work, but you get everybody laughing and joking," Mr. Kump said. "A lot of good comes out of it too."