Davenport, Iowa, was prepared for a big flood. Then it got the flood it hadn’t prepared for.
The city of 102,000 on the Iowa-Illinois border this week watched a fast-rising Mississippi River sweep over its postcard-view waterfront and inundate parks, pavilions and even a minor league baseball stadium that were all designed to absorb floodwater.
But no one anticipated the water would get past River Drive, the four-lane thoroughfare that marks the boundary between the Mississippi floodplain and downtown.
The river crossed the road Tuesday afternoon, breaching a temporary flood barrier and inundating several blocks of businesses and buildings on the city’s east side.
Among the damaged structures was the 95-year-old Union Station, where water lapped against the building’s foundation and then penetrated the interior, prompting utility workers to cut off electric and gas service to reduce the risk of fire.
Davenport is Iowa’s fourth-largest city. It’s one of the most populated places along the Upper Mississippi not to have a flood wall or other permanent barrier separating higher ground from the river.
Davenport’s leaders made that choice years ago when neighboring river cities were spending millions of dollars lining their banks with concrete and riprap.
Davenport opted for a different flood control approach, one that allowed the river to take back the historic floodplain during high-water events. As with prior floods, the city’s near-escape from disaster is leading to second-guessing.
Mayor Frank Klipsch on Wednesday defended the city’s leaders, past and present.
“This system works very well,” he said at a press conference. “The city of Davenport isn’t underwater. It’s a portion of it, and that’s very important to us.”
Experts say the cresting Mississippi, which is expected to swallow dozens more river towns below Davenport over the coming days, will probably rank among the top five floods in history. In some areas, it could challenge the Great Flood of 1993, the most destructive on record.
The Midwest has already experienced a record-wet winter and early spring, and some communities in the Mississippi and Missouri basins have placed more sandbags in the first four months of 2019 than during the entire previous decade.
“Many of these cities used up every inch of flood storage they had to make it through February, March and April,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative based in St. Louis. “So it really doesn’t matter what kind of flood control system you have. At this point, everybody is going to get high water.”
And it isn’t likely to get better.
Scientists have warned that one consequence of climate change for the Midwest will be more extreme precipitation, sometimes as snow, sleet and ice—as this year’s two winter bomb cyclones demonstrated—or in storm bursts like those that have beset the region over the last week.
Since Sunday, the Chicago area has seen more than 5 inches of rain, sending already swollen creeks and rivers over their banks and into streets and neighborhoods. The Illinois Department of Transportation reported road closures yesterday across the city’s south, west and northwest suburbs, according to the Chicago Tribune.
‘Don’t bode well’
Chicago’s urban floods will add insult to injury for the tiny city of Grafton, Ill., which sits just below the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
Grafton Mayor Rick Eberlin described quickly deteriorating conditions in the city of 640 as local heavy rainfall meets rising water coming down the two upstream basins. By early next week, the Mississippi is expected to crest at 33 feet at Grafton, or 16 feet over flood stage. That would make it the third-largest flood on record, after 1993 and 1973.
“We’ve just got a combination of events that don’t bode well for our city,” Eberlin said in a phone interview, adding he will not require evacuations “for the simple reason that everybody in town knows what’s going on.”
He will probably have to close Route 100, the Great River Road, on both sides of town since the highway is submerged at 29 feet above flood stage.
“That’s a tough decision because we are a tourist town and every day is important to our business community,” Eberlin said.
Scott Ross, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis District, said officials are closely monitoring conditions in Grafton and that flood-fighting teams have been dispatched along the river from Clarksville to West Alton, Mo.
No federal levees had been breached as of yesterday, “but we’re keeping a close eye on all of them,” Ross said.
Many of the most at-risk levees are nonfederal structures protecting agricultural areas.
“We expect the whole district, from our part of the Mississippi all the way to Cairo, to reach major flood stage over the course of the next few days,” Ross added.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.