Flooded Iowa city still wants to 'make peace' with river
Riverfront Davenport survived for years without a levee. Now its downtown is underwater.
DAVENPORT, Iowa - The Half Nelson restaurant was well stocked and spiffy for its official opening Tuesday, April 30, an upscale addition to the locally owned businesses that anchor this riverfront city.
But then a temporary flood barrier breached, shooting torrents of water from the Mississippi River through the restaurant's kitchen toward the custom-built tile and walnut bar. By the time the river crested here on Thursday, May 2, co-owner Matthew Osborn had barely had time to nap while overseeing pipes, pumps and generators and ferrying in supplies by boat.
"I went to get a tetanus shot and fell asleep in the chair," said Osborn, perched on an elevated bench next to two pairs of chest waders that were hanging upside-down to drain.
For years, Davenport was the only major city on the upper Mississippi to resist permanent flood protection, opting instead for an environmentally sound approach of "embracing" the natural flow of the river with parks, wetlands and flood-friendly buildings.
That strategy had been strikingly successful until this week, when the city's system of removable barricades failed to withstand the river's record-breaking rise, fueled by prolonged rain, snow melt and saturated ground.
The river crested on Thursday at a record 22.64 feet, beating the previous record set in 1993, according to the National Weather Service. Water inundated several downtown blocks and about 30 residents had to be rescued by boat.
City leaders fear the threat has not passed, as the forecast calls for more rain on Sunday and Monday. But it's the long-term threat - from bigger and more frequent floods, spurred by extreme weather and riverfront development - that is making some residents lose faith in the temporary barricades.
"I used to be neutral," said Mike Osborn, Matthew's father, who owns two other restaurants in the area and describes the Half Nelson as a $1.4 million investment. "Now I'm in favor of a flood wall."
Rick Harris, owner of the neighboring Bootleg Hill taproom, was more outspoken as his sons and employees swept water through holes drilled in the new floor.
"It's a fool's errand," he said of the temporary barriers. "The city doesn't take responsibility."
All agree that the challenges ahead are immense and universal. Davenport's conundrum is America's - not only along mighty waterways but on suburban creeks that burst in sudden fury through new developments.
Iowa's latest flood comes as towns on the other side of the state are still recovering from levee breaches along the Missouri River, which plunged large swaths of the Midwest underwater in March, causing more than $1.6 billion in damage in Iowa. On April 11, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, R, declared a state of emergency in Scott County, where Davenport is located - one of 61 Iowa counties suffering from soaked ground and epic floods.
Less than a month later, she toured the flooded downtown of this eastern Iowa city of 103,000 in a golf cart with Mayor Frank Klipsch on Friday. They got out to wade into the street near the Half Nelson to take a closer look at flooded cars and chat briefly with business owners.
"I can't control the weather, " Reynolds said. "But we are going to come back stronger than ever, and we are open for business."
She later tweeted that she and Davenport officials "are committed to a recovery plan that works for both the short and long term."
Klipsch said city leaders are focusing on public safety in the midst of the crisis, but plan to thoroughly review the failure of the HESCO temporary barrier, made of collapsible wire baskets filled with sand.Klipsch thinks the barriers might have faltered after straining against the rising river for about 40 days.
Yet, he said the city remains committed to the path Davenport set itself on decades ago, when it spurned a plan to build levees and decided to "make peace" with its river, creating a scenic nine-mile riverfront in the process.
"We have a beautiful riverfront and want it to keep it that way," the mayor said Thursday. "If we put up a flood wall it will push the water into Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri and make their problems worse."
Davenport's idiosyncratic approach to flood control dates back more than half a century, when city leaders investigated the possibility of building a permanent flood wall following a flooding disaster in 1965. Residents resisted the idea, and there was little appetite among the city council's fiscal conservatives for such an expensive infrastructure project, said Teri Goodman,assistant city manager of the upriver town of Dubuque, whose father helped develop the plan.
Instead, the town built flood-friendly buildings and created parks and marshes in low-lying areas so seasonal floodwater would have a place to go. They set up removable aluminum flood walls around its historic ballpark to keep it dry.
Mike Clarke, a former Davenport public works director who is now an official in St. Pete Beach, Florida, said that the city's custody of its waterfront has been "visionary."
"The idea is you have to work with nature and leave nature to do its thing, and not stand in her way," Clarke said. "Davenport's done a fantastic job of doing that. Don't get in an argument with nature. In an argument with man and nature, nature wins 100 percent of the time."
But he faulted the city for not doing enough to prepare for this particular flood. The river was held back by only one row of temporary barriers, but Clarke thinks the city should have stacked them at least two deep.
"They didn't position themselves for the flood-fighting protection to the level that was necessary," he said.
Kathy Wine, executive director of the nonprofit environmental organization River Action, sees long-term regional benefits to keeping the city connected with the Mississippi, while protecting key infrastructure like the water treatment plant.
Wine, who had just finished finding a dry space for the contents of her flooded office, remains firm in the resolve she made public in the mid 1980s when she set up a giant plywood barrier in a riverfront park to show citizens what they would lose if they built a wall.
Since then, Wine said, she has found an ally in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and encouraged the city in innovative projects like the Figge Art Museum, which has an elevated first floor allowing water to flow through below, and in buying out houses in flood plains.
She speaks with greatest pride about transforming a brownfield into a 310-acre wetland, all of which is now deeply underwater.
"It's doing its job. I shudder to think where we'd be without it," she said.
But she also knows the floods will reopen the debate about Davenport's strategy.
"Are we going to be able to keep a majority agreeing this is the way to go?" Wine asked.
Tim Baldwin, co-owner of the Front Street Brewery, is in no hurry to build a permanent wall. He saw the dramatic gush of water cross the HESCO barrier on Tuesday, and he thinks the brewery is a total loss.
Instead of joining the calls for a wall, he may commemorate the 2019 flood with a new beer, perhaps named "Barrier Breach."
It will add to the many ways this city defines itself by its connection to the river.
At the Current hotel's rooftop bar on Thursday, people tried to pick out familiar landmarks in the maelstrom below: One man pointed out a hot-dog stand where the heights of previous floods had been carefully marked. Now, only its square roof is visible above the churning waters.
This article was written by Annie Gowen, a reporter for The Washington Post.
Frances Stead Sellers is a senior writer at The Washington Post. She covers national politics.