The river was already rising when we arrived in Iowa City last Monday, after a series of storm delays the day before. This was the view last Wednesday from outside the sandbag levee. I was staying in the Iowa House Hotel, which is housed in the river-side end of the Iowa Memorial Union Building (IMU), and only 20 feet away from this levee. When not attending lectures or meeting with my workshop, I alternated writing funny stories about my family and watching this wall being built just below my window. Who me, concerned?
The ground was saturated, too. Iowa Street (above), where it comes into campus, began flooding by Wednesday, from groundwater alone, and we watched water rising — and roads being closed – by the hour. Those of us staying in the Iowa House/IMU were told we’d have to evacuate by Saturday. We shrugged and kept on writing. Some of us helped put little twistie ties on sandbags. Others of us (ahem) kept on writing, just pausing periodically to take pictures. (Did I tell you? My digital camera is working again!)
By Wednesday or Thursday, 25,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Cedar Rapids (just a few miles upriver) and we were told Iowa City was next. Volunteers began arriving in larger droves to further build up the city’s levees, especially around our low-lying arts campus which straddles both sides of the river. The sight of all those noble Iowans rallying to the cause was enough to make one’s throat go all lumpy.
Just across the river, the university art museum began to evacuate its most precious paintings (one of my friends witnessed an escaping Chagall) and the library began saving books. The National Guard arrived, too.
Sandbagging efforts became more and more frantic, continuing into the night Wednesday, right under my window. I took this photo from the steps to our hotel, while a myriad of giant roaches swarmed not far from my feet. They looked seriously DISPLACED.
Confession: I had not been filling sandbags. I had been drinking margaritas, instead.
Thursday, and the finished levee on our side of the river… 9 feet wide and high. The Iowa House/IMU visible at right. Shortly after noon on Thursday, those of us in the Iowa House/IMU were finally told we had to evacuate. Immediately.
Friday morning, after bunking with a stranger in the limited (and still accessible) hotel space available in the city, and this was as close to the IMU as the National Guardsman would allow me to get. The fresh-faced soldier from Ames told me that the river was now 5 or 6 feet ABOVE the ground here, with only the sandbags holding it back. With the river expected to rise five more feet, he said the levee would eventually be breached. It was now too dangerous to be near the levee, or make any further efforts to save the IMU or other arts campus buildings.
My more assertive friend Len (who would ever guess he’s an accountant?) was able to bypass the Guard to take this picture of our former quarters. The levee continues to hold, though water is now leaking through. There’s a piece of paper taped to the bottom half of the right hand door to our hotel… that marks the level of expected flooding, when the river crests and the levee breaches.
Iowa City is a few miles down-river from Cedar Rapids, which had the worst flooding in the state. The airport, also in Cedar Rapids, became inaccessible from Iowa City on Friday afternoon, when I-380 was closed to all traffic. The campus was entirely shut down then, too, including all of workshops for the coming week, and on Saturday I had the choice of either taking a 350 mile detour to the airport (a $500 taxi fare) to use my new ticket, or waiting it out in Iowa City until the following Saturday, when I’d originally planned to fly out.
It was tempting. Several of my newly-bonded-for-life friends offered me a cheap place to stay, and a handful of stranded writers planned to continue workshopping on their own.
However, the flood had yet to crest last Saturday, and reports were that I-380 would remain closed for at least another week. I couldn’t afford any more airplane tickets, and didn’t really see myself spending the whole summer in Iowa. A classmate offered an alternative… drive with him to the airport 100 miles away in Des Moines and fly home on stand-by, which I did, with no problems with flooded roads at all except when we got off I-80 once to find a gas station. So I’m home a week early. Those who remained behind have kept in touch.
As of yesterday (Monday) The river has crested, and the IMU is now surrounded by water, and much of the University of Iowa’s campus is under water, as shown in this video shot yesterday:
I am terribly disappointed to miss the second half of my long-awaited workshop, of course, but the week I did have was wonderful, and at least I still have a house. There’s a lot of people in Iowa today who are no longer so blessed.