Lacking substantial state or federal support, local governments throughout the country are using natural disasters as a way to get their infrastructure, personnel and budgets better prepared for the next.
by Daniel C. Vock | September 2014
The flash floods that have long plagued Dubuque, Iowa, seem to be getting worse. Although the city lies on the Mississippi River, the biggest threat of a deluge is from the sky. Summer storms are being stoked by increasingly warmer air. As a result, they carry more moisture and soak the low-lying areas and hills that ring the city. The water speeds downhill toward the Bee Branch Creek, a partially buried waterway that flows beneath several neighborhoods before emptying into the Mississippi. Often, the storms dump so much rain that the creek’s concrete channels cannot contain the runoff. Water spills over streets, across backyards and into basements. It can push open manhole covers, spray out from fire hydrants and carry away parked cars.
As is happening elsewhere in the Midwest, the storms are coming through Dubuque with greater frequency and ferocity than in the past. Six times since 1999, Dubuque has been declared a presidential disaster area. One storm in 2011 dumped nearly 11 inches of rain on the city in less than 24 hours. That July set the record for the rainiest single month in Dubuque history. The city estimates that, since 1999, floods in the Bee Branch Creek watershed have caused $70 million in damage to homes and businesses.
When storm sirens sound, the neighborhood’s residents — many of them elderly people or families with small children — have few safe options, says Mayor Roy Buol. “You’ve got a heck of a choice,” he says. “You can go into your basement that’s flooding with water and risk electrocution. Or you can stay upstairs and risk the effects of a tornado or straight-line winds that can do damage to your home or rip it off its foundation.”