The flood of 2010
Well hi there, blog.
I’m not even sure how to sum up the past two weeks. I feel like I’ve lived about six lives in fourteen days, and the idea of summing everything up in a single blog post is well beyond my ken. Rather, I could give a summation, but there are several things which won’t be given justice if I don’t do each in a post of its own. So I guess this one will be about the flood, and I’ll do my best to cover the rest as I can this week.
I live in Ames, Iowa. You can Google if you want to see where that lies, but generally I’m just a bit north of center, thirty miles north of Des Moines. (That would be the capital.) But what you really need to get about Iowa is illustrated by this map.
Every one of those veins across the state is a river, and this map doesn’t even show you the creeks that run through us as well. I’m in Story County (yes, that’s cute as hell, isn’t it?), and my town sits alongside the Skunk River and Squaw Creek. The latter, in fact, is three blocks from my house, not even half a mile away.
The other thing you need to know is that from Sunday, August 8 to Tuesday, August 10 we got over ten inches of rain all along the Skunk River basin.
Iowa has been very wet for the past few years, and in the past twenty years we’ve had more 100 year and 500 year floods than I care to chronicle. Might be due to global warming, might be dumb luck, might be something else entirely. What it means, though, is that we flood a lot. This gets interesting as we’ve also gotten used to building in flood plains and counting on levies and flood walls to keep us okay. Normally they work, but not for the kind of rain we got.
On Tuesday evening we were at the Ames aquatic center, which is built along Squaw Creek. The pool itself is raised a good twenty feet or more above flood stage, but the parking lot is not. All summer the land between the parking lot and the creek has been a sort of marsh; Tuesday night the creek decided it wanted a little more room. While we were at the pool, they kept calling over the loudspeaker, asking people in the lower parking lot to move their cars as the ditch was spilling over. By the time we left, most of that section of the parking lot was underwater, as was the bike path across the street through the park. Brookside Park itself had been closed all week "due to flooding," though you couldn’t see much of it from the road.
At ten PM that night, it started to rain. It rained five inches.
I had to go out at 11 and pick up Dan from work; usually he likes to walk, but it was a monsoon, and I told him I’d come and get him. was here and stayed with Anna, and I set out with the car. It’s a mile’s drive across flat streets, but I have never been more frightened driving in my life, and I’ve driven through some heinous snowstorms. The streets were all so flooded the car alternated between hydroplaning and threatening to stall because water kept splashing over the top of the engine. I had to turn around at one street because I could see the water had forced up the manhole cover, and I worried about how much water was there. By the time I got to Dan, I was a wreck. We made it home, but I count myself lucky the car stayed running the whole time. Once home, Dan checked the basement, where both sump pumps were working overtime. Water was seeping through cracks in the floors because the ground was so saturated it had nowhere to go. By some miracle our drains didn’t back up. It would only have been floodwater, not sewage, but other houses were not so fortunate.
We figured this would mean a flood, and we joked about if we’d see "Lake Target" again. But when we woke up in the morning it turned out that we were actually in Lake Ames.
There should be no water visible in the photo above under normal circumstances. This is the west side of Ames, innudated by Squaw Creek. A CREEK. The normally docile stream gurgling along beside the park paths crossed the equivalent of three city blocks. Luckily on this side its greatest damage was to Hilton Colliseum. It’s a big deal, as not just sports but cultural events are held there, but mostly this side of the creek took out parking lots. It managed to also spare the aquatic center too.
East side, unfortunately, was not as fortunate. Here they dealt with the eastward spill of Squaw Creek, but they also had to contend with the overflow of Skunk River as well. And the result was a disaster.
The east side of Ames saw several apartment buildings, mobile home parks, a nursing home, and many Duff Avenue businesses swamped with floodwater. Walmart and Target and other chains can recover quickly, but independent businesses aren’t so lucky. Unfortunately too most of the residents affected likely didn’t have insurance: lots of students and lower income people in this area. Add to this that the rain didn’t even bring in a cold front—our temps were in the nineties with humidity indexes making us feel like it was 107—and this was real misery for many people.
Being careful to stay out of the way, we did what good Iowans do in this sort of thing: rubberneck and gossip. First on bike and then by car, we drove around Ames and took photos and learned the extent of the damage, which was extensive.
Because of the way our roads are set up, there was literally one way in and out of Ames, and for several hours on Wednesday morning it took a convoluted drive north to the next town to get from east to west Ames. It was both frightening and thrilling in the way natural disasters are. It was mind-blowing to see how powerful simple water could be, how it could cripple a town and do so much destruction. Sobering too, as we realized how many lives had been affected, both in living situations and jobs. Counting ourselves very lucky to have been spared except for being grounded on our new island city, we went home with Cate joking about how Ames wanted to keep her in Iowa.
Then at 2:30 the situation suddenly became very personal. Several water mains had broken and drained the water towers. City water was running out fast, and what we had was contaminated. We were not to use the water as much as possible, and any dishwashing, drinking or cooking water had to be boiled first for three to five minutes.
It took several hours for this to fully sink in. I ran out quickly and scored some water half an hour after the declaration came through on Twitter, but even then they were starting to run out. I went out later for paper plates and cups, but by six PM the whole town was cleared out of bottled water and all paper/disposable table service. All restaurants were also closed. And we were still a veritable island. Worst of all, there was rain forecast for Friday. It wasn’t meant to be much, but at our water levels, they said even an inch could devastate us all over again. Eventually they got us potable water set up at several stations around town, but it took some time, and until Thursday afternoon, bottled water, free or paid for, was hard to find. We were supposed to flush as little as possible and weren’t even allowed showers until Thursday afternoon, and even then they were under orders to be "short." At first people were bad at compliance, and they were talking about the emergency situation lasting until late the following week.
Eventually the roads opened one by one, and after some discussion, we decided to send Cate to , who lives in West Des Moines, not far from the airport. We left on Friday before any rain started, leaving Cate with Caryle and taking Anna to my mother’s house in Ottumwa. We didn’t want to take chances that we’d wake up on Saturday to find that I-35 between Des Moines and Minnesota looked like this again, or worse.
In the end, the rain passed us by, which is a blessing. By now Cate is winging her way back to Alberta, Anna is happily at Camp Grandma, and I am eagerly awaiting the announcement that maybe today we will get drinking water back again. We’re already back at full capacity for use, and I recently enjoyed a possibly slightly contaminated shower. I still have many flats of water and gallons, purchased by me, donated by FEMA, and by family and friends. Cate got to cook for us (without having to boil her dishwater) at Caryle’s house on Friday, and we took decadent showers before we watched 9 to 5. All roads are open, floodwaters have receeded, and cleanup is beginning. Today even the humidity is down.
So this is the story of the flood, one of the many reasons I’ve been lax in blogging, tweeting, and everything else Internet. There are many other stories to tell, of houseguests and vacations, of writing news, of new ways to battle chronic pain. But right now I’m going to make myself a little dinner and then, for the first time in forever, sit down and write. Blissfully. Joyfully. With my coffee made from bottled water and with one eye on the twitter feed, waiting for @cityofames to declare that my water is completely safe again.