Rising waters bring back haunting memories

Squaw Creek’s rising water level threatens to potentially flood Hilton Coliseum on May 23, 2013.

Beau Berkley

Rain has returned with the summer season, and with it comes the familiar threat of flooding, an ever-present and haunting memory within the Ames community.

With heavy amounts of rain received, and predicted amounts still on the way, precautions are currently being taken in order to combat any potential flooding that may be caused by the Squaw Creek and Skunk River exceeding their flood stage.

Scott White, associate director of recreation services, remembers the first time he had to prepare sandbags in order to protect Lied Recreation Athletic Center from flooding.

“I don’t know how many times we’ve done this,” White said. “I can go back to the first time we sandbagged Lied back in 1990. You just get out and do your best.”

White and other officials began monitoring the rivers and creeks early Monday, May 27, but the staff at Lied began mobilizing to begin sandbagging at 3 p.m., and continued in the morning, which led to the closure of Lied on May 28.

“We were communicating with ISU Police and the city of Ames who were both modeling the flood gauges,” White said.” We’ve all done this so many times that we know who to talk to, who is modeling what and what water levels we run into trouble with.”

When Squaw Creek reaches a certain level, trouble can arise for Lied, White said.

“We’re stable at the moment, but we will have problems at Lied once the Squaw Creek hits 15.1-feet. When it is at that level, we can literally have water come into the building,” White said. “We have plenty of extra sand and sand bags, so we’re ready to build higher if we need to.”

Even if the threat of rain over Ames diminishes, it will not end the threat of flooding. White estimates that the sandbags will stay in place for seven to 10 days.

“If we get two inches of rain right on top of Ames, that’s not good, but if that rain happens fifteen or twenty miles north of us and it fills the north ends of both creeks and the river basins, that’s even worse for us,” White said.

Ames Flooding: A Soggy Saga

According to the City of Ames Flood Mitigation Study, Ames has had nine “major floods” since 1965 with two floods occurring in 1993.

The 2010 floods are the most recently embedded memories in the minds of Ames citizens. The floods of 2010 caused significant damage to Hilton Coliseum, the Scheman Building and the Lied Recreation Athletic Center.

According to the National Weather Service, the South Skunk River crested at 26.72-feet near US Highway 30, two feet above flood stage, on Aug. 11, 2010, the highest it has ever been. The major flood stage for that region, 24.5-feet, has been surpassed seven times since 1975, with two of those coming in 1993.

Rob Bowers, associate director of public safety, has dealt with floods before. An Ames citizen for more than 30 years, Bowers has picked up on the differences between floods.

“Every single flood I’ve seen, each one has been slightly different,” Bowers said. “In Iowa, you usually see storms that go west to east across the state, and that’s what these storms the past couple of days have done. Sometimes, you see storms that are more like a hurricane, it just sits there spinning, and that is what the 1993 storms did. The low pressure system was spinning and the storms just sat there and cycled over us.”

Susan Gwiasda, public relations officer for the City of Ames, did not live in Ames during the 1993 floods, but she was on hand for 2010.

“The big one was 2010, everyone remembers that,” Gwiasda said. “What happened in 2010 is that the rainfall came significantly several days in a row and I think that’s why it came on us so quickly. This year, we’ve had significant rainfall for several days, but they haven’t been on top of each other like 2010.”

Repairs and restoration after the flood of 2010 amounted to $42 million, according to Warren Madden, senior vice president for business and finance at Iowa State.

“FEMA (federal emergency management agency) probably pays 80 percent of that 42 million dollars. We’re still in the process of filing those claims and documenting those repair costs,” Madden said.

Taking Action

The combination of experience and new developments in technology have made recognizing and preparing for floods an easier job for city officials.

“There’s a huge change in technology,” Bowers said. “I remember in 1993 we used soil conservation maps to see who owned property up by the water shed of Squaw Creek and we would call those farmers and ask how much rain they got the night before.

“Now, we can find online resources either through KCCI or National Weather Service. The ability to get data on how much rain has fallen, data on what the water is doing north of us, real time data has improved dramatically.”

With the recent flood warnings, all city officials have been keeping a close eye on the water levels.

“We’re continuing to monitor the water gauges, we have staff that go out and walk the river and look at how high it is getting,” Gwiasda said. “The police department and other city employees are constantly paying attention, especially to rivers that are prone to flooding.”

The ability to project water levels has also improved, but still has a ways to go.

“The modeling that can be done now is significantly different, but it is still modeling, it’s still projections and it is still trying to take into account what has happened and what is going to happen. It’s like predicting the weather, it’s difficult and it’s not 100 percent accurate,” Bowers said.

The tactics used to combat flooding are similar to 2010, but the awareness and vigilance has improved, Gwiasda said.

Iowa State has also improved its level of flood defense.

“There is a berm that is being constructed around the building that is not complete yet, so they have been sandbagging,” Madden said. “The other buildings have been pretty much repaired and are back in business. We’ve tried to seal openings, relocated mechanical equipment to higher levels and air intakes on Hilton have been reconstructed and reinforced to withstand water pressure.”

As the flooding crisis continues to become more and more real throughout the final week in May, Iowa State and Ames officials are working on putting a more peaceful chapter into this drenched drama.