Here Comes the Rain — Again

In 1993 the Midwest saw an unprecedented 500-year flood that damaged much of Iowa State University’s campus in Ames (ISU). Last August the school was flooded again, suffering an estimated $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 in damages. What happened this time around? And what steps is the school taking to keep their campus safe for the inevitable next time?

In many ways this flood was quite different than the one in 1993. In August the Ames area received a significant amount of rainfall over a three-day period. The final rain event included at least 3.5 inches of precipitation in a 40-minute period. “That’s like a tropical downpour,” remembers Dave Miller, ISU associate vice president for Facilities Planning & Management. “Up until then we were doing great, but with a downpour like that I knew we were in trouble.”

The high-intensity rain on top of the previous two days of precipitation resulted in a Squaw Creek flood event that was in many ways unprecedented in the area. The 18.13-ft.-crest inundated campus facilities. In all 17 structures, 684,500 gross sq. ft., were inundated. An additional 35 structures on campus received water damages from backed-up storm sewers and high surface water flows on areas of campus far away from Squaw Creek.

Plans Are in Place
Miller and his team have a comprehensive flood plan in place. Every March Miller updates his team list and in April they meet to review their flood response. Team members are given very specific instructions of what to do for each stage of an event. For instance, they know that if the creek crests at 15 ft. they will need to lock down certain areas and sandbag others. Sandbags are palletized and stored in four different staging areas. Heavy equipment, like backhoes, also stands ready.

Each evening during an event Miller runs computer prediction models, and if there is a chance of a flood the appropriate team member is notified. Protocol was followed this time, but the fast and furious nature of the storm caught them off guard. “Not only did we have a lot of water in a little time that night, we only had 10 hours’ notice,” he recalls. “Usually we have 12.” The combination proved costly.

Handling the Unexpected
“I had never seen so much debris,” says Miller of the aftermath. “It was like an urban flood.” Along with mucked parking lots, underwater fields, and inundated buildings, two very important structures, The Hilton Coliseum and the Scheman Building, were damaged. Both of these places were inundated in the 1993 floods, but this time the water took a different path.

“In 1993 The Hilton had a ramp fail and that let in 14 feet of water in 30 seconds. This time the ramp held but two metal panels failed instead,” says Miller. “The Scheman building had water come in through the basement in 1993. This time everything stayed secure, but an hour after the flood crested the front glass doors burst.”

The flood occurred on a Wednesday night, and residence halls were scheduled to open for the school year at 6 A.M. that Saturday. The facilities crew had their work cut out for them, but they were hampered by a shutdown of the city’s water supply. Once they were cleared to use water two days later, the team went from 12-hour cleaning shifts to 24.

As of this writing all of the reconstruction is complete, with every building back to pre-flood condition. “We made it in time for basketball season,” says Miller. “Conferences that would normally be held in Scheman can be relocated, but there just aren’t many places to play Big 12 basketball.” Miller and his team accomplished this by writing out detailed reconstruction plans. This 10-page Recovery Guide covers everything from electrical to telecommunications to mechanical to fire and life safety and more, giving specific instructions on how to proceed and what should be replaced. “We had water in places we’ve never seen [water] before. Some buildings had one inch, others had three or four feet. This document allows my entire team to move forward simultaneously,” says Miller. “There is no ‘captain may I.’”

That same approach is being used for the present task of mitigation. Iowa State wants to take lessons learned and translate that into buildings that can withstand the water and be called flood-proof. Together with FEMA and a representative from Iowa’s Department of Homeland Security, the school is working on making The Hilton Coliseum and the Scheman Building passively secure. “That means no more sandbags or manpower at all,” Miller explains. “Every penetration is analyzed and sealed.”

As Hilton and Scheman are basically concrete pillboxes, Miller feels that they should be relatively easy to secure. However, the school also wants to flood-proof other structures, like the Lied Recreation Facility, the power plant cooling tower area, Schiletter Village Apartments, and the Family Resource Center. These buildings are constructed with mixed materials, making them more of a challenge. “We hired a flood consultant to help us with these,” says Miller.

All in all, reconstruction and mitigation will be completed by May of this year, at a cost running between $30M and $40M. How did Miller and his team move so fast? “In the beginning we had a central flood task force meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” he says. “We also have that contact with the Iowa Department of Homeland Security who gives us the FEMA viewpoint. That gave us real speed.”

And hope that while they can’t prevent the next flood, they can weather it securely.