Flood Center unveils Des Moines flood maps

BY NINA EARNEST | MARCH 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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When the rivers rise, planning is everything.

And with the Iowa Flood Center’s most recent unveiling — maps for the Des Moines area — more Iowans will have better tools to prepare for flood season.

The Des Moines flood maps — a project that began in January 2010 — were released preceding the center’s annual legislative breakfast Wednesday. Center administrators and legislative representatives attended the event to demonstrate the usefulness of the website.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said early planning is the “beauty of the flood center.”

“Cedar Rapids had only eight hours to prepare for the [2008] flood,” McCoy said. “If [people had] had more time, they could have prevented a lot more property damage by moving things out of the flood zone.”

The maps allows both community leaders and residents to go online and plug in different variables and flood stages to get a more accurate measure of their flood risk, beyond the previously set provisions of the 100-year and 500-year flood levels.

The premise for the project came after eastern Iowa — including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids — experienced heavy flooding in the summer of 2008, said Nathan Young, associate director for the center.

“The experience that we’ve had here in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are very relevant to other areas of the state,” Young said. “Just because catastrophic flooding didn’t occur in other areas in 2008 doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”

The National Weather Service released water elevation levels during the 2008 flooding for Iowans to plan accordingly, but residents couldn’t always understand exactly how those numbers applied to them and their property.

The state established the Flood Center in the spring of 2009 in response to the 2008 summer floods. Now, researchers work to provide more detailed information to prepare communities for impending floods with $1.3 million in state-provided funds.

Inundation plans for such communities as Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo — and southern Johnson County — preceded the Des Moines map.

“We’re trying to focus on areas that have been affected by flooding and areas that pose a greater risk in terms of greater cost,” Young said.

But, he said, the center is working on additional projects to create regulatory floodplain maps for 85 of Iowa’s 99 countries.

While Des Moines isn’t at a significant flood risk right now, the National Weather Service said the Mississippi River will likely reach flood stage soon.

Bill Stowe, the Des Moines public-works director, said the flood center was in constant communication with the city over the past year as the center developed the mapping project.

The director said the city will have more reliable data for planning evacuation routes and the overall emergency response than would have been used with the 100- and 500-year standards.

And individuals, in turn, will have the chance to prepare for proper flood mitigation and consider the necessity of federal property insurance.

“This is a lot more real-world than that,” Stowe said.

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