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After the Deluge in Iowa City

The Iowa River has crested, but that doesn't mean Iowa City is out of danger. The river is so high, it even seems to be scaring the carp. The fish hug the riverbanks, trying to stay out of the violent currents out in the middle. They're bunched up so close to the bank, you could reach out and grab one.

Iowa City residents are also worried by the debris in the river — even a dumpster and beer kegs have been reported bunched up against one of the bridges in town.

Testing the Water

And then there's the stuff you can't see. Water quality hydrologist Eric Smith takes samples from the river, looking for signs of fertilizer that runs off from agricultural fields, potentially posing a hazard for drinking water.

The University of Iowa occupies the heart of Iowa City's river valley — and has taken the brunt of the flooding.

Don Guckert, who is in charge of facilities, says that after the devastating floods of 1993, the university built up levees high enough for water levels you might see once every 100 years — but not for a flood you see every 500 years. There's no stopping water this high.

Guckert says he's anxious to get back into the flooded buildings. One of the things he's wondering about is some sophisticated optical equipment that was left inside a laboratory building designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.

"We, in preparation for this flood, elevated equipment a few feet off the ground, and it's appearing that might be the difference," Guckert says. "We're very anxious about getting back in there and seeing was that enough to save that equipment."

Saving University Treasures

Still, a lot was saved. Over the weekend, a human chain of volunteers moved the library's rare-book collection to higher floors and the museum evacuated its art collection. Thousands of volunteers filled and stacked an estimated 100,000 sandbags, and now crews are pumping water out of basements and steam tunnels.

Ron Lehnertz, the university's planning director, says the sandbags have made a difference — but they're still vulnerable. Even a tree floating downriver can act like a missile and breach the makeshift walls, he says.

The sandbag lines are holding, but water is still making its way around, though at a lower level than the 30-foot-high river on the other side.

At the student union, water is up to the basement sills and bookshelves can be seen floating around.

At Gehry's steel-sheathed laboratory building, the murky water comes up to the handles on the front doors.

"It's sad," Lehnertz says. "This is a highlight portion of our campus. Whether it's the student union, a piece of our landscape architecture or the Frank Gehry building, it's sad to look at it. There's no doubt about that."

Despite the damage, the university is already looking forward, tentatively planning to resume summer session classes next week. But the sandbags will stay in place for a while, Lehnertz says. The university learned an important lesson during the floods of 1993, when the water crested, fell and then rose again.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.