For some Mississippi River cities, there are only 2 choices — adapt or move: The River’s Revenge
DAVENPORT, Iowa — In early July 2014, the Mississippi flooded downtown Davenport, turning its minor league baseball stadium into an island. It happened at a particularly bad time: just before a three-game Independence Day weekend series against upriver rivals from Wisconsin.
But the game played on.
With floodwaters lapping at its base, the stadium welcomed more than 6,000 fans to watch the hometown River Bandits take on the Timber Rattlers of Appleton, Wisc. The post-game fireworks display was bigger than ever, and the stadium’s Ferris wheel offered birds-eye views of the flooding.
“This (stadium) — it literally becomes the middle of the Mississippi River,” Davenport Mayor Frank Klipsch said.
That’s by design. Davenport, population 103,000, is the only major city along the Upper Mississippi without a floodwall. Part of its downtown functions as an urban floodplain.
During flooding, elevated sidewalks link up with removable steel bridges and ramps to the stadium. Parking is tight when much of it is under water, so the River Bandits enlist a shuttle to bring fans from lots on higher ground.
Since the 1980s, Davenport has put limits on development along the river. As buildings have adapted to flooding, like the stadium, or been torn down or relocated, the city’s riverfront has gone green. A nine-mile stretch is dominated by nearly 560 acres of parks and trails, much of which can hold or absorb flood water.
On the city’s south edge is the 513-acre Nahant Marsh, one of the Mississippi’s largest urban wetlands. The site of a gun club for nearly 30 years, the marsh underwent an extensive clean up that removed 243 tons of lead shot and heaps of trash. Now the marsh hosts a variety of birds and other wildlife and an education center that draws thousands of visitors each year.
Most importantly for Davenport, the marsh acts as a giant sponge. Each of Nahant’s acres can soak up 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. The marsh can hold millions more as standing water.
“The river used to have wet places like this all along it,” said Brian Ritter, the marsh’s executive director. “We’ve broken our connectivity with them or filled them in, and it’s probably why flooding is getting worse. But we have the remarkable ability here to capture billions and billions of gallons of floodwater every time the Mississippi floods.”
Davenport plans to add more floodable plazas, a water-absorbing sculpture park, and sandy stretches of riverbank.
Clear views of the river and easy access to it have spurred downtown development, outdoor recreation and tourism, Davenport leaders say.
“Most people say they come here because of the river,” said Mary Ellen Chamberlin, a Davenport resident who led a fight in the late 1960s against a planned flood wall. “They can see it and they can literally put their feet in the Big Muddy.”
Davenport’s open arms approach to the river is a point of local pride. But the city does suffer damage during large floods. After flooding in 2001, the city needed more than $3 million to pay for cleanup. FEMA, which covered 90 percent of the tab, was critical of Davenport for refusing to build a floodwall. Davenport’s share of the costs — about $310,000 — wasn’t much more than the nearly $300,000 the city estimated it would have to spend each year maintaining a levee.
Also worth pointing out, Davenport’s leaders say, is that cities with flood protection also suffered significant damage during the same flood.
“It’s gotten to the point where (the river) comes up and we just rinse off,” Chamberlin said.
Following Davenport’s lead isn’t easy. Many river cities, including Hannibal, Mo., have grown up alongside floodwalls and levees. Removing such protections would require an expensive and disruptive revamp of buildings, streets and other infrastructure.
Ways of living with flooding are gaining traction along the river. Illinois has drawn praise for what flood risk experts call “managed retreat” from the river. The state has aggressive buyout and relocation programs, and has enacted some of the nation’s toughest floodplain development restrictions.
“We got serious after the 1993 flood,” said Paul Osman, floodplains program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Now we’re number one in the nation in the fewest (flood insurance) claims on new buildings. We’re simply not building in floodplains.”
The state has bought out about 6,000 at-risk buildings since 1993 and moved entire towns out of harm’s way.
The town of Valmeyer, Ill., is “the poster child” for large-scale relocations, said Nicholas Pinter, a geologist with the University of California, Davis.
“It was catastrophically flooded in 1993,” he said. “Now it’s been almost entirely rebuilt and its population moved on to the bluff tops, about 300 feet higher in elevation.”
Valmeyer had about 1,000 people before the move. “Today, it’s almost doubled in size and is growing like crazy,” Osman said.
Illinois is spending $5 million buying out 150 structures in what Osman calls “one of the stupidest locations to build a community” — the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where the land is low, sandy and ever-flooding.
Grafton, another small Illinois community, has eschewed levees in favor of buyouts and a slow, piecemeal retreat to higher ground. Much of old Grafton now looks like Davenport’s riverfront, with green spaces and trails. New Grafton, relocated to a nearby bluff, is high and dry.
“They’ve had six floods since the buyouts,” Osman said. “But they’ve all been non-events in Grafton.”
The choices appear stark: adapt or move. The alternative is to continue building higher levees and stronger flood walls. Klipsch, Davenport’s mayor, says that course is reckless for his community and those downriver. A better option is letting the river run its course.
“We didn’t put up a flood wall and push our problems down to places like Louisiana,” he said. “The river does come outside of its banks. We know that. We embrace that.”
This series was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.
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