Home Is Where the Flood Is

On my first trip to Normandy Drive, four months ago, I marveled at the stately old trees and the modest well-kept homes that lined the wide streets. I thought it was the perfect place to buy my first home.

When I drove out of my new neighborhood one night—only four weeks removed from sinking my savings into that first house—the streets were filled with water, the curbs piled high with debris, and the gentle light from backyard patios had been replaced by the intense blue-red flash of emergency vehicles.

The wreckage of the Parkview Terrace neighborhood (and much of Iowa City) has left many searching for answers. Despite the obvious role played by Mother Nature, it seems only natural to look for someone to take the blame. After all, the end result of everything truly American is a lawsuit, right?

Much has been said about the human causes of the flood damage. The Army Corps of Engineers kept the water higher than their target levels leading up to the flood. Farms have been tiled over, speeding the flow of water into the rivers. Monocrops and parking lots have replaced deep-rooted prairie grasses which once sucked up the rainwater. Increases in carbon output have resulted in more precipitation in the Upper Midwest. Developers pushed city councils to approve building on grounds possibly better left uninhabited.

The unfortunate reality is that there doesn’t seem to be an easy scapegoat. The floods in Iowa City were a fierce blend of manmade and natural phenomena. No single cause can shoulder all the blame, and yet so many factors played a role.

Even worse, the great cruelty of the perfect storm that hit Iowa City this summer is that it could happen again. The Coralville Reservoir has lost 10 percent of its capacity (by conservative estimates) and continues to fill with silt. The cornfields are far too profitable to be left to nature. The U.S. Global Change Research Program estimates an increase of 25 percent in annual rainfall due to climate change. My house still sits just one road removed from the Iowa River.

It pains me to think that I should have been smarter about where my wife, Liz, and I bought our first house. We knew about 1993. Our eyes are open to climate change. Perhaps we could have saved ourselves so much trouble.

Still, there’s no going back. My fate now firmly rests on the shoulders of our city leaders who are saddled with the unenviable task of decided the fate of entire neighborhoods. Buyouts? Flood walls? Something else? Nothing?

Their answers can’t come soon enough for those of us whose fates are twisting in the wind. If the buyout comes, we must say goodbye to our homes and start anew. If there is no buyout we have to make the uneasy decision to pour money into rebuilding our still flood-prone neighborhoods.

On a recent trip back, I walked through the streets watching longtime residents pitch twenty years of life out onto the curb. My thoughts inevitably turned to my own future on Normandy Drive. My house now sits in wait—an empty canvass of two-by-fours yearning for another chance at being called home.

I want to return. I want to drive past the old trees again, to step out of my front door and greet the many friends I made on the sandbag lines. I want to return to a normal life—to sleep under my own roof again.

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But instead, like my house, I wait.