Jennifer Hamner talks about Iowa flood 2008.06.18

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

It all seemed a little surreal to Morenci native Jennifer (Pummell) Hamner.

As a member of the medical staff at the University of Iowa Student Health Services, she worked at a freshman orientation session last week in the student union building.

Inside, the new students were learning about what to expect over the next four years of their lives. james.hemsley.bridge.jpg

Outside was an entirely different world. Students and other volunteers were hard at work placing sandbags along the Iowa River in hopes of preventing floodwaters from reaching the building.

Memorial Union was evacuated the next day as the water continued to rise.

Hamner moved to Iowa City five years ago when her husband, Everett, was accepted into the university’s doctoral program. Now she’s seeing what many natives encountered in 1993 when severe flooding soaked the region. This time around it’s even worse.

Hamner lives on the east side of the river and she works on the west.

“Buses have been running, but not as scheduled,” she said.

It’s difficult for vehicles to maneuver around flooded streets and to find an open bridge.

“I decided to walk downtown to get a bus rather than wait,” Hamner said. “I walked across the Iowa Street Bridge—pretty much as quickly as I could.”

She called a co-worker later in the day and learned that about two hours after she made her way across, water started flowing onto the top.

By Saturday afternoon, all local bridges were closed to traffic and Iowa City was cut in half.

“I never thought I’d be involved in a 500-year flood,” Hamner said. “It’s mind boggling.”

The Hamners’ home is in safe territory—they’ve checked out the 500-year flood plain map—but many areas of the city have been evacuated, with water seeping into homes, businesses and university buildings.

Many homeowners rebuilt after their homes were badly damaged in the 1993 flood.

“They thought it wouldn’t happen again,” Hamner said.

The term “500-year flood” is easily misunderstood, she said, leading many people to think a flood of this magnitude will happen only once every 500 years.

A 100-year flood is often mentioned, meaning there’s a one percent chance of that area flooding in any given year. Similarly, in a 500-year flood plain, the possibility of a flood stands at only 0.2 percent every year—but it’s happening in many portions of Iowa.

As of Saturday, the Iowa River continued to rise, but it crested earlier than expected Sunday when levees downriver gave way. Communities to the south were suddenly under water; Iowa City got a break.

Emergency situations often bring out the best in people and Hamner has seen it happen.

“It’s amazing to see the community come together and help with sandbagging,” she said. “The dedication of people has been the best thing to come out of this.”

Hamner spoke by cell phone as she and her family were heading out of the city for a planned vacation. The sun was shining and it looked like a nice June day in Iowa.

“It’s weird to be leaving all of this,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that our house is safe. So many people have lost their possessions. Our thoughts and prayers will be back with everyone in Iowa City.”

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