‘It has to be dealt with’: what’s the future for midwest towns affected by climate change

a volunteer helps clean a flood-damaged house in pacific junction, iowa
A volunteer helps clean a flood-damaged house in Pacific Junction, Iowa. Photograph: Nati Harnik/AP

Those who have felt the effects no longer doubt climate change is happening; how to prepare for it is a different issue

— Larry Turner doesn’t expect to be back.

“We’re going to lose our town,” he said as he hosed down what little he was able to rescue from his 95-year-old mother’s house after weeks underwater in the small Iowa community of Pacific Junction. “I’ve been here 68 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen. Every home got destroyed.”

Pacific Junction’s 470 residents were forced to flee in mid-March after a surge of water hit the Missouri river and busted through levees the length of Iowa to create the region’s biggest floods in living memory. The breach that wrecked the town occurred a few miles to the north. Within hours, surrounding farmland disappeared under an inland sea and Pacific Junction was drowned by 15 feet of water.

It was a month before most residents could get back into their homes and no one has returned permanently because their houses are uninhabitable. Pacific Junction’s streets are still piled high with remnants of furniture, washing machines and toys.

Officials went through the town tagging which homes might be salvaged and which are doomed. Some residents have marked houses “For sale. As is” but it is difficult to imagine who would buy.

a home is surrounded by floodwater in hamburg, iowa
A home is surrounded by floodwater in Hamburg, Iowa. A huge flow of water breached the Missouri river levees, flooding the town. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Turner worked in construction for most of his life and judged that the water damage was too great to save either his mother’s house or his own.

“My place is five blocks from here. I got a brother lives here in town. He got flooded out. My sister lives here in town. She got flooded out,” he said.

Besides the cost of rebuilding, Turner has another factor to consider when deciding whether to return to the town he has lived in since birth. The surge in water was driven by rapidly melting snows to the north and the “bomb cyclone” late winter storm that dumped huge amounts of rain on the region. Coming after years of intensifying rains, storms and drought increasingly attributed to climate change, Turner wonders if there’s even a future for towns like Pacific Junction without addressing the dramatic shifts in the weather.

It’s a question being pondered by communities and farmers across the Midwest.

America’s two great rivers book-end Iowa. The Missouri runs along the state’s western border and the Mississippi marks its eastern boundary. Both have set record floods in recent weeks.

In the west of the state, Pacific Junction’s trauma is shared the length of the Missouri in Iowa and beyond as the huge flow of water breached one levee after another, turning the meandering river into a series of lakes, swamping farms, closing an interstate highway and washing though towns.

buffalo, a city along the mississippi river, was underwater for days after the river broke its banks
Buffalo, a city along the Mississippi river, was underwater for days after the river broke its banks. Photograph: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News/Alamy Live News.

Three hundred miles to the east, the city of Davenport is grappling with more than 50 days of flooding after the Mississippi spilled over its banks, broke through a barrier and washed into downtown. The streets of smaller cities to the south, such as Buffalo, were underwater for days.

Democratic presidential candidates have descended on flood-battered communities on both rivers. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke were among those campaigning in Iowa who directly linked the floods to climate change.

That’s a politically sensitive topic in a state where three-quarters of registered Republicans regard climate change as only a “minor” or “no real threat”. But the flooding, and its duration as well as scale, have focussed attention on long-term planning to deal with the impact of changing weather patterns even among those who question their cause.

In Davenport, a city of 103,000 on the border with Illinois, the flooding has prompted renewed debate about how best to prepare for what is widely assumed to be more regular and sustained surges on the Mississippi.

davenport was hit with a huge water surge in the mississippi river this year, causing flooding in downtown
Davenport was hit with a huge water surge in the Mississippi river this year, causing flooding in downtown. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

“Between hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts, literally all within a year, something’s changing,” said Davenport’s mayor, Frank Klipsch. “I think we would be irresponsible if we don’t address that.”

Davenport has for years deployed a portable barrier to contain overflow from the river in an area of waterside parkland that serves as a flood plain. But the city was hit with a huge surge in the Mississippi this year and the water has stayed around for longer than at any time on record. After six weeks, a section of the barrier collapsed and water rushed into parts of downtown, flooding businesses.

Klipsch said the old response would have been to build a higher flood wall. That has met with opposition over what a concrete barrier would do to the riverside view and the large cost to local taxpayers. But the bigger issue, the mayor said, is that cities such as Davenport should no longer act alone.

“You talk to some people here and they’re, ‘Just put up a flood wall’. But you step back a little and that isolationism isn’t necessarily the best approach today,” said Klipsch. “The river is not one city but a whole system in of itself so that whatever one city does it impacts others along the river. What we do here very well may have a very detrimental effect on cities down river. One of our small cities, Buffalo, just south of us, had tremendous flood problems now. If we were to put up a flood protection wall it would basically funnel an excessive amount of water and would literally blow that community away.”

senator kirsten gillibrand, democratic presidential candidate, talks to iowa residents who were displaced by flooding
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democratic presidential candidate, talks to Iowa residents who were displaced by flooding. Photograph: Nati Harnik/AP

Klipsch, who visited Belgium recently and noted that the discussion around the climate crisis in Europe is a very different beast from in the US, said that even those who question why the weather is changing mostly no longer doubt that it is. That, he said, has opened the way to more honest discussion about how to deal with the practical effects.

Klipsch is co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative of 124 mayors along the river, many of whom are increasingly outspoken in their belief that climate change is not only real but going to have an increasingly serious impact on their communities.

“I haven’t heard anybody disagree that there are climate changes happening. The source of the climate change may be in debate for some. For many of us it’s not. But it still has to be dealt with. Even very conservative areas realize they’re struggling with many, many climate issues they’re going to have to deal with. When the problem is so clear, it’s easier to get everybody in the same room pushing in the same direction.”

james fontenoy, of davenport, helps sandbag a house after a flood wall on the mississippi river broke
James Fontenoy, of Davenport, helps sandbag a house after a flood wall on the Mississippi river broke. Photograph: Brian Powers/AP

Klipsch said that in Davenport that means deciding what level of flooding the community is prepared to accept and whether that means allowing a larger part of the city to act as a flood plain in order to help protect towns downstream. That, in turn, would require the city to decide how to manage wider and more frequent incursions by the river. The baseball stadium on the river’s edge is already surrounded by its own flood wall and became a small island in the Mississippi for weeks. But the sewage and fresh water plants for the city also sit close to the river.

“We’re looking at potential flood levels in the future and how to accommodate those. Should we start planning for 22 foot being more of a normal? Or 23? Or 24? Our big concern is we have to make sure the infrastructure stays functional,” said Klipsch.

But even now not everyone agrees that such planning is necessary.

Andy Young, the mayor of Pacific Junction, does not pin the flood on climate change. It is, he said, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“It’s mother nature bringing on her fury,” said andy young, mayor of pacific junction
“It’s Mother Nature bringing on her fury,” said Andy Young, mayor of Pacific Junction, of the flooding in his town. Photograph: Chris McGreal/The Guardian

“My thought is Mother Nature had a lot to do with it because it was rain. That’s not climate change. It’s Mother Nature bringing on her fury,” he said.

Turner disagrees.

“I believe in climate change. The weather has really changed in the past years,” he said.

The changing weather patterns have prompted a different discussion about priorities along the Missouri where criticism has focussed on the US Army Corps of Engineers which dams the river, and decides how much water to release downstream.

Turner and others in Pacific Junction accuse the corps of keeping dam levels too high to preserve fish habitats and facilitate recreational boating. They say that means there is less capacity to contain a rush of water from a large snow melt or bomb cyclone, and the corps is then obliged to release large volumes of water downstream.

Last year, a federal judge sided with farmers along the Missouri who blamed the corps for facilitating flooding. Hundreds of farmers and business owners across six states sued the corps, accusing it of putting wildlife conservation ahead of flood protection. The ruling said that if the army continues to manage the river and dams in the way that it does, then flooding can be expected to continue.

Some environmentalists criticize the farmers themselves for taking over natural floodplains that should be used to contain overflow from the rivers and protect towns along the Missouri. They say there needs to be a discussion about returning the land to serving the river.

For now though, the immediate struggle in Pacific Junction is to see whether the town even has a future. The mayor said it can come back.

“A lot of these families have been down here between 40 and 80 years. I’m fourth generation. My daughter is a fifth. There is nothing that was untouched. It’s completely gutted. But we’ll start over again,” he said.

Turner is doubtful.

“I’d say we’d be lucky to get 25% back. I don’t think it’ll be a town anymore,” he said.

by Chris McGreal | The Guardian



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