I bought my first car in June 2019. It was a used, steel grey Honda Civic that my older brother, Alan, told me I’d definitely paid two thousand dollars too much for. I needed it because I was going to live in Des Moines, Iowa, while I interned for ABC covering the presidential caucuses.
A few weeks later, Alan helped me drive the seventeen hours from upstate New York to Des Moines. We reached Iowa at mile 924. From then on, I-80 immersed us in an excess of Americana. The billboards grabbed at our eyes. Primary colors and exuberant, all-caps jingles tempted us with everything from prairie museums to slot machines. “WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE!” announced the billboard urging us to stop at the nation’s largest truck stop—which features a dentist, a library, and a full-sized 18-wheeler parked inside for decoration.
After a brief blazing sunset, a summer storm set in. By the time we reached Des Moines two hours later, it was still pouring. The rain was coming down so fast that no windshield wipers could keep up. The tall, evenly spaced streetlamps glowed through the rain, illuminating the downtown’s wide, empty avenues. After I successfully parallel parked on my third try, we carried my suitcase up to the apartment I was going to share with a friend doing campaign work that summer. Our phones pulsed and screeched, warning of flash floods. I was relieved not to be driving in the worst of the storm; I would wait to drive Alan to his Airbnb. A little after midnight, the rain was still heavy but had faded from a violent pounding to a constant splatter of bloated droplets.
We only had one umbrella, so I went out to bring the car to the front of my building and pick up Alan. Outside, the quiet downtown of the pristine Midwestern city had transformed into a disaster news reel. Muddy water had submerged the asphalt parking lot next to my building. I rolled up my jeans and waded in the general direction of my car. Just a few hours ago, I’d parked it on a quiet, treelined street. The water kept climbing up my legs as I walked. I hadn’t changed out of my white sneakers—too late now.
The street had become a free-flowing canal. A steady current carried a Volkswagen downstream. The drivers’ seat was eerily empty and its headlights illuminated the swirling water. I looked for some sign of my car and proceeded into deeper water. I tried to convince myself that perhaps I was just extremely turned around, that my car was actually on some other, much drier street. I texted Alan to come outside fast.
I leaned on my automotive ignorance to delay my panic. I decided there was at least a possibility that cars are temporarily watertight—after all, how else could the Volkswagen float? I waded down the street until the water reached my waste. I spied the top of my car. The murky water lapped at the rearview mirror. Inside, it edged towards the glove compartment. I pictured the mold that would blossom over the upholstery. Panicking now, I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what that something should be. All I could do was wait.
A pair of blue headlights turned the corner down the block and headed right into the flood water. The driver was either an idiot or a superman; even I knew that driving into four feet of water was self-destructive. As he came closer, I saw that his souped-up Chevy rested on wheels so wide that they easily kept the engine safely above the rising water. Two teenage boys in Carhartt’s and high rubber boots squatted in the bed of the truck. The Chevy picked up speed and pushed a wave of filth towards me as it passed. I was indignant—somehow more upset by this than by my totaled car. The Chevy braked, and a youngish man with unintelligible black tattoos straggling up his arm jutted his head out the window looking somewhat flustered and very guilty. He said sorry several times in a row and asked me if the Honda was mine. Yes, I said. He had a tow line attached to his car; he would come back after he helped his friend and pull my car to higher ground. Relieved that something was finally going right, I said thank you. He’d circle back in thirty minutes. Meanwhile, Alan had come out to help me.
The Chevy did come back, but the driver and his friends determined that dragging my small car down the length of the submerged road would do more harm than good. By then, Alan and I didn’t see any hope of salvaging the car, but the man with the tattoos insisted that it was worth trying. He, Alan, and his two friends lined up behind the car to push it over the curb and into the relatively dry parking lot of a nondescript government building. Soaked and strained, they shouldered it a few feet uphill, paused and repositioned, and started up again.
The man with the tattoos advised me to open all the doors so that it could start drying out when the sun came out. After all, the car was in no condition to tempt a potential thief. He suggested a tow truck company to call in the morning and assured us that there was a shot in hell that the engine could be salvaged. He had seen it done. His friends piled back into the Chevy and they all waved goodbye.
He had had plenty of opportunities to see the ins and outs of flooded cars. For Des Moines, the flash flood that had totaled my car along with the other twenty-odd cars parked on the block and marooned drivers on a major crosstown highway could have been worse. No one had been evacuated and no one had died. When rain comes down fast in Des Moines, the water has few places to go. Asphalt parking lots run up against concrete sidewalks forming a barrier of impermeable surfaces. The storm drains cannot keep up. In the Midwest, rainfall has increased between 5% and 10% over the last fifty years. Rising temperatures over the Gulf of Mexico send frequent, intense storms through the Midwest. Short-lived downpours overwhelm aging sewer systems built for more moderate rainfall. Climate scientists predict that the storms will get worse as temperatures continue to rise.
Flooded Homes in Des Moines
The Monday after the storm, I drove a rented car (the first of many that summer) over to the station of a local ABC affiliate where my boss in D.C. had assigned me a desk. There was a lull in the stream of campaign barbecues, meet and greets, and agriculture tours that Democratic candidates churned through to convince Iowans of their merits. So that week, I’d assist with local news. A tall blonde producer greeted me and expressed polite sympathy about my car.
Journalists have a mixed relationship with other people’s misfortunes. Stories, after all, are their product. The producer promptly passed me to one of her reporters who needed a segment for that evening’s news. Lakyn McGee had long brown hair arranged in symmetrical waves and impeccably lined pink lipstick—TV ready. She drove me over to where my car had been totaled, and I found myself on the opposite end of her camera.
Over the next week, I got a full tour of Des Moines’ floods as I drove around the city with McGee collecting segments for the Local 5 evening news. One morning, we drove to Beaverdale, a middle-class neighborhood on the northern edge of the city.
McGee was filming a five-minute segment on a flood that had happened exactly one year ago. On June 30, 2018, eight inches of rain inundated Beaverdale within just a few hours. The water left cars stranded in yards and forced hundreds to evacuate. I lingered awkwardly in the street holding her camera while she walked up and knocked on random doors, asking for interviews. The residents didn’t seem surprised. Perhaps living at the epicenter of the flood had made them frequent targets for reporters. Most were eager to talk. Impatience with municipal government loosens tongues.
A thin woman drinking coffee amid the jungle of house plants crowding her porch agreed to talk to us. She described how the water climbed steadily uphill into her house. She had lost thousands in property damage. Without flood insurance, she had to cover it all herself. She remembered her insurance agent was aghast, telling her, “We wouldn’t have told you to get flood insurance—wouldn’t have sold it or advised it. You’re not anywhere near water.”
The neighborhood’s sewers routinely fail to keep up with rainfall. The issue goes beyond the worsening storms—Beaverdale’s sewers had not been updated since its subdivisions were first developed in the mid-20th century. Parts of the stormwater system were still made of wood. Flooding had become a habitual problem over the last twenty years, although no one expected anything as bad as 2018.
“When you have eight inches of water land on your neighborhood in a three-hour timespan, there’s no infrastructure in the world that will handle that,” Des Moines’ public works director Jonathon Gano told another local station. “Engineers don’t design for that or events that large because they would result in infrastructure that is enormously expensive.”
Des Moines put together a $13.5 million plan to expand Beaverdale’s sewage system. We spoke to Steven Naber, a city engineer in a blue polo who excitedly explained the arrows and multicolored lines covering the maps in his office. The new plan had been fifteen years in the making, and funding materialized after the 2018 catastrophe.
The $13.5 million plan is extensive, and it is just one part of a $145 million plan to overhaul the city’s drainage system. Iowa is not a wealthy state, and Des Moines is not a wealthy city. Home values in Beaverdale hover between $100,000 and $200,000. While the urban tax base has recovered some since the devastation of the 2008 crisis, $145 million is a steep price for the city. A one percent sales tax increase has helped defray the costs. Midwestern regions are at a disadvantage to coastal regions in the competition for federal funding. The Army Corps of Engineers’ cost-benefit formula determines the merits of a project based on property values, and homes in Des Moines are a fraction of the cost of many of their coastal counterparts.
Later that week, we visited Birdland, a low-income neighborhood nearly level with the Des Moines River. A man named Jim Wolf had called the station repeatedly. He was insistent that a reporter needed to come and broadcast his complaints about the city’s negligence.
As Lakyn McGee and I drove down the block, we saw Wolf waiting for us outside a low-lying white shotgun style house. He had thick wire-framed glasses, a chaotically combed tuft of grey hair, and a boxy short-sleeved button-down. He lived just a few blocks from the river. In 2008, the levee protecting his neighborhood broke, and his street became an extension of the river. He and his partner faced $50,000 in repairs. He had only stayed because he could not afford a new home. Although 2008 was the most devastating flood in Birdland, he estimated that he had seen twelve separate floods.
He showed us inside. The stale, tangy odor of mold mingled with the humid air in his unventilated living room. Downstairs in his basement, cords hanging from the ceiling supported a tangled network of PCP pipes that led into a hole in the concrete floor. Without public assistance or the money to pay a professional, he had built his own pump system. From what I could understand, the pipes caught the water before it filled his basement, holding it until the sewers could absorb it. He was visibly proud when he told us it had successfully handled the latest flood.
Since 2008, he had learned all there is to know about flooding. He attended public meetings most people ignore, evaluated government reports detailing infrastructure updates, and spent hours online monitoring incoming storms on NOAA. Maps showing watersheds and drainage systems hung haphazardly over his desktop. I struggled to follow his highly technical language as he explained detention ponds, cisterns, and sump pumps. He cited the exact measurements of the sanitary sewer pipes on his street—forty-two inches. He knew precisely what he thought the city ought to do: spend $6 million to install cisterns that would capture water before it overflowed into the street.
For the neighborhoods most vulnerable to flooding, investing millions and rebuilding is not the only choice. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang even named his climate policy “Move to Higher Ground”—in other words, do not pour millions into infrastructure trying to do the impossible. Relocate. After the 2008 floods, Des Moines encouraged some Birdland residents to do just that. It offered to buy out the most vulnerable residents’ homes. Of the 270 homes in the area prior to 2008, only 54 remained in 2017. After a homeowner takes a voluntary buyout, the city destroys the house. Vacant lots dot Birdland. However, buying out homes is expensive, and not everyone who wanted out was able to leave. Without a buyout, Wolf stayed in Birdland fighting the floods.
While we spoke to Wolf, volunteers in brightly colored T-shirts were working on a construction site two lots away. The Des Moines Habitat for Humanity chose Birdland as the locale for a small pocket neighborhood of 23 houses for low-income families. The leading city paper, The Des Moines Register, called the project “hope for the have-nots,” and Habitat for Humanity touted levee repairs in 2011 as evidence that it was safe to build. In Wolf’s experience, though, water still found its way into the neighborhood. He ruled that the project was ill-fated.
Building a levee is an expensive project that, apparently, is easy to botch. The Army Corps of Engineers built the new levee. The price tag was $8 million, and the city had covered 35%. The success proved short-lived when the city found that the levee leaked. The Corps had used a 2002 analysis of the soil in its designs, but the soil had changed in the nine years between the study and the construction. There was not enough clay to keep the Des Moines River from bleeding through the base of the levee. Now, leakage is eroding the land and endangering the neighborhood as it rebuilds. The city is legally responsible for 35% of the project to repair the Corps’ mistake, which will cost anywhere from $3 to $12 million.
The Des Moines River
Building bigger and better infrastructure to keep up with the floods is not the only solution. A program called the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) tackles flood risks on a regional scale, bringing urban and rural stakeholders together. The city has sparred with farmers upstream on the Des Moines River over flooding and pollutants. Their underground irrigation tiles funnel nitrate-loaded rainwater into the river’s tributaries, unintentionally endangering the urban levees downstream. The IWA compensates farmers for turning their cropland into wetlands that can hold water during a storm and take pressure off of strained levees. Similar conservationist partnerships between the city and the countryside are spreading throughout the state. Perhaps, they will help the region break out of a cycle of levee destruction and rebuilding.
High limestone levies hem the Des Moines River. Clean and placid, it became my favorite spot for a walk. However, the river routinely resists its artificial channel. In 1993, the river broke through the levees, forcing 10,000 people to evacuate and damaging 21,000 homes. Families went without drinking water for nearly three weeks. The river overwhelmed its levees again in 2008, 2011, and 2018. Meanwhile, climate scientists warn that floods will become more frequent and more catastrophic, and the river’s water level is creeping higher. The city hopes that its $111 million project to raise the levees will protect it.
Climate change may exacerbate the problem, but flooding has always hounded Des Moines. The city began in 1843 when the U.S. Army built a fort to surveil the Sauk and the Meskwaki Indians as they were forced west. Fort Des Moines grew into a city as settlers chose it for their homesteads, confident that its placement at the fork of the Racoon and the Des Moines Rivers promised prosperity. In the age of steamboats, rivers were the economic arteries of the nation. Railroads soon made water navigation redundant, but the city stayed where it was.
Heavy snow melts upstream wreaked havoc in 1851, just a few years after an Army captain founded Fort Des Moines. “The flood of 1851 was one of those extraordinary events which happen in a state but once in a lifetime,” wrote a historian named Tacitus Hussey in 1902. He was confident, however, that “it could scarcely occur again because of changes in physical conditions.”
He was under the mistaken impression that digging up prairie would keep the threatening water from the city. The transition had just the opposite effect. Over time, cropland that retains little water consumed the prairies. Prairie plants extend as far as fifteen feet underground during the summer. The roots of living and dead grasses interweave with one another, forming a thick sponge that absorbs rain. Without those roots, floods come faster and bigger.
After reassuring his readers that a flood of this magnitude was safely in the past, Hussey described its full destructive force. Settlers abandoned their homes to the water and fled to the hills, glad to escape with their lives. The river swept away farm animals, crops, fences, and homes. Its current ripped through the loose topsoil, “undermining the heavy timber, forming temporary dams, ploughing out new channels and carrying the soil…to the south to form new islands, and change the line of the shores.” Left to its own caprices, the river forged a new channel. Today, the city relies on the levies to hold it in.
Flooding in Rural Iowa
By early July, my actual job picked up. I spent the next few weeks tailing presidential candidates as they zigzagged across the state meeting, greeting, speechifying, and handshaking as many Iowans as they could. I would drive between two and three hours in the morning to log and tape a stump speech I’d long ago begun to memorize, and turn around in the evening to join a procession of 18-wheelers flowing towards Des Moines.
I got to know I-80 well. The highway cuts a clean line across the state, stringing Iowa City, Des Moines, and Omaha together—three beads of population on a bridge across miles of farmland. Nineteenth-century farmhouses rise up from the flat landscape like fleeting Grant Wood paintings. Their unadorned sharp lines make them look austere, as though they would stay just where they were for another hundred years even though their shutters needed a new layer of paint.
Some of the most distant events I covered were tours of flood destruction in southwestern Iowa. My editors said they weren’t necessarily newsworthy, but I was curious. On July 8, I woke up around 6:00 am to make a sunrise drive to Red Oak, Iowa where Julian Castro was going to meet with local residents to talk about the floods that had swept away towns, submerged 40,000 acres of farmland, and left Iowa with $2 billion in destroyed property—not to mention the personal tragedy that repeated itself throughout southwest Iowa where hundreds lost both home and livelihood.
Julian Castro’s first stop, Red Oak, was perched at the edge of the disaster zone. To its east, hills offered the safety of high ground. To its west, water still lingered in the fertile flats bordering the Missouri.
A little over thirty people waited for him in a coffee shop off of Red Oak’s central square. Castro linked the floods to a national issue, climate change, but many of his audience’s complaints were hyper-local. Even though families still desperately needed shelter, FEMA regulations prevented them from providing temporary trailers unless they were fully outfitted with electricity and plumbing. They spoke of their neighbors, families who had been split between different friends’ spare bedrooms for four months now. The locals were anxious that residents, especially younger ones, would leave the county and never come back. They were worried about the future of their town. Even before the floods, people and businesses had been leaving for decades.
Castro expressed sympathy for their small businesses. A woman in the crowd responded, “Well even some big ones: Grocery stores, the equipment company. I don’t know if they’re coming back and the gas station along 29.”
“They were just starting to develop the intersection,” added an older man towards the back. “They were just starting to make some progress.”
Depopulation has steadily drained the communities of southwestern Iowa, a region where jobs and young people are scarce. The construction on an intersection on I-29 had temporarily offered hope in the form of a Loves convenience store, a BP, a motel, and a restaurant. The waters had destroyed all of them. The locals doubted that any of them would come back.
A few hours after the Red Oak stop, Julian Castro drove west to Bartlett, Iowa, where he would tour some of the worst of the flooding. The press followed after him in a funereal string of cars. Bartlett sits on some of Iowa’s most fertile soil, the breadbasket of America’s breadbasket.
The road leading to Bartlett’s town center was only passable because it had been temporarily raised with packed gravel. On either side, the Missouri had not retreated. Algae populated the front yards of semi-submerged houses. A lake had formed over the fields. Metal sprinkler systems reached above the water.
The town itself was just a few feet above the flooded fields. Not long ago, water had stagnated in the central intersection. The river had burst open grain pens. Rats had fed on the exposed harvests. When the next wave of floods drowned them, they rotted. Farmers could not access their flooded land, and so the smell of the rats’ decaying flesh stayed.
A tan, middle-aged man in camo shorts and knee-high rubber boots was waiting to give Castro a tour. David Richter pointed out the white metal building that had been his scrap metal company’s central hub. He had decorated it with a five-foot tall, brightly painted bulldog baring its teeth. Teal blue lettering proclaimed WELCOME TO GREATER DOWNTOWN BARTLETT. Somehow, fourteen feet of water had not chipped the paint. Richter’s business had been closed for four months. He could not rebuild until he had electricity. His neighbor had hung a small, tasteful American flag from her front porch as though she was claiming it as habitable even though the floods had yet to cede enough ground for her to come home. A few feet away, weeds grew on the wrecked remains of a toppled grain silo.
The first round of flooding that pummeled the region in March was the worst flood in the region since 1952. The region has always flooded, but not as frequently as in recent years. Floods that FEMA reports should only come once in a hundred or five hundred years tore through levees in 2008, in 2011, and again in early 2019. Usually, the water retreats quickly. Not in 2019. The rain kept falling. Two more waves of flooding came in the summer and fall. Water sat in the streets of some towns for a full seven months. Over a year later, thousands of acres of farmland are still underwater.
The Missouri River is retaking land that was once its flood plain. A century ago, the river meandered widely. In 1907, the writer George Fitch described it as a quixotic, self-willed nuisance: “there is only one river with a personality, habits, dissipations, a sense of humor and a woman’s caprice; a river that goes traveling sidewise, that interferes in politics, rearranges geography and dabbles in real estate; a river that plays hide and seek with you today and tomorrow follows you around like a pet dog with a dynamite cracker tied to its tail.” In 1877, it carved a new channel, jumping over Carter Lake, Iowa, and stranding the town on the Nebraska side of the river.
In his book Unruly River, the historian Robert Kelley Schneiders describes how the Corps tamed the Missouri River, or at least tried to. Even though railroads had made river transportation economically redundant by the 1850s, river boosters fixated on the idea that a navigable Missouri would bring their region wealth. The roaming river did not make itself amenable to steamboats. Impenetrable vines, thick-growing elephant grass, and tangled root systems caught boats in their arms. Over the next 100 years, the Army Corps of Engineers built levees, dams, and dikes to confine the river. They straitjacketed it until it was nearly half of its former width. They filled in its tributaries and walled it out of its flood plains. Although they channeled the river to allow navigation, barge traffic remains elusive on the Missouri. The levee system opened the flood plain to development, and farmers planted on the fertile land on the floodplain. Towns sprung up. Then as now, they depend on the Corps’ infrastructure to protect them.
In the spring of 2019, the Missouri overwhelmed the infrastructure built to control it. Winter storms upstream dropped a record three feet of snow in early March. Suddenly, the temperature shot up, and the snow melted fast. The ground was still frozen. It was too solid to absorb the run-off. A “bomb cyclone” followed, swelling rivers throughout the Midwest. The water destroyed 850 miles of levees along the Missouri, unleashing its force on the lowlands. The current lifted up modular homes and dropped them miles away. The river invaded towns that the levees had protected for decades—towns like Bartlett that would not be there but for the levees.
Mike Crecelius is the Emergency Management Director of Fremont County. He evacuated Bartlett and other hamlets in the bottoms near the river. We spoke a few days before Christmas in 2020. He was an easy-going talker who didn’t need my questions to prod the conversation. He grew up an army brat and ran off to “have an affair” with the Marine Corps just a few months after graduating from high school in another small town near Bartlett. He spent twenty-one years in the Marines working as a criminal investigator, but eventually he needed stability, so he came home. He only applied to be the Emergency Management Director after two failed bids for the sheriff’s office, but he loves his job. “My adult life, it’s been about helping people,” he said. “Here’s a point of wisdom for you to think about”—the first of many he offered in our conversation— “If you enjoy your job, that’s 90% of the [answer] right there.”
He is the disaster everyman: relief coordinator, donations distributor, evacuation enforcer, flood monitor. Crecelius had overseen the evacuations and prolonged recovery after the 2011 floods. Then, at least, the county had time to prepare. The Corps was there weeks before the floods. They built up levees, encouraged people to evacuate, and fortified streets with sandbags. The region also got lucky, and the Corps’ worst forecasts remained hypotheticals.
Just days before the floods swept the region in March 2019, everyone was still home, unaware that a disaster was barreling towards them. Crecelius was not even in the county. He was staying in Des Moines for a conference, but he was nervous. He kept in close touch with a contact at NOAA and diligently monitored the incoming storm. Rain was falling fast into the Missouri River Basin. He realized that the Corps would have to release water from its upstream dams. If they went over capacity, they would break all together and expose swaths of the Midwest to the Missouri’s full force. Releasing water from the dams, though, meant that his county would flood. Crecelius left for Fremont County the next morning. He remembered telling his wife, “I cannot with clear conscience stay up here when I have learned what the Corps of Engineers is getting ready to release on people in my county.”
He knew that he didn’t have much time. Once the storm set in, the water started rising fast. In some areas, it covered 100 yards every ten minutes. He notified towns to evacuate, prepared a shelter, and coordinated barricades on dangerous roads. Still, one man died of hypothermia in the sub-zero currents after he and two friends drove around the roadblocks and the water swept their car off the road.
In the aftermath of the flood, he worked with national charities and FEMA. FEMA volunteers did all that they could to help, but the agency regularly deactivated them without warning. It would take away their federal laptops and cell phones, and their contact information went dead, stranding Crecelius. With only irregular federal aid, he helped people navigate the bureaucratic hoops of applying for grants and buyouts, warned them away from scammers, and managed donations.
He distributed the truckloads of toys that the Salvation Army donated last Christmas. “God bless them,” he said, “I got to play Santa Claus to a lot of little kids, so to speak.” His voice broke up when he described how two grandparents came to collect toys and let him personally give their grandchildren two of the toys.
For the people who lost everything, he doubled as a therapist. “I do not have enough fingers and toes to tell you how many people I’ve stood out here in my parking lot with my arms around hugging and probably crying on my shoulder.”
Crecelius was still helping the county recover as he prepared for the flooding that future springs would bring.
Staying and Going
While I was researching this article, I contacted Bartlett’s county historical society asking if they had any records about flooding in southwest Iowa. The president directed me to Mary Howery, the resident expert on all things flooding. She grew up in Tabor, just a few miles from Bartlett, and her family has lived in the area since the 1920s. After I explained my article to her, she sent me a steady string of emails. She mailed me alumni books filled with every school portrait, every news clipping, and every oral history that she and her neighbors had gathered. She sent photographs of underwater highways, submerged fields, and her own flooded home. She forwarded me information about everything from children constructing a house for flood victims to German prisoners of war rebuilding levees in the 1940s.
Mary Howery lost a lot to the 2019 floods. She and her husband, Jon, had lived in a small red house outside Bartlett for thirty-eight years. A small embankment of raised ground kept them safe until 2019. When the Corps warned them that they had twenty-four hours to evacuate, they gathered up their photo albums and decamped to her brother’s basement. The river submerged their home for weeks.
She remembers walking through the wreckage of her home after the water retreated. Water had stagnated in the basement; it had nowhere to drain. The flood had scattered corn shucks inside the house, in the yard, on the roof. “Everything in the house floated to the ceiling and then slowly dropped down” she said. “You could hardly get in through the stuff.” Upholstery, rugs, furniture, clothes—anything that had absorbed the floodwater—had to be thrown away. They only salvaged a few dishes.
Although the FEMA inspector agreed that their home was beyond repair, FEMA did not give them a grant to help with the costs. “All FEMA wanted to do was loan you money you had to pay back, and that’s a little tough,” she said. “Especially if you don’t know how you’re going to pay it back.”
The Howerys were able to make do without FEMA. Because the river had never reached their house before, they had been able to afford flood insurance. Between the insurance pay-out and their savings, they were able to replace the plumbing in an old farmhouse on her husband’s family farm. Safe in the bluffs, they do not have to worry about flooding anymore. Meanwhile, their old house still sits on the tracks, empty and destroyed. FEMA raised insurance rates on the property to nearly $3,000 a year. They dropped the plan.
For the people who had already been priced out of flood insurance, the shortage of buyouts was crushing. A few miles away from Bartlett, green and yellow graffiti scrawled across a flooded home echoed how many residents felt in the aftermath of 2019. “ARMY CORPS THANK FOR HELP – 0. THANKS FOR HELP FEMA – 0. 0 + 0 = 00” “READIE FOR BAY OUT!!” Apparently, the vandalizer was too angry to bother about spelling. Many residents are locked into paying mortgages on destroyed homes as they continue to shuffle between temporary housing units. Every spring threatens to destroy the most vulnerable homes all over again. Many have abandoned their homes without getting a FEMA buyout. The people lucky enough to receive a buyout may have to wait up to two years. Affordable housing is so scarce in rural Iowa that many have had to leave the community all together.
Although FEMA administers buyouts, it requires local or state municipalities to contribute. Iowa bought out more than 300 homes, the largest buyout program in state history. Still, the program rejected most applicants. After the floods, Iowa sent $36 million to help its southwestern counties recover, a fraction of what they petitioned for. The state gave most of its millions to small towns so that they could rebuild their levees higher than before. They had to prioritize the infrastructure that would protect at-risk Iowans from the floods which could return with the spring. Rebuilding a levee, though, does not help someone who has lost everything.
Buyouts also hurt the county. When a home is bought out, it comes off the tax rolls, and no permanent structures—not even a park bench—can be built on its lot. Already suffering towns die. Crecelius told me that so far there have been twenty-three buyouts in Fremont County, but some people are taking homes off the buyout list. “[As] some people looked at it,” he told me, “well, this is going to hurt the county along with everything else we’ve done.”
In the 2011 floods, one man lost the home that his great-grandparents built. He built himself a new home on the same property. The 2019 floods destroyed it. He rejected a buyout. He decided to rebuild it again and do the labor himself. This time, he will build it up a few feet higher. “He’s just determined; he’s staying out there,” Crecelius said.
Who to Blame?
Crecelius still resents the Corps for not warning Fremont and the other counties up and down the Missouri sooner. “In 2019, they didn’t say a thing to us until after the fact—after the water had already hit us,” he said.
Crecelius is not alone in blaming the Corps. In April 2019, four U.S. Senators held a field oversight hearing on the Corps’ management of the Missouri River in a small Catholic Church in southwest Iowa. The floodwaters were still high, and people were hurting from all they had lost. Two Iowans testified against the Corps.
Cathy Crain, the mayor of Hamburg, Iowa, described how the Corps’ rigid regulations left her town defenseless. In 2011, the Corps warned her town eight days before a flood. The Corps worked with local farmers to add eight feet to its levee. Regulations demanded that they raise $5.6 million to make the levee permanent. They appealed to politicians for aid, and to the public with dance videos and social media campaigns. Still, they could not raise the money and the levee came down. “We didn’t have a chance,” Crain said, “and we knew it.”
Sure enough, in 2019, eleven feet of water submerged two thirds of the town, destroying homes, forcing businesses to close, and leaving one of the youngest and most economically vibrant towns in the county without running water for nearly three weeks.
Leo Ettleman spoke next. He is a serious, blue-eyed sixth-generation farmer from a small town near Bartlett. In the last few years, he has lost his livelihood to flooding again and again. He holds the Corps responsible. As he told the senators, “I speak for the thousands of stakeholders along the Missouri River whose communities and ways of life are literally being sacrificed by atypical and catastrophic flooding caused by their own Government.”
Ettleman was referencing a lawsuit that more than 400 farmers and landowners filed against the Corps in 2014. As they see it, the Corps stole their land, gave it to wildlife, and now owes them compensation under the Fifth Amendment. In 2004, the Corps had expanded the priorities of its Master Manual beyond flood control to include protections for wildlife and the environment. The Corps released water from its dams and adjusted the levels of its reservoirs to resuscitate habitats. Ettleman argued that the Corps had exposed riverside communities to floods. “Unless the Corps is mandated by congress to restore the preemptive flood control,” he said, “the devastating plagues that flood the basin will continue.” Last December, a federal judge ruled that the Corps owed the plaintiffs damages, which could reach into the hundreds of millions.
When Crecelius first came into his job, he was reluctant to believe that the Corps was trying to push people off the land between the river and the bluffs. Still, he listened to “all these older guys talking about that they feel that the US wildlife the Corps of Engineers, DNR [Department of Natural Resources], and the tree huggers, as they call ’em, are all in cahoots.”
They told him that the Corps was trying to make their land federal property so that they could return the Missouri River to what it looked like when Lewis and Clark came through. “Sometimes when I sit in some of these meetings and listen to what some of these entities say about things, I scratch my head and start wondering if maybe these old guys aren’t right,” Crecelius said.
Environmentalists tend to find any depiction of the Corps as a group of green radicals as ludicrous. Afterall, they habitually sue the Corps for endangering the environment. Most recently, several Midwestern environmentalist groups filed a lawsuit against the Corps claiming that building more barriers to contain the Mississippi will lead to more flooding and endanger both people and animals.
Pressure on the Corps to change its ways is growing. In the House, Iowa Representative Cindy Axne fought for a bipartisan bill that would reform the Corps. It would cut red tape around building and repairing levees, and compel the Corps take responsibility for the Birdland Levee. The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 was signed into law in December 2020.
Congressmen including Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley have put pressure on the Corps to make flooding its one and only priority. The Corps insists that in times of critical flood risk, including Spring 2019, flooding already is their one and only priority. Corps officials blame nature and the limits of infrastructure for the flooding. As the Commander of the Northwestern Division of the Corps, Brigadier General Peter Helmlinger, told Congress in 2019, “the dam and levee systems worked as designed and built.” The complex system of levees, reservoirs, and dikes that force the Missouri into in an artificial, navigable channel was never designed to handle the record-breaking amount of rain and run-off that overwhelmed the system.
The Corps estimated that it will spend over $1 billion rebuilding the infrastructure that the 2019 floods destroyed. The repaired system will be unable to contain the water flowing into the Missouri River in an especially rainy year, and climate scientists predict that the Midwest will only get wetter. As it tries to prevent future flooding, the Corps recognizes that mimicking the natural river it once destroyed will help. Moving back levees and planting wetlands would make the flood control system more reliable and communities along the river safer. But that takes land, and towns, valuable farmland, and centuries-old family homes fill the bottoms where the Missouri once roamed.
The Ghost Towns of Iowa
Over a year after Castro’s tour of Bartlett, I spoke to Dave Richter, the owner of the scrap metal company in the center of town. The water had stayed into the fall, keeping his business closed for a full eight months. The flood had left behind two to three feet of mud and a mold that resurrected even after he tore out offices and insulation. Between the lost revenue and the damage, his company had lost $1.5 million. Ironically, his strong credit disqualified him from low-interest federal loans for businesses hurt in the floods.
Only three families came back to Bartlett and little remains of the hamlet. Richter described the empty homes. “They’re still standing. They’re still just abandoned. Weeds growing up all over them.”
“The people that did rebuild, they rebuilt because—I don’t want to call them hermits. They’ve just always loved this town,” Richter said. “They are just really private people.”
For some, buyouts and fleeing residents are a death sentence to communities they love. As they watch abandoned houses take over their towns, they lobby for higher levees. They pressure their neighbors to stay and curse them when they don’t. They blame the Corps for mismanaging the river, and rail against FEMA for raising insurance rates to drive residents out of the bottoms.
“Way back when they first put the dikes in, the idea was that it would encourage people to move down to the bottom and farm, which it did,” Howery said. “So, you can’t really blame people for feeling like the government is jerking their chain every which way.”
Others admit that enough is enough, that the towns they, their parents, and their grandparents built and loved are dying. Forced to leave, some could not bring themselves to come back and see the remnants of their hometowns. Howery’s brother-in-law lived in Bartlett with his wife when the floods came. He was already ill, but 2019 broke him. He died that year. Widowed and getting older, his wife left Bartlett behind. She did not have it in her to rebuild. “A lot of these older people, they just couldn’t see themselves fighting any more floods,” Howery said.
Before the floods, Bartlett was already dying. It had lost its post office, its school, and its mayor. With jobs scarce, young people moved away. The 2019 floods finished what had been happening for a long time: Howery counts Bartlett among the growing number of ghost towns in southwestern Iowa.
The issue goes beyond the worsening storms—Beaverdale’s sewers had not been updated since its subdivisions were first developed in the mid-20th century.
Climate change may exacerbate the problem, but flooding has always hounded Des Moines.
The road leading to Bartlett’s town center was only passable because it had been temporarily raised with packed gravel. On either side, the Missouri had not retreated.
In the spring of 2019, the Missouri overwhelmed the infrastructure built to control it.
When the Corps warned them that they had 24 hours to evacuate, they gathered up their photo albums and decamped to her brother’s basement. The river submerged their home for weeks.
Richter described the empty homes. “They’re still standing. They’re still just abandoned. Weeds growing up all over them.”