June weather

The weather so far this month has been erratic enough to verify that old joke about Midwestern weather: if you don’t like it, just wait five minutes. At least the tornado sirens haven’t gone off this year. Earlier this spring the county installed a new tornado siren across the street. It’s a shiny modern-looking thing that oscillates. I’ve only heard cursory, low-volume tests of its sonorous whistle but it looks like it could shatter windows from here to Chicago.

Speaking of June weather, the local news outlets are reminiscing about last June’s catastrophic flooding. Iowa Public Radio interviewed a couple from Iowa City whose home was inundated. They expressed hope that there would be more dredging of the reservoir, higher levees, and other public improvements to prevent a repeat of the disaster. I thought it sounded like a lot of public expense so they could live in a flood plain.

Three books

If there is a benefit to being shut in by rain and floods this spring, it’s that I spent some time at home reading.

There was “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, which examined environmental collapses in a number of historical societies. I liked it as much for Diamond’s comparative histories as for his defense of environmental conservation.

Then I finally got around to “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. The movie was okay and turns out to be fairly faithful to the book. The book characters are much, much more complicated. It’s an easy read and a good story.

For something a little lighter, I picked up “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” by David Sedaris. I’ve read parts of “Me Talk Pretty One Day”, which is really funny. Does he choose titles his books by playing with those refrigerator magnet word puzzles? “Dress Your Family” is funny too, but a little darker than “Me Talk Pretty”. Most of the stories deal with his family relationships, but they are unflattering portraits of a large family with a disproportionate number of underachievers. Sedaris does refer to the fact that his family is wary of telling him anything lest he publish it in a book. I’m not sure I could do that to my folks, which is why I don’t write about them much here.

Adam on wheels

I’m really tired after working the last two days. It wasn’t work that tired me out as much as bicycling there both days. I declared independence from $4.00 per gallon gasoline by commuting on my bicycle. Actually the weather was great for it: 75 to 80 degrees and not much wind. So I’ve been out to West Branch by bicycle four times in the last week.

RAGBRAI is coming up soon and I want to bicycle at least one day of it. The bad weather and the flooding last month really inhibited my ability to train. So I have two more weekends to get some long rides in.

But first, I need to buy some padded bicycle shorts because my rear end is real sore.

Community sandbagging

Volunteers young and old turn a giant pile of sand into a giant pile of sandbags.I helped fill sandbags again this morning, this time at a city staging area near home. We filled and loaded the sandbags onto trucks and then the city took them to wherever they were needed. It’s funny what a social event it is, even though there’s a historic disaster unfolding on the other side of town. People chat on their cell phones while they’re bagging; others bring their small children and mentally retarded family members to help out. It’s not all that organized either, but for all that everyone worked hard (Iowans are an orderly, industrious, and self-starting bunch) and a lot of sand was bagged.

Volunteers use a funneling station made from a ladder and traffic cones to fill sandbags.An innovation I’ve observed over the last two days are homemade sandbagging contraptions. They are made from a ladder (or something ladder-like) laid horizontally across sawhorses, stacks of crates or the like. Traffic cones, trimmed down, inverted, and placed between the rungs of the ladder, are used as funnels for the shovelers. The baggers hold bags below the funnels and pass them on to tiers, who bind the tops of the bags. Someone else hauls the bags to a pile where they are loaded on to a truck later.

Weekend sandbagger

The food co-op where I buy many of my groceries is right next to a creek that drains in to the Iowa River. I went down to help them sandbag this morning. I shoveled sand, twist-tied the bags, loaded the bags onto pallets, and stacked them along the building. A little self-interest goes a long way.

It’s a nice day today– a bit hot and humid for working outdoors– but nice June weather nonetheless. The store manager was saying (I’m paraphrasing and punning at the same time) that he wanted to keep the store open come hell or high water, or at least as long as there wasn’t a mandatory evacuation ordered for that block. They were even setting up a big generator. The city, because of its priorities, has denied them any more sand deliveries.

Anyway, sandbagging is hard work. Those bags can be heavy: each maybe 50 to 75 pounds or more. We weren’t filling them all the way or even close to all the way. I raise my glass and salute to those who have been at it for a couple of weeks, because I am pooped.

I brought my camera but didn’t take any pictures. If I do more tomorrow I will.

Evening at the river

It’s pretty quiet in town this evening. The bars are open and some of the “stoonts” are having parties in their yards. It looks almost normal except for the caches of sandbags around buildings near the creeks. Even at the University down by the river, where the water is much, much higher than it was when I visited on Wednesday, I found it pretty quiet. The water in the parking lots was still as glass and there was not much going on there except people like me looking around.

Volunteers fill sandbags along railroad tracks, with a power plant in the background.About a block away, though, I found heroic sandbagging efforts in progress. A number of volunteers were filling the bags from a small mountain of sand and then piling them up. They worked quickly but cheerfully, like it was a quilting bee. They weren’t laying a dike with the bags but stacking them on pallets where little Bobcat forklifts will take them later. The pallets were lined up along the railroad tracks. They looked for all the world like an amiable railroad crew, just without the singing.


I didn’t have internet access yesterday and so I couldn’t update. But here it is. These spectacular catastrophes follow me around the country like faithful hounds. And as usual, I’m fine but worried that I’m using up all my luck.

Yesterday had some of the worst weather I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t see the worst of it. It was just storm after storm after storm. Where I live and work is on the ridge between the two main rivers that are flooding now: the Cedar and the Iowa. From here you wouldn’t know anything bad was happening. unless you turned on the television or tried to go somewhere. Many, many bridges are closed down, causing long detours around this half of the state.

We haven’t had a repeat of the flash-flooding at work. Our creek rose a little and for a while yesterday it was running muddy and brown, like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river, but then it settled down. Other than that, work’s been painfully quiet the last two days. Quiet but not especially pleasant; we’re having all of the tension and anxiety of being in a disaster area without any of the excitement.

Today’s weather is as excellent as yesterday’s was awful, but the waters will keep rising until next week. We’re down to one major road (Interstate 80) open from one direction into the area. If the Iowa River covers I-80 like the Cedar did, we’ll be effectively blockaded for a couple of days.

The flooding news

Today’s weather was rather pleasant so I rode the bike down to the Iowa River to see how things are going there.

Men building a wall of sandbags in front of a university building.

There is a wall of sandbags all along the river. The water is many, many feet too high and has inundated some of the shoreline. The Coralville Dam, which is a few miles upstream, is already discharging from the reservoir at it’s maximum rate, and the water is still only a few inches from the top of the emergency spillway. The reservoir is expected to crest the spillway on Thursday, just from the remaining upstream runoff from Sunday’s rain.

High water threatens a university laboratory designed by Frank Gehry.

Go away

A stream of storms has been traversing a streak of the Midwest all day. We’re about to get stormed on here in Iowa City. In addition to the ubiquitous threat of tornadoes, there are already serious flooding problems all over the state. There’s talk of “1993”– the last major catastrophic flood across the Midwest. I think that was a 50- to 100-year flood.

O disasters, leave me alone.

High water

We had some excitement at work today. This morning’s heavy downpours (on top of all of the rain we’ve had this year) rose the creek several feet until it topped the banks. We had to cancel tours and close parts of the park. Our maintenance staff sandbagged the door to their facility; otherwise none of the buildings were harmed. After taking some pictures to document the flooding (including the heroic sandbagging efforts, which should prove popular with the media should they take an interest), I spent the rest of the morning on traffic duty. The water receded almost as fast as it advanced, and everything was more or less back to normal by noon.

One of the photos I took today is on the park’s website. It’s the larger picture near the bottom. Our creek also has a USGS stream gage with real-time online data.