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Lessons Learned From the Floods of ’93

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  The Great Floods of 1993 became a valuable teaching tool for how city and state leaders would handle and prepare for widespread flooding in the future.

Members of the Iowa National Guard were deployed into their backyard to assist with more than a dozen support missions.

"Being able to come to the aid of Iowans in a time of need is really an important mission for us. We called it the no fail mission," says Lieutenant Colonel Mike Wunn.

The Guard was tasked with distributing safe drinking water, sandbagging businesses and homes, and helping with security. Members are trained to help with the unpredictable, but even some of the missions they were assigned caught them off guard.

"When you have a 500-year flood, or some even say a 1,000-year flood, there are just some things you can't plan and prepare for," Wunn says.

Coordination efforts were something Wunn said needed in improvement in 1993, so the guard knew what to work on for the floods of 2008.

For Des Moines Water Works, hindsight is always 20/20. Since the flood, DMWW has put tens of thousands of dollars into flood prevention measures. Water Works has built two backup treatment plants, added six feet to the height of the current levee, and installed flood doors. Despite all that, Water Works CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe warns of the risk of a system failure.

"We spend a lot of money to mitigate that risk and mitigate it pretty well, but we will never be completely safe from flooding or the consequences of severe weather."

He adds a change in Mother Nature could also contribute to the impending risk.

"We've kind of shrugged off these 500 and 100-year flood events because we know, but something has changed in the dynamic. Climate change is a reality," Stowe says.

Des Moines Water Works collects data from a flood frequency report that tracks river levels and habits. Based on that data, officials determine when extra flood prevention measures should be taken.