Finally, a reporter (Joel Achenbach, who also has a great and hugely popular blog) helps us understand what is happening in Iowa, instead of just reeling off a bunch of numbers about flood levels:
As the Cedar River
rose higher and higher, and as he stacked sandbags along the levee
protecting downtown Cedar Falls, Kamyar Enshayan, a college professor
and City Council member, kept asking himself the same question: "What
is going on?"
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The river would eventually rise six feet higher than any flood on
record. Farther downstream, in Cedar Rapids, the river would break the
record by more than 11 feet.
Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa,
suspects that this natural disaster wasn’t really all that natural. He
points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically
reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies.
Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams
and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood
plains have been filled and developed.
"We’ve done numerous things to the landscape that took away these
water-absorbing functions," he said. "Agriculture must respect the
limits of nature."
Officials are still trying to understand all the factors that
contributed to Iowa’s flooding, and not everyone has the same
suspicions as Enshayan. For them, the cause was obvious: It rained
buckets and buckets for days on end. They say the changes in land use
were lesser factors in what was really just a case of meteorological
But some Iowans who study the environment suspect that changes in
the land, both recently and over the past century or so, have made
Iowa’s terrain not only highly profitable but also highly vulnerable to
flooding. They know it’s a hard case to prove, but they hope to get
Iowans thinking about how to reduce the chances of a repeat calamity.
Here’s a photo of flood Cedar Falls, courtesy of Abrudtkuhl: