Oral Histories

Preserving memories, five years later

In February and March 2013, graduate students from UI’s public history seminar interviewed over a dozen area residents about their experiences with the 2008 flood. The class first contacted individuals who had conducted oral histories with StoryCorps, a national non-profit listening program, only months after the flood struck in 2008. These initial interviews can be heard here. A handful of individuals responded and conducted secondary interviews with the graduate students and the History Corps. Often, community members recommended other individuals with a particularly enthralling flood story or perspective on the local recovery efforts. The class used these interviews as an important research component during the construction of “Rapid waters, Rapid changes,” a museum-style exhibit on long-term environmental change in Iowa, which was displayed in downtown Iowa City in the summer of 2013.

We invite you to hear these histories and reflect on the 2008 flood.    

Joel Wilcox

Photo courtesy of Joel Wilcox.

Hear Joel Wilcox describe what it was like working with the federal government and the local buyout program as his neighborhood, just off Taft Speedway and across the river from Mosquito Flats, struggled to rebuild after the flood. He provides detail into the controversy and politics that arose as food victims and other neighborhood residents worked with FEMA, HUD, and other governmental agencies to obtain disaster relief and make infrastructural changes to decrease the impact of future flood events.

Willard "Sandy" Boyd

Sandy Boyd. Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa.

Former UI President Willard “Sandy” Boyd describes his flood experience, noting how most of the bridges and major highways around Iowa City shut down during the flood, effectively cutting some residents off from the rest of the community. He also reminds us that the damage extended far beyond Iowa City, and talks about how the flood destroyed much of downtown Cedar Rapids.

Larry Weber

Larry Weber. Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa.


Larry Weber, Director of the University of Iowa Department of Hydroscience and Engineering, describes how he and others prepared the University for flooding based on increasing warning signs in the months leading up to the deluge. During the disaster, he ordered the Hydroscience and Engineering laboratory evacuated and its basement flooded. He notes that for about a year, experts from his lab focused their energies on helping regional residents recover at great expense to the department’s academic research and grant-writing initiatives. But their work, he argues, was worth the sacrifice and provided important relief to Iowa communities. Since 2008, Weber has focused on discovering new ways to combat future flooding. The Iowa Watersheds Project, a federally-funded initiative to make the Iowa landscape more sustainable, often by redeveloping segments of agricultural land into wetlands and prairies reminiscent of the pre-1830 era.

Doug Ongie

Photo Courtesy: Doug Ongie


One of Doug Ongie’s first tasks as an Iowa City Community Development Planner was to assist in flood recovery and buyout programs. He had completed graduate school at the University of Iowa shortly before, and describes the buyout process in great detail, noting what it was like to go door-to-door to families whose homes had suffered severe damage and discuss financial assistance options. Ongie also talks about long-term planning presently underway to strengthen the Iowa City infrastructure to mitigate the effects of future floods. These efforts include sewer relocation, the construction of larger levees in strategic positions along the river, and possibly even efforts to raise busy roads in Iowa City. This process is sure to frustrate travel in town for some time, but, he notes, will likely be worth the trouble over the long term.

Sally Mason

University of Iowa President Sally Mason. Photo Courtesy: University of Iowa.

University of Iowa President Sally Mason calls the 2008 flood the defining event of her presidency. As conditions grew continually worse from the previous February up through the flood, University and community experts held meetings in preparation for the disaster. President Mason’s describes her presence in those preparations, as well as her roles as a leader, organizer, sand bag volunteer, and media contact that June. Listen to her fascinating dicussion of the institutional planning that preceded the flood, as well as the Unversity and the State’s responses and the ongoing recovery efforts since.

Steve McGuire

Photo Courtesy: Steve McGuire.

Hear University of Iowa Professor Steve McGuire, a then-resident of the Mosquito Flats neighborhood, discuss the tension that characterized the neighborhood sandbagging efforts during the 2008 flood. While many community members rememer the flood as a moment of community cooperation and resiliance, McGuire sheds light on conflicts rarely discussed in public. Tempers ran high, he notes, especially when decisions were made to mitigate neighborhood damage but constructing sand bag walls that left some properties more vulnerable than others.

Witold Krajewski

Witold Krajewski. Photo Credit: University of Iowa.

University of Iowa Hydroscience and Engineering Professor Witold Krajewski says the 2008 flood reminded him that ”a flood is much more than dots on paper,” as so many experts are accustomed to encountering them.Though his offices in the hydroscience laboratory were evacuated during the flood, Krakewski notes that his team secured federal funds and equiptment to perform aerial tests on the depth of the flood waters — a unique scientific opportunity that stemmed from this chaotic event. He also describes the UI’s ongoing relationship with NASA, which uses satellite technology to study the Eastern Iowa floodplain.

Doug Jones

Photo Courtesy: UI Professor Douglas Jones.

Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa Professor of Computer Science, discusses the 140 families who became refugees because of the flood and recounts he and his wife’s experience during what he calls President George W. Bush’s “disaster junket.” Cognizant of the community’s need to remember the 2008 flood, Jones presciently walked around Iowa City in the days and months afterward, photographing the devastation and recovery efforts. Many of his photos are featured on this site.

Africa Espina

Photo Courtesy: Africa Espina.

Africa Espina and a friend rode a canoe to her flooded home in Mosquito Flats on June 14, 2008. Inside, they found several feet of water, but had thankfully been able to elevate most belongings off the floor before the evacuation. Listen to her explain why she still thinks about the 2008 flood on an almost daily basis.

Tom Bender

Photo. courtesy: Tom Bender

Hear Tom Bender describe how over eighty volunteers attempted to save the two buildings he leased in Iowa City. He describes how many tenants refused to believe the flood would happen, let alone prove as devastating as it did. Their skepticism, he says, was based largely upon the 1993 flood and the widespread belief that large, damaging floods happen only once per century or at even longer intervals. Bender continues to worry about municipal responses to the flood, and fears not enough is being done to counter, or even prepare for, future floods.

Lyda Brown offers a fascinating perspective on the flood and the neighborhood buyout process. Many people believe residential cosntruction should be banned within the Iowa River floodplain. Giving a very personal side of this often public and political story, Brown describes the damage nearly four feet of standing water did to her home. She and her husband elected not to move from the area because, even with the risk of future flooding, it made more financial sense to stay.

Iowa City Director of Public Works Rick Fosse recounts his experience with the 2008 flood. Rick remembers the flood in comparison to earlier disasters like the 1993 flood, as well as to other types of environmental catastrophe. He offers thoughts on the growing potential for flooding in Iowa, as well as on the ways in which Iowa City can see the flood as a harbinger of positive change.

Mosquito Flats resident Joye McKusick describes how she and her husband were evacuated from their home only return to a severely damaged structure several months later. Joye decided to repair and rebuild, and lives just yards from the Iowa River today. Many community members have been highly critical of FEMA and other state and federal agency responses to the flood. McKusick, on the other hand, applauds such organizations for quickly and clearly communicating the types of assistance available to flood victims.

Sanja and Maya Hunt, owners of Every Bloomin’ Thing Flower Shop in Coralville, discuss the flood’s impact on their livelihood. The pair offer interesting comparisons between the 2008 flood and the national economic recession that followed suit, noting the difficulties they faced in the months and years after the flood waters receded.

University of Iowa librarian Dan Gall

Hear University of Iowa library employee Dan Gall describe the “bucket brigade” system he and other volunteers used to move fragile books from the basement of the UI Main Library to the safety of upper floors during the 2008 flood. He had conflicted  emotions about the flood; while neighbors lost everything, his property suffered minimally. He reflects upon feeling both grateful and guilty for his fortunes.