City on Mississippi considers wall it has long rejected

Scott Mcfetridge and Margery A. Beck
Associated Press

Davenport, Iowa — Hundreds of communities line the Mississippi River on its 2,348-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, but Davenport, Iowa, stands out for the simple reason that people there can actually dip their toes in the river without scaling a flood wall, levee or other impediment.

It’s a point of pride in Davenport, a city of 100,000 people that calls itself Iowa’s front porch and which has repeatedly tolerated the floods that have long since convinced all other major riverfront cities to build concrete or dirt walls.

“It’s the personality of the community,” said Kelli Grubbs, who runs a business a few blocks from the nearly half-mile-wide river. “There is just a great love of the river.”

That love is being tested this summer after record-setting floods broke through temporary barriers and for weeks inundated some of Davenport’s trendiest restaurants and shops with foul-smelling water. Now that the river has finally seeped back to its banks, business owners and city officials are confronting a painful question: Can they still remain connected with the river without being overwhelmed by it?

Looming over the discussions is an acknowledgment of what’s likely coming from climate change: heavier rainstorms that, with spring snowmelt, will swell the river to ever higher levels.

Davenport is one of the many communities across the nation struggling with their past assumptions about the weather. Even as residents scoff at the prospect of a concrete wall or rocky levee replacing the gently sloping lawn that dips down to the river, they wonder if a downtown that has seen roughly $500 million in investment in recent years can survive being awash and cut off from the rest of the city so frequently.

This spring a key road was closed for 100 days and fans couldn’t reach the riverside minor league baseball stadium. A popular brewery credited with spurring a downtown revival is still closed because its equipment was submerged.

Of the 15 biggest floods in Davenport’s history, seven have occurred since 2008.

“Obviously, the weather is not getting any better,” said Kyle Carter, executive director of the Downtown Davenport Partnership, a business group. “Regardless of why you think it’s happening, it’s happening.”

Davenport owes much of its roughly 200-year-old history to the Mississippi River, which was instrumental in the area’s selection as a fort. The river allowed steamboats to reach the community and later led to bridges that connected people and products to large cities to the east.

That history is one reason that despite repeated flooding in the last 40 years — especially severe in 1969, 1975, 1993 and 2001 — Davenport residents have largely supported a modest containment system that includes a wide strip of grass and Nahant Marsh, a 305-acre wetland.

During more serious flooding, large sand-filled temporary barriers can be placed on River Drive, which runs parallel to the river, to protect the low-lying business district. Most homes are safely perched on the hills rising steeply to the north.

But this spring, separate crests repeatedly pressured and finally breached the barriers, causing an estimated $30 million in lost revenue and damage.