Branstad can't defend his record on flood prevention

State Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids toured Iowa last week to discuss former Governor Terry Branstad's record of inaction on flood prevention. This press release from September 3 highlights five key recommendations from 1994 Iowa Flood Disaster Report prepared by Brig. Gen. Harold Thompson of the Iowa National Guard (click here for a pdf file of the report) .

1. "Reducing vulnerability to future floods is as important as improving disaster relief capabilities and programs." - Terry Branstad took no action on this recommendation

2. Communities need "adequate state assistance in mitigating future flood damage" - Terry Branstad took no action on this recommendation

3. Better flood technology and information including "electronic river monitoring," "detailed river basin modeling," and "extensive mapping" - Terry Branstad took no action on this recommendation

4. Incorporate "watershed management" including "wetland restoration" and "unchannelized streams" which can "play a large role in reducing flood damage downstream" - Terry Branstad took no action on this recommendation

5. "The State of Iowa should review the floodplain management responsibility [and] create a viable, effective program with adequate resources" - Worse than no action, the report says that Terry Branstad allowed the state's program to "erode" and then took no action to restore the program

For a guy whose central campaign message is, "We did it before, and we can do it again," Branstad has remarkably little to say in defense of his record. In fact, he didn't respond directly to Hogg's comments last week. Instead, his campaign manager attacked the messenger and tried to change the subject.  

Branstad has run countless television commercials bragging about how he's led Iowa through tough times before, and he can do it again. The 1993 floods were the worst natural disaster in Iowa history up to that time, so Branstad's response deserves scrutiny. Appointing a task force to study the problem is worthwhile, but only if you follow through on the experts' recommendations. If Branstad can point to specific steps he took to implement the flood mitigation proposals from the 1994 Iowa Flood Disaster Report, let's hear them.

Last week, we heard this from the Branstad campaign instead:

In response, Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said, "Just 33 percent of the state and federal funds allocated for eastern Iowa flood victims has reached its intended target. Perhaps, instead of lobbing erratic, baseless and sophomoric assaults, he (Hogg) should instead work on capturing that money for his constituents.

"Politicizing the flood is sad and pathetic. As Chet Culver and his cronies desperately try to change the subject from his failed jobs programs and decades-high unemployment, Iowans understand we need a leader with the proven ability to create jobs and a real plan to do it."

If what Hogg said was "baseless," tell us what Branstad did that Hogg fails to give him credit for. I don't know what's "erratic" or "sophomoric" about pointing out that Branstad failed to implement task force recommendations after flooding that made global news. (I lived in the UK during the summer of 1993 and remember the BBC showing footage of Des Moines underwater.) But Albrecht pivots to Branstad's alleged job-creating prowess. Branstad didn't achieve previous targets for job growth, but we're not talking about that right now. We're discussing whether Branstad did or did not take steps that could have reduced the impact of the 2008 flooding.

"You cannot avoid floods. You can avoid flood damage," Hogg said during a Statehouse news conference. "Flood mitigation takes a long time. But you've got to start on it when you have an opportunity like Terry Branstad had in 1994."

"You have simply got to take the responsible action and what he did by putting his head in the sand ... by ignoring the risks that Iowans faced, I think it's likely that he cost us the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in damage and so much of the heartache and trauma that goes with that," he added. "If there's one person in Iowa's history who is responsible for the failure to prevent flood damage in 2008 and 2010, it is Terry Branstad."

Hogg developed that argument further after the Iowa Supreme Court announced a ruling on September 3 related to Branstad's flood response:

On Friday the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that residents of Denver, Iowa, could pursue a lawsuit against the state for creating a highway bridge that obstructed a flood plain and allegedly led to several dozen homes and businesses being flooded.

"This highway was designed and built under the Branstad administration, which is further evidence that Terry Branstad just does not understand how to protect Iowans from future flood damage," Hogg said. "He failed the residents and businesses of Denver, just like the failed the residents and businesses of the rest of the state by failing to implement the recommendations of his own flood recovery task force following the flood of 1993.

"Terry Branstad's failure to prevent future flood damage, as recommended by his task force and as required by state law, has cost Iowans their homes and their businesses, and continues to cost Iowa taxpayers millions."

Lynda Waddington reported the background on that lawsuit:

The core of the case brought by the landowners is the 1994 construction of a bridge as a part of the relocation of State Hwy 63 to bypass the city of Denver, located in Bremer County. The plan called for the construction of a four-lane, divided road along the west side of the city and a bridge that would span Quarter Section Run Creek, which flowed through the city.

A flood insurance study commissioned by the city in 1990 had designated the creek as a "regulatory floodway," which required both the creek and adjacent flood plain to be kept free of encroachment "so that [a] 100-year flood can be carried without substantial increases in flood heights." Due to the designation, Iowa law prohibits the erection of a structure or obstruction unless a permit is first granted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Working without such a permit and allegedly without knowledge of the floodway designation, the Iowa Department of Transportation constructed a bridge that was designed only to accommodate a 50-year flood event, according to court documents. The structure, which was begun in 1993, was completed in 1994.

If Branstad had gotten his department heads on board with flood prevention, the DOT would not have built to accommodate a 50-year flood just one year after Iowa experienced a 500-year flood. Had Branstad not eliminated the state department responsible for land use planning in 1985, perhaps it would have been easier to implement some of those flood recovery recommendations through the executive branch.

Branstad-supporting blogger Gary Barrett didn't care for Hogg's tour and noted in Branstad's defense that the state legislature failed to act on the 1994 flood task force report. Anyway, Barrett said, Democrat Tom Vilsack didn't do much on flood prevention either during his eight years as governor.

I agree that Vilsack could have done more on this issue. But he took office four and a half years after the catastrophe and faced a legislature controlled by the other party for both terms as governor. Branstad had at least one chamber controlled by his own party for his final term, and had both chambers controlled by Republicans his last two years in office. He could have created a sense of urgency about acting on the task force recommendations.

Powerful interest groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau and the League of Cities oppose most watershed management efforts and restrictions on building in the floodplain. We saw that during the 2010 legislative session. Even if Governor Branstad had tried to act on flood prevention during the 1990s, he might have failed.

But a leader would have at least tried.

Governor Chet Culver's administration has gone beyond fixing flood-damaged buildings to address watershed and floodplain issues. More prevention steps are needed, according to Lieutenant General Ron Dardis, who heads the Rebuild Iowa Office:

Immediate[ly] after the 2008 disasters, the Rebuild Iowa Advisory Commission outlined 12 major recommendations for long-term recovery, said Dardis, the agency's executive director. The Iowa Legislature has taken steps to reduce each of these recommendations, but work still remains, especially in reducing flood risk, he added.

"Comprehensive watershed and floodplain management and mitigation of flood risk must be a top priority for Iowa's leaders," Dardis said.

Dardis noted that after the 1993 Midwest floods struck Iowa, a state report called for an expanded, comprehensive and fully integrated floodplain management program. Similarly, a White House committee issued its own recommendations which saw no serious consideration at the time, he said.

Since then, Iowa has received 13 presidential disaster declarations for flooding, Dardis said, and the state is projected to received increased precipitation in the years ahead.

The I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program is the most successful Culver administration effort on flood prevention. Check out the Branstad campaign's sleight of hand here:

In contrast, [Hogg] said, Culver created the I-JOBs program which included $30 million for disaster mitigation; created a flood prevention research center  at the University of Iowa; invested more than $25 million through I-JOBs for watershed repairs and improvements; and fully funded a DNR floodplain management program.

Albrecht criticized the I-JOBs program, saying, "Gov. Branstad believes in a pay-as-you-go system for funding our state's infrastructure needs.

"Borrowing huge amounts to fund these projects means the state will actually get about half  the work it would have if the same dollars were used on a pay-as-you-go basis. Interest payments will consume the rest."

Nice try, but Iowa didn't have a huge pile of dollars to spend for infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis in 2009. The worst recession in 60 years hit just after the 2008 floods. Without I-JOBS, none of the projects Hogg mentioned would have been funded at all.

I'm still waiting for any Iowa Republican to explain how they would have rebuilt the University of Iowa campus and paid for post-flood repairs elsewhere in the state without I-JOBS.

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