The Flood Watcher

Eric Sorensen, a meteorologist in Iowa, makes climate reporting local

Photo by Casey Austin Photography

On April 30, Eric Sorensen drove along Second Street, in downtown Davenport, Iowa. From his car, he could see the Mississippi River, heavy with spring rain and snowmelt. The winter had been long and dense with precipitation; Sorensen had reported on it daily for WQAD News 8, where he is the morning and midday meteorologist. Now the river was shimmering high on the other side of a temporary barrier that Davenport residents had taken to calling by its manufacturer’s name: “the HESCO.” As in: “when the HESCO broke.” 

The HESCO had not yet broken. The streets were dry as Sorensen ran errands downtown, among its repurposed factory buildings—the Peterson Paper building, the Bucktown Arts Center, the Crescent Macaroni and Cracker Company (now loft apartments). But fifteen minutes later, as he headed back home, the river exploded into the streets. And then it sat, uncanny and still.

The river had entered the basements and first floors of several buildings downtown, and seeped underneath parked cars, floating them. Sorensen was the first of a small crowd of onlookers who gathered to watch, in disbelief. He took out his phone. Sorensen, one of many meteorologists who have decided to use their platform to become local translators of the climate crisis, began streaming from the scene, in selfie mode, to his nearly thirty-five thousand followers. He said the word “inundated” five times. He wore a gray Henley shirt, and his face looked drained and shaken. “All our fighting,” he said. Then his mouth moved beyond the words, and he began to cry. “Our fighting to keep that river back,” he continued. “And you see the fact that everybody’s businesses here are going to go. This great place. Davenport is a great place.”

Sorensen’s “all our fighting” line was telling. Davenport residents often say that they live with the river and always have. They pride themselves on their riverfront view, which is punctuated by the traffic of the Mississippi: barges and beavers in the water, pelicans and swarms of shadflies in the air. And the river has always flooded. Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi of the flood of 1882: “The loneliness of this solemn, stupendous flood is impressive—and depressing. League after league, and still league after league, it pours its chocolate tide along.” It has flooded here for decades, and more often lately: in 1993, in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2014, 2019. Residents are now reckoning with what it means for the largest Iowa city on the Mississippi to live through the increasingly visible effects of a climate in crisis without a permanent flood barrier. 

Since 1965, a bad flood year, the conversation around a permanent floodwall has reemerged annually, with every spring’s big inundation. It’s expensive, the argument has gone, and would block sight lines to the river. But what happens when those floods come through Davenport harder and more frequently, rising into the city as if to claim it? Only one “historic” crest remains in the nineteenth century. As Sorensen told me, there are now “one-hundred-year floods every five years.” 

What made this year’s flood so bad involves multiple discussions, ranging from the HESCO breach to the infrastructure of downtown Davenport to the larger climate crisis. After April 30, a restaurant’s security footage of the breach went viral, and it seemed to show the barriers breaking in one big block, rather than being overtopped by water. When the HESCOs arrived, in 2009, it was not because of their reputation for stopping floods but because the Public Works director had seen them work as weapons barriers in Afghanistan. It was now up for debate whether their collapse had been the result of a structural failure or provided evidence of a lack of thoughtful flood preparation by the city, since HESCO barriers can be assembled any number of ways for different flooding situations. Investigations by HESCO (the company) and by the Army Corps of Engineers soon went underway.

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Weeks passed, and the floodwaters settled in. Emboldened beavers chewed down two trees. It was unclear when the river would recede, or when the affected businesses would reopen. More than a month after the breach, Sorensen ran into Rick Harris, who owns Bootleg Hill Honey Meads, and Jack “Jack of All Trades” Coder, who was helping make repairs at several flooded shops. At Bootleg Hill, they were putting in long hours drilling holes in the floor to drain water into the basement, then pump it out; all the while, they kept tabs on a manhole that was steadily emitting a geyser into the street. Coder had felt “spooked out” by the barriers before the breach, he said. “I don’t trust this wall.” Harris said he believed that the barriers had been set up improperly. The men stood less than a block away from Roam, the restaurant that had captured footage of the breach, now permanently closed.

“My thought,” said Sorensen, as the men discussed the flood, “is that what I think they need to do down River Drive is build a track down the middle and put slats in, and have it go from one end of downtown to the other. So it’s semi-permanent.” Coder proposed that they find a design that didn’t “look like a shitty concrete or metal wall there”—a natural berm, maybe, or wetland designed to flood. 

In terms of a permanent solution, there had, the men agreed, “to be something.” A few weeks later, Harris would sign an open letter from downtown business owners to the city government, essentially expressing a sense of betrayal and a need, moving forward, for adequate flood protection. Nevertheless, Harris repeated a refrain with which Sorensen is quite familiar—that “the climate is always changing and always has changed.” It’s a stance that Sorensen works very hard, on-air and online, to correct.

One gets the sense, spending time with Sorensen, that he’s interested in matters of scale. In how to present, as a broadcast meteorologist beloved in this corner of the river, the global climate crisis in ways that make sense to his community and, inversely, in how to translate local weather events into larger climate patterns. Later, we made our way to the Merrill Hotel in Muscatine, Iowa, about thirty miles downriver from Davenport. The sound system played James Bay’s “Hold Back the River.” It was too on-the-nose, and the town, part of Sorensen’s broadcast area, felt eerie. The water had taken over here, too. Sorensen wanted to speak with people about climate change—he seems to be constantly working, assessing—but nearly no one was outside, and so he rode the hotel elevator up to the Samuel Clemens Ballroom in search of an aerial view. Blank and wide, the Mississippi had erased its normal markers: tree trunks, railroad tracks, parking lots, a boat ramp, all these things sat fully or nearly underwater. Two human figures strained through the shallows. They carried a baby stroller between them, a child visible inside. “It’s not clean water,” Sorensen said softly.

 

High above the boatless expanse, the evidence of human activity, and of time, is clear, in the forms of bridges, railroads, dams. There is a long, complicated story about the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, which was built in Davenport. You can drive its fourth iteration today, and see, after this flood, just how fast the river was coursing, now that the dam had been opened to transport as much water as possible through and away. In 1856, after the owner of a steamboat called the Effie Afton rammed into the bridge, possibly in an act of protest—trains would take away business from the steamboats—the railroads hired Abraham Lincoln to argue for the bridge. Now a statue of Lincoln stands in Bechtel Park, where Sorensen likes to eat an egg sandwich from a nearby spot called Redband Coffee. 

Though quick and quippy on-air, Sorensen speaks naturally in pause-dappled soliloquies. “It’s hard for me, as a meteorologist,” he said, eating his sandwich, “to get people to look more than five feet off the ground.” Clouds scraped the bowl of the sky above. Davenport—a node for many things Sorensen cares about (the river, climate change, broadcast journalism)—is one of the Quad Cities, which are actually five (Davenport, Rock Island, Bettendorf, Moline, East Moline) straddling Iowa and Illinois, where the Mississippi takes a left turn towards the Gulf of Mexico and tangles with Interstate 80. At slightly more than 100,000 residents, Davenport is the largest of the Quad Cities and the third-largest city in Iowa, with far higher populations of Black and Latinx residents than the rest of the state. Iowa’s 2nd congressional district, in which Davenport sits, voted steadily for Democratic presidential candidates until 2016, when it swung for Donald Trump. 

Depending on how you drive out of the Quad Cities, you can find yourself in shoulder-high corn within minutes. The US Army, which operates the Rock Island Arsenal, is a major employer here, as is John Deere, headquartered in Moline and boasting a crowded show pavilion with multi-million dollar machines you can climb into and pretend to pilot. Davenport’s downtown is different: many newer businesses—breweries and cafes and restaurants with patios built for games of corn hole—occupy refurbished buildings. Churches advertise help for homeless people, and intricately constructed Victorians and Queen Annes stagger up the hill, away from the river, some crumbling and some pristine. 

Downtown Davenport on May 3, 2019. Photo by Casey Austin Photography.

Sorensen grew up in Rockford, Illinois, about two hours away. As a kid, he devised maps of imaginary places, working to figure out, his brother, Mike, remembers, “How do people live together, how do the streets connect everybody?” The winters in the early 1980s in Rockford were harsh, far colder than those today. Sorensen recalls these, and also huge Midwestern summer storms that announced their arrival with a tremulous moment of silence. One such storm, to which he credits his early desire to become a meteorologist, edged into Rockford while Sorensen, ten, played down the block at a friend’s house. His mother called him home, and he got on his bike, but he doesn’t remember leaving. Looking out the window, his mother saw her son stumbling up the street—he had been blown off of his bike by the wind and had hit his head, leaving him concussed. Sorensen, telling me this story, paused. “But then I wanted to know what happened,” he said. 

He grew up watching and studying two Rockford meteorologists on television, Eric Nefstead and Vince Danca, both now deceased, and when he says their names today, it’s with a bit of sadness. Sorensen remembers Nefstead in particular as “this guy named Eric who could talk me through the storms,” which Sorensen was both afraid of and fascinated by. From Danca, he would adapt “The Eric Factor”—originally the “Danca Factor”—a segment that rates the day’s upcoming weather on a scale from one to ten. 

As a college student, at Northern Illinois University, where Sorensen studied meteorology, he pleaded with the chair of the mathematics department to let him take calculus a third and final time—he had repeatedly flunked, but it’s with calculus that you can determine how much water a cloud is holding. In those days, the curriculum didn’t cover global warming or climate change. Sorensen simply hadn’t heard about it when he graduated and started working, first at KLTV in Tyler, Texas, (giant, brilliant lightning storms), then at WREX in his hometown, Rockford (where his parents watched him daily, letting him know if his tie didn’t match his shirt), and finally, in the Quad Cities. Not particularly political as a younger man, Sorensen found himself “turned off” when Al Gore began talking about climate change. He was a skeptic, Sorensen told me of his younger self. “Or, not understanding,” he said. “Or, not believing.”

It wasn’t until two famous broadcast meteorologists—WGN-TV’s Tom Skilling and Stu Ostro, senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel—began talking up environmental science, that Sorensen grasped the reality. More than a decade ago, at a weekend workshop, they discussed the high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. “Something ain’t right,” Sorensen remembers Ostro saying repeatedly, “and we have to figure out what it is.” Sorensen found, suddenly, that he agreed. He considers that the beginning of an epiphany. “I was like, oh my god,” he recalled. “If I can’t explain what’s going on to my viewers, then I’m going to do a disservice.” It was a discovery on the level of cloud calculus. 

Broadcast meteorologists have an unusual ability to guide people as they head out into the weather that’s going to define their day; Sorensen is on Facebook constantly, posting updates, including messages about climate change. Recently, on a Facebook post he’d written about the flood’s impact on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Sorensen received what he views as the best comment he’s ever gotten. “This actually makes climate change click for me,” a viewer wrote.

Still, it’s difficult to get people to accept that their actions affect the weather. As he finished his sandwich in the park, Sorensen looked out at a flock of pelicans flying over Davenport. “This is a 35,000-foot-deep ocean,” he told me. He shook his head. “All of the decisions that you’ve ever made are going to determine what happens tomorrow,” he said. “And so that’s how we have to think with climate. It’s all of the decisions that we’ve ever made, since the 1880s, the 1890s, that are creating the issues that we have today.”

Eight years after Lincoln argued for the railroad bridge here, he would be dead. The Canadian Pacific Railroad, which runs through Davenport, permanently raised its tracks after the flood—a painstaking and expensive endeavor, but necessary, as trains couldn’t get through the floodwaters otherwise. The result, Government Bridge, shadows Bechtel Park, where Sorensen sat and ate. It’s a place where past, present, and future seem to collide with increasing intensity. In preparation for his case, Lincoln studied the flow of the river with a young Davenporter, the story goes. A quote on his statue here reads: “I’m mighty glad I came out here where I can get a little less opinion and a lot more fact.”

 

It’s 4:30am at WQAD in Moline, and a vivid thunderstorm crackles outside, but the wallpaper behind Sorensen’s desk displays thick clouds and cyan sky. They’re flying, Sorensen and the anchors, Angie Sharp and Jon Ketz, through their first broadcast of the day, in WQAD’s Studio A. The trio’s choreography is tight, burnished, joyful. Sorensen rocks back gently on his heels during the weather run-through (“Let’s zoom into some hometowns”). Then, as the camera cuts away to pre-recorded footage, he continues his voice-over while striding unseen across the room. When the camera finds him again, he’s next to Sharp and Ketz, cracking jokes. 4:30 is their least-viewed time, though several farmers in the area have been up all night planting, trying to get crops in the ground during a short window without torrential rain. The three work up a sleepover kind of energy that seems to sustain them over the course of the next few hours, as viewership increases. At one point, they spontaneously sing a bit of the chorus of “Purple Rain.” “We were not in tune,” Sharp says.

Here in the Quad Cities, and now, in the depths of the flood, the weather is the news. Unless there has been some major event overnight, Sorensen’s work often takes center stage each morning. His voice is set at a plummy register, his persona utterly unlike Nicolas Cage’s gloom in The Weatherman, or Bill Murray’s acid in Groundhog Day. And yet the news Sorensen delivers is ongoingly bad. Lately, there has been almost no relief from the sheer amount of water coming down from the sky. “It’s little rumbly this week,” he’ll say. And tonight: “feisty evening storms.” He learned early on to deliver the same information three times. It’s a strategy that his friend Troy Dungan taught him: to say, “Here’s what I’m going to talk about. Here’s what I’m talking about. Here’s what I just talked about.” Central to Groundhog Day, of course, is the idea of endless, driving repetition. But what else can you do, in an emergency stretching on and on, besides repeat yourself?

In the whole of Sorensen’s career, one of his most involved segments was a six-minute-long story he did in the early winter of 2017 that explored his viewers’ attitudes towards climate change. Sorensen filmed a conversation with a climatologist and a meeting with a psychologist who studies fact-based decision-making. Then he coordinated and filmed a focus group of Quad Citizens with varying opinions on climate change. His intent was not just to convey the importance of thinking about the climate, but also to try and understand why people push back against understanding it. “The focus group was interesting,” Sorensen recalled, “because I put it out to our viewers and I had about seven or eight people that were understanding, then two or three that were anti.” When they sat down together, those two or three people began to come around. “Whether or not they changed their mind, their stance softened,” he said. Sorensen’s producers are generally supportive of his climate-focused work, though there was, he remembered, a bit of resistance to the way the story turned out: in the editorial meeting, the producers were concerned that the focus group wasn’t “fifty-fifty.” 

“The understanding of climate science, climate change,” Sorensen told me, “is about seventy-five/twenty-five these days. The focus group was representative of our community.” In an informal poll conducted by KWQC before this year’s flood, those percentages roughly reflected the number of Davenport residents who wanted a permanent flood barrier—seventy percent voted in the affirmative; thirty against. And, Sorensen said, “that may have changed since this flood.”

Toria Wilson, one of Sorensen’s producers, was among those who pushed back slightly, wanting to give “both sides.” Now, in the dark of the morning in the production room, she argues to me that local coverage of the flood should, at this moment, be focused more on the emergency and less on the larger environmental problems that caused it. “Right now, I feel like nobody cares about that,” she says. “They care about FEMA being here. They care about ‘What has the investigation revealed about HESCO barriers breaching?’ About ‘How can I get my business back up off the ground?’” Sorensen often receives pushback for his repeated attempts to make weather stories about the climate crisis; recently, for instance, a viewer in Bettendorf sent a handwritten letter demanding that Sorensen apologize for “the global warming baloney.” Sorensen read the letter aloud on his Facebook page, emphasizing its tone: “So tell me, genius Eric, how do you experiment on the future?…You can’t predict the future.” He stopped for a second. “Even though that’s my job,” he said into the camera, “and I do it pretty well.”

Sorensen doesn’t become frustrated or resentful easily, even as people continue to comment on his Facebook posts, echoing, in stronger language, the “baloney” letter, or citing articles about the ice age. “Can you explain this science to me?” Sorensen replies, sometimes. But he never meets ire with ire. Watching him, you can see his personal qualities—a sense of serenity, a serious intellectual drive, a “huge heart for justice,” as his brother, Mike, put it to me—go into his work. When the floodwaters were at their highest, Sorensen drove down a rural highway and nearly pulled over: the banks of the river had become the banks of the road, and it felt a bit like being in the Everglades, water and wildlife everywhere. “Oh, there’s dead turtles,” Sorensen had cried. “I love turtles!”

He also sees, with the increase in disastrous flooding, a kind of opportunity. “One of the things that I’ve learned,” Sorensen told me, “is that people who don’t understand climate change, it doesn’t have to do with being ignorant, it has to do with experiencing it firsthand.” These days, there’s no way not to; everyone in the Quad cities seems to agree that the floods are getting worse. Many residents have lived through multiple disasters. In 1993, Veda Baker, then forty-seven, lost her house, which sat on the bank of the Cedar River, a tributary with the Iowa River to the Mississippi. “We kept watching the riverbank,” Baker recalled to me, “waiting for it to get high. And it never really got over the bank. But then all of a sudden the river made, like, a bend and came up behind us.” Their vehicles were subsumed. 

“I can’t swim,” said Baker, who grew up two blocks from the Mississippi in Muscatine, the daughter of a farmer and a seamstress. She remembers her parents stacking the furniture high during spring floods in case of ruin. Now, retired and almost seventy-three, she staffs the counter at the Pearl Button Museum, which explores “The Gold Rush of the Midwest,” when 1.5 billion buttons were made in Muscatine and sent across the world. Yes, she acknowledged, there have always been floods. But she watches Sorensen’s broadcasts daily and, if anything, she told me, “He needs to talk more about climate change. We have to start saving this planet so it’ll be here for my great-great-grandchildren and on, and if we don’t do something, we’re not going to be here.”

 

In 2017, more than four hundred broadcast meteorologists responded to a survey focused on their attitudes towards climate change, as well as their work covering it on-air. The survey was produced by the American Meteorological Society, George Mason University, and a group called Climate Central, which works with some six hundred broadcast meteorologists on covering the crisis. About three-quarters of respondents indicated that they felt at least “somewhat confident” in their ability to report on-air about climate change. But a much smaller percentage, only about a quarter of weathercasters, said that they had reported a long segment about climate change in the past year. Mentioned elsewhere in the survey was a sense of pressure to report an “opposing viewpoint,” which forty percent of the weathercasters said they felt.

Unlike mass media coverage of climate change, which fell by forty-five percent from 2017 to 2018, local news stations seem to be ramping up their efforts. Climate Central’s membership is growing, as is the time broadcast meteorologists spend on-air presenting climate stories. Sorensen, of course, has reported extensively the subject—not just the focus group segment, but regularly, in small ways, connecting, for example, forecasted temperatures in the Quad Cities with historical ones, or posting about slipping air quality on his Facebook page. For him and many of his colleagues, social media has been a boon, particularly for building trust. But it’s also another platform to feed, and meteorologists who feel less than confident in their environmental expertise can be shy about engaging. “A lot of meteorologists are scared or leery of talking about climate change if they don’t know enough about it,” Sorensen told me. “That’s where meteorologists need—and it’s an obligation—to learn and understand some climate to be able to talk about it.”

In the Quad Cities, Sorensen sees a dearth of climate change-focused broadcasts from his competitors. Sorensen’s station, WQAD, holds second place in its market, after KWQC News 6—until “the weather breaks out,” Sorensen said, and then “our ratings go number one.” In a way, the lack of climate change coverage by other meteorologists in the area has allowed Sorensen to become the expert. WQAD has invested in equipment—drones, and a rugged storm-tracking truck he gleefully calls “The Beast.” But he wishes, too, that his competitors would join the chorus. “I don’t want to say that if you’re not talking about climate change, you’re evil,” he said. But, he went on, “If I have forty or forty-five percent of the viewing audience here, I want my competition to talk about this, too. Because me alone, I’m way less than half. So if I really want my community to be informed, I should encourage my competition to get on board.”

Nearly two months after the flood, on June 21, the longest day of the year, meteorologists worldwide tweeted under the hashtags #showyourstripes and #metsunite. Their posts exhibited rectangular stacks of stripes, like broken TVs or barcodes, moving from blues to oranges and reds. These were climate stripes, indicating the warming over time of the meteorologists’ respective broadcast areas. Filming, Sorensen stood in front of a series of climate stripes from all fifty states. Together like that, you could see the varying progressions from blue to angry red. He paused over Illinois and Iowa and drew his hand at an angle, to emphasize the rising average temperatures. He then did something surprising: he switched to a quick examination of Houston, Texas, noting that Houstonians were experiencing far hotter summers than Quad Citizens, but not as much winter warming. Then he zoomed out, to a chartreuse graphic of North America, essentially placing the Quad Cities’ experience of the climate crisis in a broader context. 

Meaghan Parker, the executive director of the Society for Environmental Journalists, of which Sorensen is a member and recently a fellow, called this kind of work “incredible to watch.” A local newscast is incredibly short, she explained, and to contextualize local climate change is, at first, “odd, because you’re not used to seeing it.” But the more broadcast meteorologists do it, the more common it becomes, and the more people can accept “this idea of a new normal happening.” 

 

Sorensen is recognized most places he goes. He knows how to handle it now, but back in Texas, he first experienced what he calls the “alien stare.” He was at a Randalls grocery store, examining a carton of eggs, and he noticed that the person next to him was just gazing at him, mouth open. Freaked out, Sorensen abandoned his cart and “walked right out the door.” Alien stares are less frequent in the Quad Cities, or maybe Sorensen understands now how to subvert them—Hi, how are ya, he says, walking down the street. People flash their eyes warmly to him in restaurants and start up conversations with immediate intimacy, as if they’re returning to him at a cocktail party. Even those unwilling to speak with him explicitly about the climate crisis—and he tries to engage them, wanting to know how much they know—gravitate towards him. “My wife loves you,” a man who didn’t believe in climate change told Sorensen recently, patting him on the back and then asking him about his health, as Sorensen ate lunch in Muscatine. 

Lunch that day was actually dinner. Sorensen wakes up at 1:40 every morning to check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s daily convective outlook. He goes to sleep around four or five in the evening on weekdays, eight or eight-thirty on weekends. That puts his schedule aslant from most of his viewers, including his partner, Shawn. When he was younger, Sorensen found the schedule of a morning and midday meteorologist punishing. But after a month, he told me, most broadcast meteorologists know if the morning shift is doable or not—and for him, it has been, though he has to schedule time to see Shawn and their dogs. He builds extended travel breaks into their life. “You can tell in your body if you’ve gone too long without a vacation day, on this schedule,” Sorensen said. At forty-three, he’s the second-oldest person on his team at WQAD. Not once did I see him yawn. 

Time presents another difficulty in Sorensen’s job. What he does on-air one year may not work the next. Simply put, he explained, “people don’t buy televisions anymore.” The young reporters Sorensen works alongside, and the younger meteorologists he’s in contact with across the country, teach him “about social, storytelling, podcasting, all these things that are new to me, the older guy.” Climate Central works diligently to provide weathercasters with useful information and broadcasting material, yet Sorensen emphasized to me how much work meteorologists must still do on their own, to educate themselves, to find novel ways of presenting on the climate crisis, and to convince station managers that environmental coverage matters. “For a lot of the public, the only scientist they come into contact with will be their broadcast meteorologist,” Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central, told me. The trust that Sorensen and other broadcast meteorologists depend on, he said, “builds up over time, kind of an equity bond.” 

Early this year, without telling viewers why, Sorensen took a month off from WQAD. As if a bookend to the concussion he suffered as a kid, he began to suffer inexplicable memory loss. At first, he wasn’t able to recall the previous weekend, spent with Shawn, and could jog only a few memories back, if Shawn prompted him. Soon, Sorensen began losing his yesterdays, as if marooned on an island in the present moment. On top of the normal terror that this would inspire, Sorensen feared that he might lose his job—in order to understand current weather events, you need, of course, to remember the weather of the past. 

He went in for tests. Months before, Sorensen had undergone a serious surgery on his spine; when he was recovering, he was told by his doctor that he’d be wise to lower his cholesterol. He gave up red meat. His vitamin B12 levels bottomed out. Now, when his test results came back, Sorensen’s doctor noticed the low B12 levels and gave him a prescription. Within five days, Sorensen’s memory was back. 

Still, March and April are dark, as if they never existed. Sorensen can’t remember them. The flood, in a sense, brought with it a reentry into work and into life, one built on trying to understand systems huge and at times invisible.

 

On June 26, after 103 days, the Mississippi River dropped back below flood action stage—thirteen feet. HESCO had found no fault with its barrier design. Theories were debated, still, about what exactly had happened to cause the breach: Was it water overtopping the structure, the road below going out, improper construction of the temporary wall? Later, when the Army Corps of Engineers weighed in with a report, it would assign blame to several factors, including slippery plastic sheeting placed underneath the barriers. The Corps made recommendations for future HESCO use, but reminded the city, too, that “HESCO barriers are temporary flood fighting measures and are not designed to be as resilient and robust as permanent levees or flood walls.”

Crafted Q-C, a shop downtown, sold shirts reading: “We Are Mightier than the Mississippi: Quad Cities Flood 2019” and “Son of a Bridge! Barges, Backups, & Barricades: A Quad Cities Tradition.” I stopped by. Mary Talbert, the owner, was unpacking small crafts, listening to Bruce Springsteen. She had been closed for a week after the flood, she said, and it was not as bad as it could have been. The water, which rose to three feet in her basement, didn’t come into the store. “This part of downtown is awesome,” she said. “After we get cleaned up, it’s going to get even better.” Then she paused. She, like her neighbors, had signed the open letter to the city government, insisting that flood protection measures had to change. “Is it realistic to stay here?” Talbert asked me.

The answer, of course, depends on what the city does moving forward. According to Nate Young, of the Iowa Flood Project, the outlook is only going to get worse. “Here in the foreseeable future, based on the trends and increasing frequency and intensity of rainfall, and the increasing flood events throughout the state,” Young told me, “I anticipate we’re going to be in this pattern for a while.” 

Sorensen told me, “There’s two ways that we combat this. One is that we do the right thing now. Number two is that we adapt to it.” Adapting, for him, looks like flying over Eastern Iowa, as he and his brother, Mike, did in 2008, to distribute relief supplies for people stranded in Cedar Rapids by high floodwaters. It looks like handing out free flood boots, as he did this time around, out of the Beast, which Sorensen parked near the HESCO breach, collecting stories. A woman told him that, in a previous flood, she had lost everything in her basement—her furnace, her hot water heater. She replaced the heater, and then the basement flooded again, ruining the new one. “I had never thought about that,” Sorensen told me—that there were ongoing waves to the damage. 

In Sorensen’s mind, doing “the right thing now” requires understanding the climate crisis. Davenport could hire a climatologist. The city budget could be revised to anticipate extreme winters and intensifying levels of precipitation. Buildings downtown could be rebuilt in a way that accommodates first-floor flooding. City officials could build a permanent flood barrier. He wondered to me, “What is the cost of doing nothing?”

I visited Mayor Frank Klipsch’s office in Davenport’s City Hall, where a poster of rough, choppy water hangs on the wall, underscored by a quote about responsibility. Klipsch has historically avoided public discussions of climate, deeming the topic too “divisive.” A leading member of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which comprises eighty-nine mayors along the river, Klipsch is interested in attaining what he calls a “wow factor,” or at least a “pretty great factor” downtown, to attract tourists. Being able to see the river is key.

But now, Klipsch says, “Something has changed.” Perhaps it is the pressure from business owners, the press coverage of Davenport’s inundation, or the climate itself. The previous floods ripple, always, in community memory. But this record-breaking one, Klipsch told me, has felt like walking through the local Figge Art Museum’s recent exhibit, “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse,” with a docent who could explain the cultural context of the painters. “All of a sudden, it’s like, wow … I get that now,” Klipsch said. (The Figge, incidentally, was open during the flood, because it was built to be flood-proofed.)

Moving forward, there appears to be a need not just for one solution, but two—a short-term plan that protects downtown Davenport for the time being, and a long-term one that confronts the underlying problem. The latter would be a turning point in Davenport’s history, and just what it may entail is unclear. Klipsch, who is not running for reelection, said that he would prefer not to hire a climatologist, and would use federal resources like NOAA instead. He was assembling a task force, comprised of downtown business owners and representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, among others. “I’m definitely not interested in the traditional ‘build a wall,’ but let’s build a variety of features that could do what a wall could do,” he told me. The possible solutions are many—Klipsch suggested berms and wetlands—but he emphasized the need to maintain a “wow factor” view of the river. “It is our thing,” he said.

Then again, if you ask Sorensen, he’ll argue that “our thing” is dealing with the damage and hoping that, next time, the river will be kind. He knows better. In 2013, when he was working in Rockford, a viewer in Tinley Park sent him a State Farm insurance card found in his backyard. The card had an address in Washington, Illinois on it, which had just been obliterated by an EF-4 tornado. Sorensen showed the card on-air, marveling that it had been blown 120 miles by the wind. Months later, he received a Christmas card from a Washington, Illinois family, with a photo of them standing in front of the house that no longer existed. “I’ll always remember that specific tornado,” Sorensen told me. There was something moving to him about being someone to whom strangers offered evidence of tragedy—for interpretation, empathy, or maybe both. It’s a feeling he’s become used to, like the annual return of the flood. 

ICYMI: For many reporters covering climate, population remains the elephant in the room

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Lucy Schiller is working on a book about the musician Arthur Russell. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the Iowa Review, Lit Hub, The New Republic, Counterpunch, and elsewhere.