On June 12, we drove from Chicago to Davenport, Iowa and the Quad Cities area to report on some of the unprecedented flooding in the Midwest. The mainstream media has been largely ignoring the stories of people affected by the flooding and, unsurprisingly, not covering the many class-based and racist inequalities baked into the system that make natural disasters like major flooding so much worse for workers and poor people. We traveled to Davenport, which sits alongside the Mississippi River, to find out what is really going on.
First a little background: historically unprecedented levels of rainfall across the Midwest attributed to global warming have led to major flooding along the Mississippi, its tributaries and many other rivers throughout the region. The Great Lakes water level is also at an all time high. In Davenport, three major crests have occurred this year, flooding the downtown of the city and other areas.
Davenport is on the Mississippi River on the Illinois and Iowa border. It’s part of the Quad Cities, which also includes the city of Bettendorf in Iowa and on the Illinois side the cities of Rock Island and Moline.
After getting into town, we first met with Kim Brown and Dennis Platt of Harm Reduction in Davenport to hear how the local communities were dealing with the floods. Brown’s own home was flooded, with water almost reaching the second floor. Like many of her neighbors in the same situation, Brown does not have flood insurance because of its expense.
Less than 15 percent of homeowners in flood areas in the Midwest carry flood insurance. The federal agencies concerned with flood protection and avoidance, disaster relief and insurance have never provided the amount of planning, aid or insurance necessary to protect people’s property.
Over 50 percent of natural disasters in the United States are floods. A lot of human beings currently live in flood areas because we overwhelmingly live by water. Our cities are larger than they have ever been. In case after case, the areas least protected by floods are the areas that the poor and most oppressed live in.
Brown, a retired nurse, despite her own struggles against the floodwaters, was more concerned with how the homeless, the poor and other displaced people who didn’t have her resources were dealing with the flood.
When we arrived in the heart of Davenport, the part of the city still being impacted by flooding was the western portion of Downtown. This area was visibly economically depressed and neglected compared to the rest of the area. There was a large number of abandoned buildings in addition to businesses closed because of the floods. A large amount of standing water — a serious health risk — could be seen all around. This contrasted with the small amount of water and running pumps in the eastern, wealthier, portion of Downtown.
The floodwaters submerged a camp that sheltered many of the homeless people in Davenport. The people living there have been displaced across the city, and were struggling to find new living situations.
At the edge of the still receding flood waters near Mary’s on 2nd, a gay bar that was heavily damaged, we spoke to one homeless man who was displaced by the flood (both homeless people quoted in this article did not want their names used for fear of retribution). He said the city had not stepped in to offer any help to the homeless after their encampment was deluged. In addition to having his living space destroyed, he lost his job at a restaurant that was forced to close because of the flooding.
We spoke to another homeless person outside of a corner store who also did not want to give his name. He said, “No, I am not surprised that our part of town is the one that got the major damage. The city doesn’t care about us. The greedy fat cats would rather build an expensive flood protection for the baseball stadium or a Bridge to Nowhere. That’s always the way it is around here.”
The “Bridge to Nowhere” is a $7 million dollar bridge from a parking garage to an observation deck. It traverses one street. The bridge is meant to be a tourist attraction.
We spoke to Suraj who was cleaning up the sandbags around his corner store with the help of four other people. This was the third time this year he’s had to put out sandbags and close up the store. He has no insurance for his building because of the expense.
Across the street from Suraj, Tim Buckley also struggled to protect his workplace. The barriers set up around his building failed during the massive flooding on April 30, which led to water surging into the first floor and destroying much of the inventory. He and others were still working on the day we talked to him. Buckley says he contacted the city earlier that day as the water was rising to request more sandbags and volunteer help, and was told he had already received enough help. Buckley has applied for help from FEMA but has already been denied. When asked if he will appeal the denial, he said “Is it really worth the effort?”
Buckley said the news stations interviewed him four times before the failure of the flood protection because of where the business is situated. News crews have come out a total of zero times to talk to him after the business was flooded.
When the portable flood protection barriers gave way, the shops, the homeless and home owners were left to fend for themselves. They worked together to clean up — with the help of friends and volunteers — and to try to put things back together. No clean-up help came from the city.
According to Buckley, when he went to the FEMA bottled water station, he was hassled and told he couldn’t have water for the crew that was working 24 hours a day. When he and his co-workers took the destroyed furniture and product to the landfill, they refused to take it.
Not far from this area is the baseball field of the minor league River City Bandits. The field itself is built to stop the infield from flooding so games can still be played even when surrounded by water. The city even built a temporary bridge across flooded areas so visitors can attend games. In 2010, the city spent $3 million as part of a project to protect the field from flooding. While the rest of the neighborhood is sacrificed and peoples homes are destroyed, the city of Davenport puts its resources into making sure the baseball team can sell tickets.
There are many reasons why the floods this year have been so damaging. These include the incompetence of city officials, city official’s willful disregard for the well-being of the homeless and poor, and a lack of coordination. On top of all this is the impact of climate change.
Across the river from Davenport in neighboring Rock Island, we saw how the floodwall there prevented any major flooding from the Mississippi. Davenport is the only Quad City that does not have a floodwall, and must depend on temporary barriers when the river rises above a certain level. Over 70 percent of people who live in Davenport want a flood wall, but the government has never followed through with any plans.
The flooding in the western portion of downtown seemed to us to be purposeful neglect of an area with a large population of people that are homeless or from oppressed groups. The residents in the area will be unlikely to be able to afford to stay if big developers begin gentrification. The riverfront of Davenport is being planned for redevelopment by the city, using public-private partnerships to give control of large chunks of land to private developers who care little about existing residents.
The Mayor of Davenport told the Quad-City Times that entering into agreements with private companies is the most realistic way for the city to achieve it’s plans along the riverfront. Natural disasters are often used as an opportunity by big developers to seize land for private profit, as residents of New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and increasing numbers of natural disaster victims know. If current residents and businesses are forced to move because of the floods, there will be less resistance to any redevelopment.
One surprising obstacle facing Davenport’s plans for redevelopment is that the Canadian Pacific Railway decided unilaterally to raise the height of the railroad tracks through the city so trains could still run during the flood. In early April, the railway began raising the tracks without informing the city, cutting off several roadway rail crossings and forcing city officials to change their long term plans for the riverfront. Just as city officials don’t care how the flood impacts the homeless and vulnerable, the railway doesn’t care how their actions will impact the rest of the city.
The railway’s quick action does show that it is possible for quick and dramatic action to be taken when faced with disaster. If we can raise miles of railroad before a flood, why can’t we move or secure homes? Without a doubt, we can do so much more to keep people and their possessions safe.
Davenport’s struggles over the past months shows the anarchic nature of planning in the capitalist system, with the more vulnerable being hurt so more powerful institutions and corporations can continue making a profit.
Global warming is predicted to make springs in the Midwest wetter on average, making months-long flooding like we’ve seen this year much more common. Davenport, the Midwest and the world needs more coordinated action on climate change. It is also imperative that as natural disasters like floods become more common and intense, we have the ability to not only take action to save lives and working and poor people’s property, but also have the power to make large-scale decisions and changes about how we live together on this planet.