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Red Oak’s Levee Recertification

Red Oak

Red Oak, Iowa, is prone to severe flooding.  Much of the land surrounding the town is below the 100-year floodplain.  In an effort to reduce flooding, the town and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started channelizing the East Nishnabotna River and constructing a levee system in the early 1900s.  Additional levee systems were created all along the river, usually in areas where similar towns are located.  While the Red Oak City Administrator, Brad Wright, said the last major flooding occurred in 2007 and 2008, the town of Red Oak is currently in the process of recertifying their levee system with FEMA. 

“FEMA has come out with a process we’re required to go through,” said Wright, “to certify that the levee meets all of the requirements. Really, the major challenge is that FEMA’s criteria is completely different from the Army Corps of Engineers’. This is a corps of engineers’ levee–it was built to their specifications. That has been a concern as we started through this–are those concerns going to create an issue.”

Red Oak has currently completed the first phase of evaluation after implementing changes suggested by FEMA.  “So, the majority of the levee is in good shape, and the freeboard–the height–is where it needs to be. It’s actually in excess of where it needs to be. So, that’s the good news,” Wright added.

However, the first stage has been a costly endeavor.  Wright commented on the process stating, “To date, we’ve spent about $45,000 on phase one. It’s an expensive process. We’ve expressed a certain amount of frustration about what is essentially a paperwork exercise required by FEMA to prove the levee is in the condition it needs to be–which, frankly, we know that it is.” 

Phase two will be no easier.  “Phase two’s total cost to the city is in the neighborhood of $125,000,” said Wright.  The cost of the levee goes further than just the construction.  FEMA recently released a new floodplain map, one that places Red Oak’s downtown within the boundaries.  Never before has the downtown been included in the floodplain.  Another map, created by the Iowa Flood Center, looks dramatically different.

“The Iowa Flood Center has done a great deal of modeling of the Nishnabotna Watershed,” said Wright. “The data that the Iowa Flood Center developed actually shows the 100-year flood elevation anywhere from 2-to-4 feet lower than the data used by FEMA. If we can get FEMA to accept the Iowa Flood Center’s data, that will benefit us greatly on some of the issues we may have to do with our levee.”

With the downtown in the floodplain, the city has been cut off from essential resources that have benefited them in the past.  Shortly before FEMA’s map was released, Red Oak had received a grant for community development totaling $500,000.  They were able to update many of  the buildings downtown.  However, the newest floodplain map has cut them off from receiving any similar type of grants in the future. 

For residents, an accurate floodplain map means more funding for community investment.  “What I saw today was hope,” said Mark Jackson, a resident of Red Oak, in response to a presentation by the Flood Center.  Their map showed much of the downtown outside of the floodplain.  He continued, “The Iowa Flood Center has a realistic map. We have a process in place; we’re hoping FEMA will look at their map eventually.”

Sources: On-line: Mike Brownlee, “Engineers map East Nishnabotna River near Red Oak,” Omaha World-Herald, September 2015; Roger Riley, “Iowa Flood Center Ready to Help Project Flood Risks,” 13Who, March 2018; “Officials unveil Red Oak flood mapping website,” The Daily Nonpareil, June 2016; Mike Peterson,” Red Oak Levee Recertification Progresses,” KMA, December 2016; Ryan Matheny, “Red Oak Council receives levee re-certification update,” KMA, May 2018.