Chuck Harris considers himself lucky. In the eight years since he and his partner moved into the North End neighborhood in Dubuque, Iowa, a city of 58,000 on the Mississippi River, their three-bedroom house has flooded only twice.
Both times, it happened after sudden, torrential downpours. That’s when the streets fill with rainwater, the ground becomes saturated, and the water “just starts coming in from any which way,” he recalls. “It can come through windows, it can come through walls.” A foot or more of water poured into the basement, ruining books, memorabilia, and carpets. Neighbors have had it worse—more frequent floods that damage water heaters, furnaces, and electrical systems.
In a state that is defined by its plains, Dubuque stands apart. The city’s North End has hills, and therefore valleys, where rainwater collects. Dubuque has always dealt with flooding, but scientists say that man-made climate change is making the situation worse.
According to climate-risk analyst Christopher Anderson, the assistant director of the climate-science program at Iowa State University, warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the North Atlantic Ocean have added humidity to the air that then travels to the Midwest, where it increases the rainfall. Iowa has experienced more extreme rain events since 1990 than in the previous 100 years. Intense rainfalls every year or two have inundated Dubuque’s low-lying neighborhoods; the federal government has declared Dubuque County a disaster area six times since 1999, with damages amounting to $70 million. A respite in big storms since 2011 isn’t expected to last.