Climate And Floodwaters Are Top Of Mind For Some Iowa Voters

Feb 3, 2020

Davenport, Iowa, faced some of the worst flooding in its history last year.

Flooding isn't uncommon to Iowa's third-biggest city. For years, Davenport has resisted efforts to build a flood wall on its banks of the Mississippi River.

But last spring, businesses along the riverfront scrambled to save their spaces when floodwaters breached temporary barriers.

"It didn't get as bad as it could have got," says Dan Bush, a co-owner of multiple bars near the river. "The last big event was in 1993. I don't expect it to be another 25, 27-odd years before it happens again."


Dan Bush (left) discusses climate change with Tim Baldwin at Lopiez, a pizza restaurant in Davenport. Bush plans to caucus for Elizabeth Warren on Monday, in part for her plans to fight climate change.
Brian Frank for NPR

Bush, along with Andrew Lopez, who co-owns a downtown pizza place, and Tim Baldwin, who owns an upscale pub right on the waterfront, all took a financial hit after the flooding last year. But they were lucky. Some of the businesses around the area had to shut their doors for good.

Flooding isn't caused by one factor, but climate change means extreme rains are expected to be more frequent and more intense.

"I think it's a big deal and it's been getting a little worse and worse every year," Lopez says. "So I think it's time to take a step forward and try and do something about it."


Andrew Lopez makes a pizza in his restaurant, Lopiez, in Davenport. "It's been getting a little worse and worse every year," he says of extreme weather.
Brian Frank for NPR

That sentiment — to do something about it — has local and national political significance in Iowa. The state holds its first-in-the-nation primary caucuses on Monday night. For many voters, concern over flooding and climate change guide, in part, which candidate they will back. Nationwide, climate change ranks as a top concern for Democratic voters, according to a CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll last month.

Annie Stopulos, who owns a men's clothing store a couple blocks from the river, remembers being knee-deep in water last year, laying down sandbags. She says she's motivated by environmental issues when it comes to politics.

"Since I've lived here, we've only had one really big flood. And it was when I was a young girl, I don't remember it. So historically, the chances are not very high. But when you think of the environment and the effects and global warming — everything that is included and what's happening — the chances are a lot higher."

She won't say who she's caucusing for, but her fiancée Kayla is supporting Elizabeth Warren. "She's worried about our children and our children's children," Stopulos says.

Bush says he's caucusing for Warren for reasons that include her plans to fight climate change.

Warren's website outlines plans to upgrade "water infrastructure" such as dams, levees and inland waterways. All of the leading Democratic candidates support the Green New Deal and broader efforts to combat climate change.


Tim Baldwin discusses previous flooding problems at his restaurant, Front Street Pub & Eatery, in Davenport. "All I know is what is obvious to me, and that is when it rains, the water has nowhere to go except to the Mississippi River," he says.
Brian Frank for NPR

Baldwin says he is concerned about flooding as well. But he doesn't agree with the other business owners NPR talked to about what that means when backing a candidate.

"Climate change, as we hear about it every day through the national media, I don't believe is our problem," Baldwin says. "I believe climate's changing and I believe climate's been changing since the inception of this planet, right? All I know is what is obvious to me, and that is when it rains, the water has nowhere to go except to the Mississippi River. But is it related to what — driving cars and eating beef? I'm not convinced of that."

Baldwin plans to vote for President Trump. He's more concerned about the economy in general than climate change. He thinks local factors are the bigger reason for flooding in urban areas, such as paving over grassy areas that would naturally absorb rain.


Downtown Davenport, Iowa, on Friday. Much of the downtown faced flooding in 2019.
Brian Frank for NPR

Beyond the presidential contest, factors local to Davenport are also at play in how the business owners think about their future. Davenport doesn't have a permanent flood wall, in contrast to other cities of its size along the Mississippi.

"Our riverfront is one of the major attributes of our community," former Mayor Frank Klipsch told reporters from The Associated Press last year. "We want to be able to maintain that and embrace the Mississippi River."

Mid-March to mid-June saw 95 days of water above flood stage, with the Mississippi reaching a record crest in early May. City officials estimated the damage at $3.5 million. That estimate doesn't take into account lost business revenue and wages, which a business group estimated could reach $30 million in the city of 100,000 people.

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