John stands in front of the Iowa River

Keeping Floods on Iowa’s Radar

The historic flood of 2008 impacted communities across Eastern Iowa, destroying homes and businesses. For John Brammeier, it was the beginning of a fascination with the weather.

During the worst of the flood, Brammeier remembers bringing food, water, and other essentials to his aunt whose house bordered the Cedar River. The interior of the house was destroyed and had to be entirely remodeled. The wreckage and his natural affinity for math and science drew Brammeier to pursue a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.

John stands in front of the Iowa River

Brammeier works at the Iowa Flood Center located in the Stanley Hydraulics Lab

He works with Iowa Flood Center (IFC) Director Witold Krajewski, whose work using X-band weather radar to monitor precipitation is what drew Brammeier to Iowa. Krajewski maintains a network of four X-band radar units that collect data on precipitation and are being tested for possible use in flood-prone communities. Brammeier collects the radar data and compares them to information collected by IFC rain gauges across the state. He also experiments with the accuracy of the radars.

“The algorithms that are used for the data processing— there’s a lot of them out there,” Brammeier says. “I’m experimenting with a lot of them to see which one will give us the best results.” He explains that the Iowa Flood Center maintains rain gauges in many of the watersheds, so there’s a good chance that he can compare the radar data to the rain gauge information.

One of Brammeier’s other jobs is presenting the weather briefing at the weekly IFC meetings. He gives an update on the coming week’s weather based on forecast models to make sure everyone is prepared.  As for the future, Brammeier is interested in finishing up his degree and getting a job working at a weather agency.

John stands with his team

Brammeier (left) played several years with the Muscatine Riverhawks

Brammeier’s interests don’t end with meteorology; he spends his limited free time at his parent’s farm in Wilton, Iowa, or on the football field. As a semi-professional football player for the Muscatine Riverhawks, Brammeier says he is lucky not to have had an injury up to this point. Though it’s called semi-professional, the job isn’t paid, so those who do get injured and need medical attention pay for it out of their own pockets.

As far as the farm is concerned, Brammeier is still thinking about the weather.

“We’re doing a little bit of tillage today and we did some yesterday, but it’s still pretty wet so who knows if it’s going to work out.”

Fishing for Fords

Young and Gilles using the multi-beam sonar system.

Young and Gilles using the multi-beam sonar system.

Until recently, finding lost cars was not part of Nate Young’s job description. Yet that is precisely what he and fellow Iowa Flood Center (IFC) engineer Dan Gilles found themselves doing on May 11.

Beneath overcast skies, Young, associate director of the IFC, and Gilles, a water resources engineer, boated up and down the Iowa River, searching for a car beneath the waves. Young and Gilles were responding to a request from Johnson County Emergency Coordinator Dave Wilson, who asked them to locate an abandoned car using bathymetry—the measurement and mapping of underwater topography.

Wilson had previously asked Young and Gilles to locate a car in the Cedar River that had been abandoned upstream of Cedar Rapids several weeks prior. The pair spent four hours using the multi-beam sonar system affixed to the boat to find the car. After putting together imagery of the data and sharing it with the emergency management team, they dropped a floating marker in the water so a dive team could locate it and tow it out of the water.

After their success in the Cedar River, Wilson called on them again. This time, a car had been abandoned in the Iowa River after plunging into the water near Swisher. The driver escaped uninjured, but the car now lay somewhere on the riverbed, the murky water making it impossible for divers to see underwater.

Young and Gilles now took to the water with a complex sonar system, comprised of various instruments. One sonar instrument on the back of the boat emits cone-shaped sound pulses and has a receiver listening for return signals, while 512 receivers listen for feedback and cover a 128-degree range underneath the boat. The sonar makes 10 measurements every second and stitches them together on a map as the boat passes repeatedly over an area.

Creating the sonar imagery in real time also requires accurate positioning. This is achieved by using three different GPS receivers—two that measure the orientation of the boat and a third that records the position of the boat. An inertial motion unit measures the movement of the boat—vertically, horizontally, and its three-dimensional tilt. All this helps the system make corrections to the sonar measurements in real time, so Young and Gilles have immediately reliable data.

A member of the dive team standing next to the retrieved car.

A member of the dive team standing next to the retrieved car.

After motoring up and down the river for several hours, Young and Gilles found what was likely the car’s resting spot near the river’s east bank. They dropped a marker and sent the imagery to the Wilson and his team. Soon after, the Emergency Management dive team located the car and towed it out of the river.

While Young and Gilles have proven very skilled at locating submerged cars, hopefully their services won’t be needed again for quite some time.

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