A summer lost to floodwaters - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:24 am
A summer lost to floodwaters

This summer was supposed to be a big one for Rick's Cafe Boatyard — maybe the biggest ever.

In addition to the regular seasonal traffic at the popular spot on Omaha's Lewis & Clark Landing, there would be thousands of potential customers attending nearby concerts and festivals. Better yet, the College World Series was making its downtown debut just a short walk away.

Then the water started rising.

The city lowered the floodgates north of Rick's and the landing flooded over. All of the special events — the jazz and wine festivals, the concerts — were moved to other locations. "Road closed" signs went up on Riverfront Drive.

Through it all, Rick's stayed dry and stayed open for business, but no one seemed to know. Every week, owner Rick Albrecht hoped it would be the one that would bring back the crowds. And every week, too many tables stayed empty.

Even as the waters recede and with the landing reopened, the cafe's business still is down by 30 percent to 40 percent. The cafe is accessible, though a portion of Riverfront Drive will remain closed until pumps are removed later this year.

"It's terrible," Albrecht said, glancing around at a nearly empty dining room during a recent lunch hour. "We lose money every day."

Up and down the Missouri River, businesses spent the summer bracing themselves for the worst. They asked employees to help fill sandbags and moved supplies and equipment to higher ground. They figured out how to keep shipments moving, despite road closures and detours. And while many — though not all — averted disaster of the water-soaked office or warehouse variety, few survived the summer's flooding without some kind of impact.

Now, Albrecht and hundreds of other business owners are trying to sort out what was lost, what was learned and how to move forward.

* * *

There's no definitive list of how many businesses were affected by the flooding, or how much money they'll need to get back to normal — at least not yet.

Several agencies are in the process of gathering information from local firms. Among them are the U.S. Small Business Administration, which issues federal disaster loans for homeowners, renters and businesses. So far, the SBA has approved about $1.3 million in funds for Nebraskans, including about $200,000 for businesses.

Burl Kelton, an SBA spokesman, said the relatively small amount that's been set aside for businesses isn't necessarily an indication of the level of need. Measuring the kind of losses that come from workers being less productive because they're sandbagging or dealing with flooding in their own homes can be tough to measure.

"A portion of (the losses) for business has been economic injury," he said. "And we're finding it's taking people a while to really get a sense of how much damage they're looking at, and they're hesitating in making application until they get more information."

Early on, the Nebraska Business Development Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha announced that it would help companies with a variety of flood-related issues, from filing insurance claims to developing new marketing strategies.

During the worst of the flooding, the phone wasn't exactly ringing off the hook, said Andy Alexander, a program manager with the center. There was too much going on to think about the future.

Over the last month, however, more and more business owners have been looking for guidance. For a recent meeting about flood recovery assistance, the center invited 50 business representatives. About 200 people showed up.

Of the 1,200 Nebraska businesses that work with the organization, Alexander estimated that about a quarter of them were affected by the flooding.

In Iowa, a group called the Safeguard Iowa Coalition is urging businesses to report flood damage so it can submit an appeal to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has denied help for homeowners and businesses in Fremont, Harrison, Monona, Pottawattamie and Woodbury Counties.

Jami Haberl, the organization's executive director, said she's heard from about 120 businesses so far.

In Council Bluffs, chamber President and CEO Bob Mundt said he hasn't gathered any official numbers about business losses but said he's heard plenty of anecdotes from locals. Even spots far from the water took a hit as drivers were forced to use different routes to get from Point A to Point B.

"That transient traffic is a big part of their business," he said. "By diverting traffic around Council Bluffs, those things didn't come through. Hotels, motels, restaurants, service stations, convenience stores saw an impact as well."

* * *

The fight against the slow-moving disaster required neighbors to work together, and businesses were no exception.

In Council Bluffs, the workers at Ameristar Casino Hotel, agricultural products company Cargill and Warren Distribution (which makes and distributes automotive products) never had much reason before to work together on projects.

But this spring, when it became clear that high water was going to pose a threat to all three companies' properties, they started talking. They brought in engineers and together came up with a plan to build a fortified levee system. Each company's employees put in time helping to build up the levee, and the three firms divided up the responsibility of monitoring the flood conditions around the clock.

Chuck Downey, president and chief financial officer of Warren Distribution, said his company finished the summer without any real flood damage to speak of. A storm sewer break created headaches for a few days, but the companies had enough equipment and manpower in place to quickly resolve the problem.

It was an expensive effort; Warren has spent $2.5 million on flood-related equipment, supplies and work so far. It transferred some of its business to its other facilities in Alabama and West Virginia, which also created added costs.

But Downey said it's clear that things could have been much worse.

"There is no question in my mind that the cooperative effort of the companies involved, and especially the people involved, helped us dodge a bullet," he said. "And I'll be forever grateful."

* * *

More than a few businesses packed up at least a part of their operations and moved them to another spot.

For the Vocational Development Center, a service provider for people with developmental disabilities, it was the last straw.

The organization's leaders had been thinking about relocating from Abbott Drive, and when they heard that flooding could threaten the building, they moved quickly into a new office at 7110 F St. Floodwaters never reached the old location, but Pam Monsky, VODEC's community relations director, said it wasn't worth taking a risk.

"We had an opportunity to get into a building, and we didn't want to wait until the levees broke," she said.

Meanwhile, some people saw the flooding as a test of how much they could withstand — and even a new selling point.

At Riverfront Place, a condominium development near Rick's Cafe Boatyard, the biggest complication of the summer was a road closure.

Ross Robb, co-managing partner at Riverfront Holdings, said the buildings were engineered to withstand a flood and stayed dry without any additional pumps or sandbags.

"Now we use it as a real positive with our buyers," he said. "We can say, 'Look, this was the worst flood in 60 years. And while the river was as high as it could be, we had people closing on their homes, moving in.'"

ConAgra spokeswoman Teresa Paulsen said her company had an "issues preparedness plan" in place, and it worked as expected, due in large part to good cooperation within the company. Earlier this month, ConAgra worked with Lanoha Nurseries to remove the flood barriers around the company's property.

Mike Adams, assistant general manager at Ameristar, said keeping business running during the flooding wasn't easy. The casino had a parking lot under water and battled problems with customer confusion — people would post dramatic flooding photos online and suggest that Ameristar was closed, leaving the casino's public relations manager to try to post corrections.

But in the end, he said, the casino is proud of how it kept on top of the flooding and what it learned in case the situation ever comes up again.

"We have this extremely well-documented, with the time frames laid out, what the river was doing at this stage," he said. "But hopefully in the next 500-year flood, none of us will be around to see this."

Contact the writer:

402-444-1543, erin.golden@owh.com

Contact the writer: Erin Golden

erin.golden@owh.com    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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