Small business hit big by flood

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 13, 2000

Small businesses in Austin have big problems.

Thursday, July 13, 2000

Small businesses in Austin have big problems.

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They are still closed, caked with a muddy river water sludge, inventories destroyed and otherwise kayoed by the third flood event this year in Austin.

To lose a home, every family’s castle, to a natural disaster is one-thing – a one-time loss. But to lose a business has greater ramifications to its owners, its employees and the community it serves.

The loss of a building and its inventory is only the tip of the ice berg of economic disaster. No business, no jobs. No jobs, no paychecks for workers. No paychecks, no economic value whatsoever.

If one dollar is, indeed, turned over seven times in a community, what happens when that dollar stops, because of the loss of jobs?

When the Cedar River crested Monday night at 23.4 feet or 1.5 feet above the previous record-setting floods of 1978, the business owners were crest-fallen.

Several believe it didn’t have to happen and that measures could have – even, should have – been taken to prevent the floods from repeating themselves in the city.

A natural disaster such as the latest flood is an equal-opportunity calamity. If you’re in harm’s way, you pay the price. Each loss, residential and commercial, is a genuine misfortune, that takes its toll.

Those businesses in and around Oakland Avenue NE from the Fourth Street intersection north to 11th Street paid an especially high toll this time.

Many businesses hit

Dan Wilson had the foresight to move his used vehicle inventory to higher ground before Sunday night’s rains caused the Cedar River and Dobbins Creek in east Austin to overflow.

His business neighbors are happy for him.

A Budget Oil gas station, car wash and convenience store nearby also escaped major damages.

The old Terp Ballroom, now a church and teen center, suffered damages and so did the Salvation Army Austin Corps headquarters across Fourth Street NE.

The flora and fauna on display at Dolan’s Landscape and Spas look cruelly beautiful and untouched high on a bluff, and Arens Heating and Cooling along Third Street NE also escaped.

Down below, the heavily-traveled, but flooded Oakland Place SE artery was under water and no motorist could honk as Steve and Penny Arens advertise passersby to do.

Jane Crowley’s Stuttagart Tan and Travel. Tim Ball’s B&J Bar, the Austin Eagles Club, Mower County Farmers Mutual Insurance and other small businesses along the avenue were swamped with flood waters.

Not a business, but also a victim was Queen of Angels Catholic Church, which suffered water damage to its lower levels.

Bob and Sheila Helmers home and used car business at the former Seavey Standard Station at the intersection of the avenue and 10th Drive SE were washed out.

A short distance up the avenue and under the railroad bridge there is more stark evidence of the wrath of Mother Nature.

Three businesses closed indefinitely due to flooding: Star Liquor, Doors & Floors, Inc. and Jim’s Super Valu in the former Lakeside Shopping Center along 11th Street NE.

‘Sandbagging didn’t help’

A middle-aged man paid cash and didn’t accept change for the purchase of a bottle of whiskey at Star Liquor Wednesday afternoon.

Owner Curtis Lerum tabulated the transaction, including sales tax on a portable calculator. With no power, the business was shut down. Cash register, telephone and coolers for beverages.

"He was my first customer since this all happened," said Lerum, who has owned the business for four years. "We’re not open, but I guess he just had to have it."

Lerum’s business was filled with 30 inches of flood water before it receded Tuesday. "Sandbagging didn’t help. It just came right up so fast and went over them," Lerum said. "According to this mark I keep on the wall, the 1978 flood was higher. I don’t know what happened here in 1993."

Every bottle of beverage sitting on a shelf that touched the flood water has to be destroyed. Fortunately, Lerum had insurance on the inventory.

By Wednesday afternoon, Lerum, his wife and other family members, plus friends, had managed to clean up most of the mess. "At least, we can see the floor now," he said.

He hopes to reopen sometime next week.

Lerum looked weary, but had an opinion about the disaster.

"I’m just plain disgusted with the city," he said. "They think they’re doing good, building on them apartments and helping industries, but look at this. I couldn’t even get the city to wash down the parking lot. One city official came by and said the city could do that. Then, another came by and said they couldn’t, because it was a private parking lot."

"The city should think about spending money to keep these floods from happening all the time," he said. "There has to be something they can do north of town to divert the waters from flooding into the city. Otherwise, this is just going to happen again."

Next door to Star Liquor is Doors & Floors, Inc., owned by Joel Jensen and Gordon Handeland.

The business lost its entire inventory of carpeting and other floor coverings, plus doors and the loss is not covered by insurance.

Jensen and Handeland, plus their wives, and store employees attempted to sandbag the business from the rising flood waters last Monday morning. "It just came up so fast, we couldn’t do anything," said Jensen.

Like Star Liquor, over 30 inches of flood waters poured into the store.

Jensen and Handeland also own a Doors and Floors, Inc. store at Albert Lea and their crews are completing the installation orders they can until more carpeting and floor coverings arrive to replace that lost in the flood.

They plan to remain in business at the Austin location.

On Wednesday afternoon, they are still cleaning up. Help comes from unexpected sources. Not only do family and other relatives assist, as well as employees, but also strangers.

Francis Ferguson and Brian Schoen stopped by to volunteer their help and Rich Huffman from the competition, Thoroughbred Carpets, also stops by to offer assistance.

The Salvation Army Austin Corps’s emergency services canteen stops by with food and cold drinks and everyone expresses their appreciation.

The Jensens, both husband and wife live across Interstate 90 and west of the Hormel Foods Corp. corporate offices.

When I-90 was temporarily closed due to high waters in Austin between Sixth and 21st Street and Oakland Avenue was also closed because of water over the roadway, that left only Eighth Avenue NE to get anywhere.

"An extension of Fourth Avenue sure would have come in handy that day with all the freeway and other traffic in town using Eighth Avenue," Jensen said. "If there had been a serious emergency on the east side, I don’t know how they could have gotten to it quick enough."

Jensen and Handeland agreed with Lerum that some flood control needs to be done. Their suggestion: a diversion of the river and/or creeks north of Austin. "They could divert the water into a retention pond or even create a swamp that could be a wildlife habitat rather than let it all flow through the city of Austin," Handeland said.

As soon as the Salvation Army emergency services vehicle arrives, it signals another flood victim to take a break from cleaning up.

Jim Baldus, owner of Jim’s Super Valu, and his store’s employees join the Doors & Floors Inc. crew in the shade of a canopy.

Not only is the Salvation Army’s rations welcome, but Mae Schroeder’s sandwiches are popular nourishment for the hot, sweating group. The mother of Donna Handeland (Gordon’s wife) sees no refusals when she passes around her sandwiches.

Among the takers is Baldus, who must feel jinxed.

Two years ago, when a June 1998 windstorm knocked out power lines, his supermarket was forced to destroy a large amount of perishable goods when power wasn’t immediately restored.

Also within recent memory are the flood waters that devastated the same trio of business locations (under other ownership) and forced the previous owners of Lakeside Super Valu to close their business.

This flood has caused a loss estimated at $200,000 for Jim’s Super Valu, and he had no insurance.

"Sand bags were no help. We did everything we could under the circumstances, but nothing worked," Baldus said.

Baldus and his store’s employees are grateful for the help offered them and the support of customers, but as for the future of the supermarket, the owner admits to doubt.

"I wish I knew what direction to go. I really don’t know at this time. All we’re trying to do is clean up this mess," he said.

Insurance will save some

There are no doubts in Kyle and Kerri Klaehn’s minds.

Double K Specialty will reopen its doors at 109 Fourth Street SE. Just when is not known, so they have returned to their former business location at 309 Third Ave. SE.

Until then, they are dealing with the devastation caused by flood waters that rose as high as eight feet in some portions of their feed and seed business.

The water marks on showroom windows show over four feet of water there.

On Wednesday, the stench of dog food, in particular, is hard to take because of both the heat and the humidity and the flood water soaked feed.

The couple estimate they lost over $60,000 in feed and seed plus other inventory, but, thankfully, they say, it is covered by insurance.

Also they removed business computer equipment before they drowned in the Cedar River, including a perpetual inventory to nail down their losses to the tiniest detail.

The couple and their employees attempted to move sacks of feed and seed to higher shelves, but, like all the other business victims, they say the flood waters rose too quickly and they were forced to retreat.

Formerly Holiday Cars, Inc., the business location at the intersection of First Avenue and Fourth Street SE has, like the old Lakeside Shopping Center, been frequently flooded.

When Clark and Nathan Toland moved their auto dealership to a new building on West Oakland Avenue, the Klaehns saw an opportunity to give their Double K Speciality Inc. business greater visibility and leased the building.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the last of the dog food which exploded from sacks shredded by flood waters is being pushed outside for disposal.

Zach Smith, 11, and Nathan Applen, also 11, have come over to help their friends Zach Klaehn and his friend, Nick Zago, both 13.

The boys are caked with mud, their brows glisten with sweat and they look weary – even for kids.

Zach Smith speaks for all the boys.

"It’s sad," he said, "because it caused a lot of damage, and you lose a lot of stuff that’s important."

The popular family has been assisted by Mower County 4-Hers, relatives on both sides of the family, friends and friends of friends.

Kyle Klaehn appreciates that.

"My first thought today is how grateful we are for all of the community people and all of the rest who have offered their support. It’s been just great, and we appreciate it," he said. "Family, friends, co-workers, the 4-Hers – everybody has been just super, and we appreciate it."

Pressed for more reaction to the disaster, the business-owner stops and when he resumes speaking, he makes a point about how difficult a disaster can be even when that disaster is over.

"One thing that bothers me is the expense you have to put out to get the debris hauled away," he said. "They (operators of the Austin waste transfer station) charge me by the pound to take this debris and in my case, it’s wet dog food and other feed that’s probably 50 percent water.

"We hauled out four loads of the stuff on Tuesday and they charged me $5,000 at the rate of $77 a ton," he said. "Can you believe that? I’m paying that much money for them to take away something that’s mostly water."

On whose responsibility another flood event in Austin is, Klaehn is diplomatic.

"There’s no doubt that the city and the county should investigate what their options are," he said.

Then, he walked back through the wet dog food to start cleaning up again.

Businesses and individuals now share a common bond: victims of a flood.

It’s tough enough dealing with the cleanup problems of today, but what about tomorrow?

Mrs. Klaehn said, "You just have to move on and start all over again."