Three years after 2008 floods, local businesses boast recovery

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JUNE 16, 2011 7:20 AM

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Just over three years ago, Joe McLaughlin and Dale Paulsen watched helplessly as floodwaters began to creep over the railroad embankment that had served as their pizza parlor’s personal dam.

“It’s heartbreaking beyond belief,” Paulsen, a co-owner of Old Chicago, said on June 13, 2008.

In an attempt to block the floodwaters, employees gathered to sandbag the restaurant throughout the week, but on that day, Paulsen said, they had no choice but to give in.

“Our only option is to open the doors and let the water in,” he said, before donating the rest of the restaurant’s sandbags to a neighboring business.

Old Chicago, 75 Second St. in Coralville, was one of roughly 200 area businesses damaged during the flood of 2008. This week — three years after the Iowa River surged over its banks — many of those businesses are back.

The flood destroyed everything in Old Chicago and from flood to finish, the pizza shop was closed for more than 100 days. Now, McLaughlin said the business has been fully restored.

“Do you know what it’s like walking into a hog farm after it rains? That sloshy, manure smell? That’s what it was like when we walked back in here the for the first time,” McLaughlin said this week, standing in the entrance of his business, a photo of the flood hanging on the wall behind him.

Now, the once vacant, waterlogged establishment is full of tables, raised booths, a bar, and the aroma of tomato sauce and oregano hanging in the air.

And Old Chicago is not alone.

“We have several businesses that are in better shape than before,” said Kelly Hayworth, who has been the Coralville city administrator since well before the 2008 floods. “They’ve replaced old buildings with new facilities at higher elevations than before. I’m very proud of the progress our community has made.”

Ed Fisher, the owner of Coralville Bay, 102 First Ave., was also eventually forced out by the water. He came back to find his fishing supply shop submerged in 2008.

“I had about 3 feet of water in my store,” he said. “[I] couldn’t get in for days. The remaining tanks had a layer of filth on them.”

Fisher said the water came in so quickly, he was unable to remove some of his most expensive fish before the flood.

Mary and Dick Davin of the Dick Davin Realtor team, 70 Sturgis Corner Drive, didn’t even have the opportunity to protect their own property.

“When we got back from Missouri, the yards were full of people sandbagging our property for us,” Mary Davin said. “It was just an awesome thing that I can never say thank you enough for — unbelievable generosity.”

Nonetheless, Davin said, it was terrifying to see 3 feet of water near her place of business.

“It was very fearful,” she said Wednesday. “An unbelievable feeling and wondering what is going to be the end of the story — what could possibly happen to our business and our financial situation.”

But none of the businesses drowned in the wake of the flood, and the owners credited the help of friends, family, and local aid.

For McLaughlin, going back into business wasn’t a matter of choice.

“I had two options: reopen or go bankrupt,” McLaughlin said. “We had a grant from the Chamber of Commerce, as well as a few jump-start funds from the state, so those really helped us recover.”

The Davins put their sons to work, sandbagging and pumping water from around their property around the clock.

Fisher said his business was rebuilt with the help of dozens of volunteer laborers from around the country. A local church provided living quarters, food, and all the tools for the volunteers. With community help, Coralville Bay reopened in the fall of 2009.

“I had my biggest month ever in April,” Fisher said. “The future looks bright. I couldn’t have reopened without God’s army.”

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