Wisconsin Businesses Show Signs of Recovery After Summer Flood

By CHRISTINA LIEFFRING, The Journal Times | December 1, 2017

For a little while on Wednesday, July 12, Sue and Bob Rubach, who help run The Coffee House in Burlington, Wis., with Bob’s family members, seemed to have the uncontrollable under control.

The cafe managed to stay dry in spite of days of heavy rain and the rising river. But eventually the water was too high and it had nowhere to go – it started backing up out of their floor drain and into the basement, which served as storage.

“It’s so frustrating,” Bob Rubach told The Journal Times . “Because you can’t stop it.”

Still, they seemed to be on top of it. They’d moved all the supplies from the lower shelves upstairs, sandbagged the walk-in refrigerator and borrowed a generator, sump-pump and pool pump, which kept the water level stable.

“We had a lot of things we did have to throw out,” Sue Rubach said. “But it wasn’t horrible.”

Then an hour before they were scheduled to hold a beer- and wine-tasting event in the upstairs bar, the power went out. They called the organizers, who said they still wanted to hold the event.

“Everybody was fine knowing there would be no air conditioning and everything would be by candlelight,” Sue Rubach said. “Most everybody showed up and it was lovely.”

Some of the rain from the night before had surrounded the Fox River State Bank, but by late morning it had receded.

Executive Vice President Barbara Bakshis came in and found a water line 2 feet up outside the building, and President Keith Pollek cleaning up the little bit that had seeped in through the doorway. But she knew it wasn’t over.

“I said, ‘Well, we’re not out of the woods yet,”’ Bakshis said. “We’re out of the woods for right now, but with all this water that has fallen over southeastern Wisconsin that morning, the Fox River will continue to rise.”

She was right. Without a basement for the water to drain into and ground so saturated from days of rain, the water burst right up through the floor. Bakshis said later that she’d noticed grout was missing between the tiles – the water pressure had shot it up out of the cracks.

“Water is funny – it fills every void,” she said. “It looks for the path of least resistance and will fill every void.”

The waterline inside reached 21 inches. That evening they went over their disaster plan, which all banks are required to have by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. They would have to work out of another branch for a few days until they could have their location operational.

The Coffee House had to close for a few days that weekend because of the power outage and owners had to cancel the live music event that Friday. But the power came back, so they re-opened on Saturday.

“I think people really appreciated that because they didn’t have their coffeehouse,” Sue Rubach said. “This is a community place.”

While it was business as usual in the cafe, in the basement, the entire floor had to be broken up and pulled out because the wooden planks had been warped by the water. Now it’s smooth, solid concrete.

Baskhis noticed that when the power went out, more people went outside.

“It’s something that a lot of people generally don’t do because they’re always cooped up in their air-conditioned houses,” she said. “All of a sudden you’re out talking to your neighbors.”

When the water had gone down, a big group of Fox River State Bank employees and volunteers came in with grungy clothes and started tackling the mess left behind.

“I was taking all help,” Bakshis said. “There was no end to the amount of work, especially early on, no end to the amount of work that had to be done.”

The cleanup also brought quite a few surprises.

“We were shocked at what saturated paper can do,” Bakshis said. “To the naked eye it doesn’t even look like its swollen, but its swells up and it blew the sides out of steel cabinets.”

They re-opened the bank’s lobby on July 18 and drive-through service on July 20. But four months later, a painter was putting the final touches on a door frame. And employees have been doing there jobs through all the reconstruction.

“We were working in some dusty conditions; we had to have our doors closed because it was so loud with all the work that they’re doing,” Bakshis said. “It was a challenge but we made it work.”

Other small banks reached out to them to see if they needed anything and loaned them equipment and resources as they got back on their feet.

One reason the Fox River State Bank team felt it was important to reopen the Burlington branch was because they knew with flood damage as extensive as it was, their customers were going to need some help.

Bakshis said she’s worked with homeowners who could not afford the cost of repairs to their houses.

“We have had some people, sadly, that have approached us to let us know that they basically are looking for a buyer for their home because they’re basically going to abandon the home,” she said.

Bakshis said she connected those homeowners with developers who buy damaged properties so they could at least find someone to take the house off their hands.

“Unfortunately for those homeowners, they’ve had to go on and basically start over,” she said.

Bakshis said she worked with two Burlington businesses whose locations had been severely damaged by the flood and didn’t think they could afford the repairs.

“They were considering just leaving their locations,” she said. “I don’t know if they would have left Burlington, but they were certainly going to leave their locations. And leaving the city was a possibility, which means potentially those jobs leave the community.”

Many businesses didn’t have the luxury of closing and doing all their repairs at once. So, like at the bank, many other businesses are putting the finishing touches on the repair work.

I think a lot of people are in the same boat that we’re at,” said Bakshis. “We’re months away from the flood and they’re just finishing their recovery efforts.”

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