Western Iowa Community Finds Flood Recovery a Long Process

By Nick Hytrek | March 23, 2020

HORNICK, Iowa — For a year now, every time Bob Nelson hears a flood watch has been issued, he’s up and out the door, no matter the time of day, checking on creeks and the West Fork of the Little Sioux River near Hornick.

A Woodbury County Emergency Services officer, Nelson is tuned into responding to emergencies. But flooding swamped his home and many others in Hornick a year ago, and now he responds to alerts in a way he never did before.

“Your guard is really up,” Nelson told the Sioux City Journal.

It’s been a year since heavy rainfall and rapidly melting snow filled the West Fork of the Little Sioux River on March 14 and flowed over the top of levees north and east of Hornick. The water flowed over the frozen, empty fields into town, until it was up to 4 feet deep on Main Street and forced the 250 residents to evacuate. When residents were allowed to return three days later to check on their homes, most found basements full of water, belongings floating on the surface. Furnaces, hot water heaters and other appliances were ruined.

Now, just about every time it rains, Loretta Prichard heads to her basement to make sure it’s still dry.

“You go down and check your sump pumps,” she said.

Few visible signs of the flood remain. Thanks to an army of volunteers that descended on the town after the water receded, residents needed little more than a week to clean out tons of soggy belongings and saturated drywall damaged by the mixture of flood water, groundwater and water from a backed up sewer system that had filled their basements.

Potholes dot streets about town, a result of heavy equipment driving over them during recovery. The city council awaits payment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the estimated $1 million it will take to fix them.

Three homes in town remain vacant, Mayor Scott Mitchell said.

“Other than that, everybody stayed,” he said.

Residents are in various stages of repairing damage to their homes. Without flood insurance, many had to pay replacement costs out of their own pockets. FEMA helped some, was a little less helpful for others, said The Rev. Catie Newman, pastor at Hornick United Methodist Church.

In the church basement, Newman sits with Bob and Deb Nelson. Behind them, brick walls remain exposed up to four feet off the floor, the soaked drywall that previously covered the walls torn out after the flood. Kitchen walls are stripped, water and drain pipes visible. Newman said the church repaired bathrooms in the basement within a month after water 3-4 feet deep filled it, and Sunday services resumed there.

The church council is working on plans for about $250,000 of work that needs to be done, though not all of it is because of the flood.

Finding a positive from the events of a year ago, Newman said church leaders are taking advantage of the situation to make basement and kitchen modifications that had been talked about for years.

“It’s really given the church an opportunity to do things differently,” Newman said.

After the flood, the church received an outpouring of support. Through donations from area churches and a grant from the United Methodist Church of Iowa, the church has about two-thirds of the funds needed before starting a capital campaign, Newman said.

The city council, too, is taking action that had long been nothing but talk around the council table.

Since at least 1996, town leaders had discussed building an earthen berm to protect Hornick from flooding, Mitchell said.

Last summer, the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board awarded Hornick $2.1 million to build a berm around the town’s north, east and west sides. It will be built 3 feet above the elevation of the 500-year flood mark, which was nearly reached last March. Mitchell hopes construction can begin yet this year.

The council has paid its flood-related bills, he said, but still awaits some FEMA payments that will reimburse the town a total of roughly $2 million for preventative measures taken before the flood, cleanup costs and street repairs.

Recovery has taken longer than Mitchell expected.

“I was hoping we’d be recovered in a year. I think it will take two to four years,” he said.

Bob and Deb Nelson have restored the oversized crawl space beneath their home. The furnace, hot water heater and other appliances, along with a golf cart and motorcycle ruined in the flood have been replaced. They consider their home back to normal, though Deb Nelson often finds herself looking for something she soon realizes was thrown away when the family cleaned up after the flood.

Jake and Loretta Prichard continue to put their home back in order. Jake Prichard said he got burned out by constantly working on the basement and has taken a break. He hopes to finish it this summer.

“We’re still not normal yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s livable,” he said.

Some homeowners continue work on restoring their homes, and residents must still dodge potholes while driving through town. They could focus on those negatives, but, no matter how many hardships the flood caused, residents have seen much good come out of a bad situation.

As soon as the water began to recede, Hornick residents who didn’t see one another very often before March 14 were working side by side.

“You got to meet a lot of people you didn’t really know,” Bob Nelson said.

It’s had an effect on the community, maybe a bigger one than the flood.

And, hopefully, more lasting.

“We’ve grown to be a tighter-knit community,” Mitchell said. “I think we’ve all become closer.”

About Nick Hytrek

Hytrek wrote this for the Sioux City Journal.

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