- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

DEWITT, Neb. (AP) - When the storm hit in May, waist-deep water swamping homes and businesses was a visible disaster. Now, as neighbors struggle to repair damaged homes, it’s become an invisible disaster.

Floodwaters caved in foundation walls, turned basements into dirty swimming pools, backed up sewers, destroyed furnaces and water heaters, and ruined vehicles and countless personal possessions.

“The sad thing with the flood is right now it’s an invisible disaster. You drive through town, and it looks pretty good,” said Liz Poessnecker, who has lived in DeWitt on and off for 46 years. “But when you look in basements, it’s a whole different story. When you look in bank accounts, it’s a whole different story.”

The storms May 6 and 7 dropped up to 11 inches of rain on parts of southeast Nebraska. DeWitt, which sits at the confluence of Swan and Turkey creeks and the Big Blue River, was covered by waist-deep water. Many of the town’s 513 residents had to be evacuated, the Journal Star reports (https://bit.ly/208WJNL ).

Flood insurance was hit or miss. Some families didn’t have policies because the premiums were too expensive - the town sits in a flood plain - or they no longer had a home mortgage.

“Once a house is paid for they drop it,” Poessnecker said. “Some people had good experiences with flood insurance, and others didn’t. Some policies paid out quite well, and others didn’t.”

After the waters receded, church groups and volunteers came in to help DeWitt clean up, but residents did a lot of the work themselves and got the job done in about a week, said Tim Garrison, a lifelong resident.

But that was only on the surface. There was still a lot of foundation and basement damage. Some residents had very little or no money for repairs. At least 20 homes sustained some type of structural damage from floodwater. Federal disaster relief didn’t cover such costs, and many residents had to pay out of their own pocket.

Last month, DeWitt Fire Department volunteers knocked on doors to get information on damage and unmet needs of residents; 258 households responded to their survey. Furnaces and water heaters were listed as a top priority.

“We need to get people heat,” Garrison said. “There are also some foundation issues we need to address.”

There are eight to 10 people in town right now who need furnaces, which cost between $2,500 and $3,000 each, he said.

Three furnaces are being installed, thanks to the generosity of Comforttechs Heating and Cooling, a Lincoln company that donated two furnaces, Garrison said. One of the company’s customers also donated money to buy a third furnace.

The DeWitt Area Recovery Team was formed to help raise funds to pay for more furnaces and water heaters and help residents with other needs. The information obtained in the fire department’s survey has been downloaded into a database.

“When I was working on the database, I periodically had to stop because my heart broke so bad for what these people are going through,” said Poessnecker, as she choked up.

Garrison, who is chairman of the team, said caseworkers from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul will use the database to determine each household’s needs. The team is developing guidelines for assistance and eligibility. The goal is to restore houses to the same condition as before the flood.

Poessnecker, who is a team member, is concerned some residents who can’t afford a new furnace will buy several space heaters, and the end result could be fires this winter.

“Let’s face it. It’s late October and you don’t have a furnace - it’s scary,” she said. “My fear is that they may not be able to pay utility bills.”

She’s also worried the costs to repair basements is exorbitant - based on the values of homes in cities, rather than small towns like DeWitt.

Dorothy Mahloch, a longtime resident and former mayor, had sewage back up in her basement, where her daughter, Nancy, lived. She had to remove the carpeting and paneling and got rid of most of the furniture.

“She lost most everything she had down there,” Dorothy Mahloch said.

Dorothy Mahloch and others said the May flood was different from the 1984 flood that devastated the town.

“This flood snuck up in the middle of the night,” she said. “I had no warning at all.”

Ron Hinzman, owner of the Red Zone, said his bar sits on a high spot, so it was dry, but the basement of his home, which is on the same block, was full of water. Two basement walls caved in, and another cracked from the floodwater.

Hinzman said he and his wife, Suzanne, own their home and did not have flood insurance. The hardest part was pumping the water out of the basement so they could make repairs, which were completed a month ago.

“We’re still in the process of getting a furnace put in,” Hinzman said. “Basically, we went on a waiting list for everything.”

Both Hinzman and Poessnecker said despite the May flooding, new people are moving into town and some flood-damaged homes have sold.

“It’s a good community. It’s just in the wrong spot,” said Hinzman, referring to DeWitt’s location near three streams. “I just hope it doesn’t happen again, but if it does, we’ll live through it.”


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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