ELKADER, Iowa — Dave Wilke, president of Wilke's supermarket here, used to refer to a disaster that hit his town nearly 20 years ago as “the big flood.”
Not any more.
Last month, the Turkey River rose 5 feet over a dike that had been built to prevent another massive flood, and it washed right through Wilke's, a fifth-generation independent store and — at 141 years — the oldest family-owned food retailer in the state.
“We celebrated our 140th anniversary at this time last year, and now this year we're cleaning up from a flood,” Wilke told SN.
Being in business since right after the Civil War has given Wilke some resilience, however. After 10 days of digging, cleaning and rigging up a makeshift checkout system, Wilke's was back in operation.
Key to the store's rapid recovery, he said, was Wilke's quick action. While waiting for the knee-deep water in the store to recede, he made phone calls to all the construction companies, cleaning services and repair crews that he thought he would need to get the store operating again.
“I knew if we were going to save this thing, we were going to have to do it quickly — otherwise, we're going to have mold and other assorted bad things happen,” he said. “That saved two or three weeks.”
Once the water receded enough to pull the sandbags away from the doors, Wilke enlisted the help of local volunteers to form a line and start digging out the mess that had accumulated. Much of the product on the lower shelves had been washed into the aisles and formed a thick layer of garbage throughout the store.
That first day, they shoveled 5½ dump trucks' worth of product out of the store, and they filled another four Dumpsters before the job was finished.
After the mess was cleared, the crew had to pull all the equipment away from the walls, remove the dry-wall and the insulation, treat the walls with an anti-mold agent, and then put everything back in place.
“It was basically like starting all over again,” Wilke said.
Although his equipment losses were minimal, the flood did destroy some freezers and the store's checkstands, the latter of which had only been installed a few years ago, he said.
“The things we could save or easily repair, we did, but all the checkstands were crushed,” Wilke explained. “We just replaced those four years ago, so they were basically new yet.”
He said he was able to salvage much of the product that was on the higher shelves. He has not yet estimated his total product losses.
“Equipment-wise, there wasn't a big bill, but the labor — I don't want to see that bill,” he said. “I thought I would be able to list all the inventory that was lost, but when I saw the store, that was just impossible.”
He said he planned to compare his inventory after the flood with normal levels to gauge what his losses were. He's seeking some recovery through his insurance provider.
He said the only business in town at a lower level than his, a local bank, was destroyed.
Wilke said he has been running the store using makeshift checkstands fashioned out of plastic banquet tables.
“As soon as we got as much stuff done as we could, we reopened,” he said. “We had to wait until everything was cleaned up and sanitized, but after that, whatever was available, people could buy.”
Elkader, with a population of about 1,400, was declared a National Disaster Area after the flooding, which caused damages estimated in the billions of dollars. Dozens of homes in the town were destroyed, Wilke said.
Local residents and businesses had little warning of the flooding after online reports from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the crest would be much lower than it actually was, Wilke explained.
The town had built a wall to withstand river levels of just over 25 feet, and forecasts throughout the day had been calling for an overnight peak of less than 24 feet.
“We knew it was going to be high, but we thought it was just going to go by,” Wilke said. “It ended up going to 30 feet, 9 inches, so they missed the forecast by 7 feet! There were people down in the lower end of town mowing their lawns that afternoon.”