Back Home For The Holidays

PACIFIC JUNCTION - Last spring, Missouri River flooding forced the evacuation of Pacific Junction. The deluge of water that followed submerged homes and business, destroyed millions of dollars in property and displaced hundreds

It took weeks before residents were allowed to return to survey the damage.

What they found was worse than many could have imagined.

It’s estimated flood waters reached eight feet in some areas of the town of 470. Not a home, business, shed or garage was spared. Total financial losses have been estimated in the tens of millions.

Nearly nine months since the disaster struck and residents are beginning to trickle back to their homes.

Some have begun the arduous process of rebuilding. Many are watching and waiting. Many more are contemplating a government-funded buy-out through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program that buys flood-prone properties.

Korenna Neppl, city clerk for Pacific Junction, said about 20 residents have returned to their homes so far. More are expected to return soon. Most have begun to rebuild.

In all, 51 city property owners have committed to returning. As to WHEN they might return, that depends on the condition of their homes. Many of the homes remain uninhabitable.

By last count, 149 city residential property owners opted for FEMA buy-outs. That number didn’t surprise Neppl.

“The length of time people had their homes under water totally destroyed them mentally,” said Neppl, a 20-year resident of Pacific Junction. “And it destroyed their homes physically. Even the people that were born and raised here, generations of people, didn’t want to come back, were scared to come back because they didn’t want to go through it again.”

Many of those residents displaced were elderly and have lived most of their lives in Pacific Junction. The city could potentially lose more than half of its population if the FEMA numbers are any indication.
“This has taken a toll on people,” Neppl said.

She’s heard no ill will toward those who chose the buy-out path.

“You have to do what you have to do,” Neppl said. “They’re all pretty sympathetic. It was horrifying no matter how you look at it. Even building back up is a horrifying, scary situation.

“There’s all the unknowns. It could happen again this spring. Insurance could raise to the point we can’t even afford it.There’s a lot of uncertainties for those that are staying as well a the ones who are leaving.”
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“Never even crossed our minds.”

Wayne Irick and his wife Dianna never considered the FEMA buy-out option for their property on Cordelia Avenue.

“We decided we’d give it a shot and move back in,” Wayne said. “The heck with it. We’re a little concerned about flooding next spring,  but honestly, we’re not too concerned.”

The Irick’s returned to their property Aug. 17 – nearly five months to the day from when they were forced to leave by rising flood waters. They’ve owned the property since retiring 10 years ago.

While they were displaced, they lived in a camper parked on the property of a friend northeast of Glenwood.
Their former home, a mobile home, and an attached deck was completely destroyed by the flooding. They also lost a large storage shed but the garage, stacked with tools and storage items, survived.

“We’re in the process of getting it back in shape, putting in new lights,” Wayne said. “The water got right up to the loft but didn’t go any higher so whatever we had up there was saved.”

The Irick’s have installed a new 20-by-20 modular mobile home on their nearly quarter-acre lot. They had flood insurance so nearly all their losses were covered.

Through all the uncertainty and five months being displaced and the destruction of their home, the Irick’s never lost faith.

Wayne said he and his wife won’t be hosting any Christmas festivities for his the family this year, but they’ve already received the gift they wished for this season.

“It feels like home again,” Wayne said.
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Andy Young has lived his entire life in Pacific Junction.

A former city councilman and now the town’s mayor, he hopes to be back in his home of 42 years soon.

For the last few months, Young, in addition to getting the town government back up and running, has focused rebuilding efforts on his daughter Clydie Nelsen’s home on Lincoln Avenue. Nelsen has four daughters, ages 15, 10, 8 and 5. They moved back on Oct. 25,  after six months living in a Glenwood rental home.

“They were pretty ecstatic to be home,” he said.

Like himself, Young expects another half dozen home owners will be moving back into their homes by late-January.

He admits it’s been a trying year for the community. Morale is down. The town looks abandoned at times. Uncertainty abounds.

“People are owly,” he said. “Some people are strapped financially and others have gotten loans because they can’t do it themselves. It’s been hard for people to recover.”

With property damage estimated to be in the millions county-wide, Young guesses  Pacific Junction will lose three-quarters of its residents when all is said and done. The FEMA buy-out list dwarfs the returnees list. Young can’t and won’t blame any resident who chooses a buy-out over returning.

“They have to do what’s best for them and their families,” he said. “You can’t hold grudges. You have to move on the best you can. You hope things work out.”

Next year is a census year and the town’s population will likely take a hit with the losses. It will be a guessing game on the population and the tax base well past the date of turning in census forms.

“You’re supposed to fill it out for the town you’re living in. If you’re living in Glenwood, you put Glenwood,” Young said.

“Well, I’m putting P.J. because that’s the town I’m going to be living in.”

Young has no doubt the 2019 flood and the devastation and the buy-outs will forever alter the town he’s lived in his entire life.

“I can be concerned, but it’s not going to do me any good,” he said. “It’s one of those things we’re going to have to wait and see how things fan out. My goal is to try to get everything in this town back to working order for everyone recovering and coming back.”

Next year’s spring melt brings the possibility of more flooding. But Young isn’t about to start worrying about next year. There’s still too much to do now. Dwelling on uncertainty changes nothing, he said.

“I’ve lived here long enough to know this year was a 1-in-500 year flood,” he said. “It’s going to be what it is. I think they have the levees in pretty decent shape for what they say they have coming down. I think the Corps (of Engineers) is going to be more proactive in letting water out before it builds up from the mountains.”

For Nelsen, Young’s daughter, and her four children, returning home was an emotional moment for the family.

She moved back into the home over a weekend her youngest children were visiting their father and her two oldest were away for a tournament.

“They didn’t have any idea we were moving back in so they were pretty excited,” she said.

Like many evacuated from the town last March, they rented a home in Glenwood and lived there until moving back in October.

“It was a relief to be sure but it’s a relief I never want to go through again,” Nelsen said of returning. “I never want to go through that type of trauma again but it felt really good to be back home.”

In early April Nelsen and her father surveyed damage to the town and their homes by boat. She’ll never forget the things she saw that day.

“It hurt but there was some acceptance,” she said. “There was definitely a grieving process. When we came through there were things I knew I’d deal with later, images I just can’t unsee of my town. But to be able to come back home and see others come home, it can be done with hard work. It just depends on how bad you want it.”

Three weeks and six days after the mandatory evacuation of the west side of town, Nelsen walked through calf-deep water to her home. With all the damage and debris, she was barely able to open the back door to get inside.

“My heart broke but I pushed through and once I saw what the inside looked like, I knew we would be back home and we could get through it,” she said of the home she’s owned for 18 years. “I knew a buyout wasn’t an option. It was never going to be an option for me.

Nelsen estimates the water crested at nine feet in her house. She lost everything in the home but structurally it held up.

“The water didn’t get the addition,” he said. “It went up 11 stairs and I have 13 (stairs). It was gutted but its livable inside right now. We re-did everything. There’s curtains for doors right now because that’s not on the to-do list. We wanted to focus on getting back home.”

Nelsen and her father did most of the work themselves.

“Getting my Dad and Mom’s house done will be another sense of relief,” she said.
Nelsen’s children’s father also lost his house, as did their grandparents and several other friends and relatives in the town.

“Their whole life has been down here and they don’t know any other house,” she said. “It was hard for them to lose everything but they’ve been troopers. They know Mom worked 14 and sometimes 16 hours a day down here doing whatever I can to get us back home. They’ve done well. They’re resilient.”
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John O’Connor has heard he was one of just a handful of Pacific Junction residents who had flood insurance.

Like most of the homes in town, O’Connor’s was wiped out by flood waters but the structure remained standing. He used his insurance money to purchase a home in the Glenwood area but he still owns the Pacific Junction property. Residents with flood insurance were not eligible for FEMA buy-outs.

“It was hard to walk away,” O’Connor said of the home he and his wife, Kim, lived in for over 20 years. “I still own it. It looks pretty good from the outside, the windows and doors are all there but the inside is gone. The garage is good, the shed is good.”

O’Connor said the home, built in the 1870s, remains structurally sound, but is completely gutted to the studs throughout. He hasn’t decided if he will remodel – at a cost he estimates between $80,000 to $100,000 – or sell the property. O’Connor would be responsible for tearing down the home if he doesn’t remodel.

Kim favors returning to Pacific Junction. John isn’t so sure.

“I want to see what the spring brings, if it brings water or not,” he said. “The area still looks like it’s been abandoned. It’s such a mixed bag right now.”
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Neppl, the city clerk, is one of those residents who has just recently been allowed to return to her home. Recent as in just this last weekend. Work continues on her home at 711 Washington Street and the path ahead is daunting but home is home.

“There’s devastation all around you when you go in and out of your house,” Neppl said. “You have all these empty homes and a lot of questions. It’s a very hard situation.”

Neppl never seriously considered the prospect of taking a buy-out. She’s lived in her home for more than 20 years and it’s nearly paid off. She didn’t relish moving or taking out another mortgage.

She’s been asked why she’d return with all the uncertainty homeowners are facing. And the answer is easy.

“I look at it this way, I’m almost 60 years old, my house is paid for,” Neppl said. “We lived in Pacific Junction for a reason. Our home is here and it’s only worth what it’s worth. Even if I got a full value for my buy-out I can’t go buy another house in Glenwood or anywhere for that kind of money and not have house payments again. Why at my age would I want house payments again?”

That’s a common lament she’s heard from those who declined buy-outs and those who are still debating the idea.

“That’s what’s been hard for a lot of these people,” she said. “The thing they worked the hardest for in their retirement is their home. If you’re on a fixed income you can’t afford a new house payment. It took a hit out of a lot of people.

“This wasn’t our fault. This was put on us. I don’t feel like I should have to go into debt to live again. Yeah, it is risky but what can you do? What can I do?”

Since last spring, Neppl had lived in the lower level of a friend’s home in Glenwood.

Returning home is a bittersweet prospect.

“I thought I’d be happier than I am,” Neppl said. “I’m happy, don’t get me wrong, and living with other people is fine – I don’t know what I’d have done without them – but you’re still not HOME until it FEELS like home.”

She even plans to do some decorating, albeit limited, for Christmas.

“I have a lighted squirrel up now and a friend brought me over a wreath. So that’s my two decorations. My grandkids might not approve.”

Returning to her home just in time for Christmas is probably the best gift she’s received.

“To get to go home is pretty good,” she said. “I say this to people all the time, my favorite chair that my butt fits in just right was taken away from me. You don’t feel like uyou fit in anywhere until yyou’re home.

“Now I’m home.”

The Opinion-Tribune

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PO Box 191 Glenwood, IA 51534-0191
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