Riverfront businesses fought, won river battle

Published 12:03 am Friday, May 18, 2012

VIDALIA — Four private businesses located on the Vidalia Riverfront didn’t have the security of a tested levee system to help block a 500-year flood.

As each business watched the mighty Mississippi rise higher every day, evacuation became obvious — but the fate of their facilities wasn’t so clear.

The buildings that were on city property, Promise Hospital of the Miss-Lou, Riverpark Medical Center, Comfort Suites and the Vidalia Conference and Convention Center, were protected from structural damage by Hesco Bastion baskets provided by the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

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Vidalia Dock and Storage, which isn’t on city property, fought the flood as long possible before evacuating in early May.

The businesses relied on flood insurance or money from their own pockets to pay for prevention and recovery costs after the 61.9 feet of water moved out.

And while some businesses did recuperate funds from insurance, the cost of business lost and time invested in prevention can’t be reimbursed.

Riverpark Medical Center

After the river levels dropped and business resumed as usual, ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. John White, who is also part owner of the building, gave the Riverfront his own nickname.

“I call it the Miracle Mile of the Miss-Lou,” White said overlooking the parking lot of the facility, which one year ago was surrounded by Hesco baskets. “It was just incredible how everyone came together and worked so hard for this one-mile strip of land.”

The outpatient medical center on the Vidalia Riverfront vacated its building on May 5 and reopened the building for operations on June 20.

But before the building was evacuated and the city hatched its Hesco basket solution, White said some of the building owners discussed creating their own levee.

“We met with contractors and they said it could be done for about $200,000 or $300,000, so when the city came to us with their idea, that took a great deal of stress of our backs,” White said. “After that, we were able to concentrate our efforts solely on evacuating.”

Two vital pieces of equipment that couldn’t be moved — an MRI machine valued at $1 million and a CT scanner — became the next main concern for White.

White said the medical center spent an approximate $10,000 to $15,000 in labor costs to prevent damage in plumbing and electrical.

After evacuating the building, White’s practice moved to temporary offices across the river outside of Natchez Regional Medical Center.

White said his practice, along with many others, suffered greatly from being displaced during the time of the flood.

The only structural damage to the medical center came as the river crested and water pressure broke portions of the slab underneath the building.

After returning to his office and seeing things slowly get back to normal, White said he began to get a feeling for what had been accomplished on the Riverfront.

“I think that the frantic nature of the situation just caused us to be in a disaster mode mentality,” White said. “It wasn’t until we were settled into our new surrounding that we realized what we had just accomplished.”

Aside from constructing a flood wall around the building — a plan not currently being considered — White said he will continue to see what city, state and federal agencies say before making any plans for the future.

“We feel so fortunate we dodged this bullet, so maybe we’re lackadaisical in that we don’t think it’ll happen for a certain amount of time,” White said. “But even as the anniversary approaches and is here, there’s just not that much conversation about that.”

Promise Hospital

Chief Executive Officer Benny Costello was a new boss from out of town when the flood came, and maybe that’s why no one took his worries about the rising river seriously.

“I remember looking out the window two months after I got here and saying, ‘The river is getting kind of high. Don’t you think we should be worried about that?’” Costello said laughing. “I guess since I was the new guy everybody would just say, “Nah. Don’t worry about it.’”

From April 28 to June 28 the long-term acute care hospital stopped taking patients and discharged its current patients to sister hospitals in Baton Rouge and Vicksburg or hospitals and nursing homes across the river in Natchez.

By May 5, the majority of the building’s contents were moved across the river and the building evacuated.

The hospital kept all employees on payroll and asked that each of them work a minimum of 24 hours a week.

By helping pile sandbags in front of the building, man pumps in each corner of the building and provide security at both the building site and the storage site, Costello said the employees were able to remain positive.

“It was an opportunity for some of the night folks to work with the day folks that never see each other or work together,” Costello said. “It was a unifying experience for all our staff.

“I know I’ll never forget it.”

And with the hospital not facing any water or structural damage, Costello said the majority of the expenses came from moving all the equipment and lost revenue.

Since the building was on city property, the Hesco baskets and other flood prevention was covered by the city.

After seeing the unpredictable nature of the river, Costello said he tries to remain in constant contact with the city about future flood-fighting plans.

“I think we’ve all been thankful it hasn’t happened again, but I’m not sure what we would do if it happened again,” Costello said. “I know we would probably do some of the same things we did last year, but only if the resources are there.

“We couldn’t keep doing that if it floods every year.”

Comfort Suites

The Comfort Suites hotel and Royale Salon and Med Spa also sustained minimal physical damage because of protection by the Hesco baskets.

General manager of the hotel and director of the salon and spa Clara Nell Brown said the businesses have fully recovered from the flood and are in constant communication with the city regarding future plans to protect the Riverfront.

“Mayor (Hyram) Copeland has future plans and has coordinated with the State of Louisiana and the Corps of Engineers in the event this happens in the future,” Brown said. “Hopefully, we will be looking at this not happening for another hundred years.”

With insurance covering costs for the minimal damage that occurred, Brown said the greatest toll came from lost revenue.

Brown estimates the lost revenue for both the hotel and spa at approximately $1.2 million.

Much of that lost revenue came after the waters receded but before Hesco baskets were removed to make the hotel accessible.

Despite the time taken to remove the baskets and repair damage, Brown said she and the owner Virgil Jackson are extremely grateful to the State of Louisiana, the City of Vidalia and the Corps of Engineers for their hard work.

Vidalia Dock and Storage

With 55 years of experience that revolves around the Mississippi River, Vidalia Dock and Storage owner Carla Jenkins said she had confidence that her business could fight the flood — and win.

With high water levels in 2008 that reached 57.3 feet barely entering the building’s parking lot, Jenkins said they were ready to stay if the predictions were below that level.

“When they were talking about the ranges, and we heard between 48 or 58 feet, we thought we could stay and fight it out,” Jenkins said. “But once they said 60 feet, we made the decision to pack everything up and leave.

“And we got out at the perfect time.”

The business evacuated in early May, moving out all belongings and shutting down daily operations at its Vidalia Riverfront site.

Shortly after evacuating, Jenkins said the fate of her business was left to the river.

“After that, all we could do was just wait and see what the river was going to do,” Jenkins said. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was still pretty bad.”

Even after the river levels started decreasing, Jenkins said she wasn’t able to return to the building until July.

Before the building received renovations, Jenkins said she and her staff had to tread lightly through the building — finding new coworkers behind each door.

“We were very cautious because we would walk into a room and there would be water moccasins and all kinds of things,” Jenkins said. “We walked into my office and found a large mouth bass.

“We just didn’t know what we were going to find.”

While the main office building only got six inches of water inside, Jenkins said two of the shops near the river had seven or eight feet of water in them.

And evacuating those shops was where the majority of the expenses and frustrations came from, Jenkins said.

“None of that equipment had ever been moved off of this property since we started here,” Jenkins said. “And some of that wasn’t intended to be moved, but it had to be moved or else we would have lost it.”

Jenkins said thankfully her flood insurance did pay for the renovations to the main office building, but evacuating heavy machinery and business lost totaled approximately $60,000 to $75,000.

“You’re always going through trials and tribulations when you deal with the river, but that was the worst year of my life,” Jenkins said. “But every time we’re having a bad day we can say, ‘At least we’re not dealing with the flood.’

“When you have such a major disaster like that flood, everything else doesn’t really seem that bad.”