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After flash flood, some Omaha families now face financial storm

After flash flood, some Omaha families now face financial storm

Storms pound Omaha Saturday night.

After last week’s flooding filled some Omaha basements and left at least two families homeless, those affected are turning to Facebook fundraisers and GoFundMe campaigns and even contemplating bankruptcy as they sort out financial calamity.

That a flood far from a river could ruin their home was the furthest thing from their minds, they said. Their problems have been magnified by the fact that homeowners insurance doesn’t cover flood losses, and government help is uncertain at best.

“I’ve worked hard, I’ve paid my taxes, I kept my insurance payments up, and now this,” said Elfete Emerllahu, a refugee who came to the U.S. from Kosovo with her husband in the late 1990s.

The Emerllahu home near 48th Avenue and Center Street has been tagged as uninhabitable after Saturday night’s flash flooding washed out the foundation. Their neighborhood is dotted with dumpsters as multiple families clear out water-logged possessions.

Friends and co-workers have been incredibly generous, she said. But it’s the lack of “official” help that has been overwhelming.

“It’s as if I am sleeping under a bridge and no one cared,” she said, borrowing an Albanian saying to convey a sense of abandonment.

The newlyweds next door, native Omahans, expressed the same feelings.

“It’s hard for people to understand, but we really did do all the right things,” said Emma Baker, whose home was also condemned by the City of Omaha after a wall of water shoved in the foundation. “We both work, we live under our means, we stay out of trouble.”

She and her husband, Todd, marked one full year in their new home in July. Over those 12 months, they invested $35,000 into turning a former rental into the “heart” of their family, she said.

“Now we have a mortgage but not a livable home,” Baker said.

The Bakers say they’ve spent hours on the phone trying to find help. And like their neighbors, the help they’ve received has come from friends, co-workers and everyday Omahans.

“We’ve Monday morning-quarterbacked ourselves the last 72 hours,” Baker said of not realizing that they might be at risk of flooding. “But this was an act of God. We need help.”

The Bakers and Emerllahus are trying to figure out how they will come up with tens of thousands of dollars to shore up their homes’ foundations, and whether that’s even a smart decision. At least one other family in the neighborhood is weighing bankruptcy for their “still habitable” home because of the costly damage to their basement and the potential for mold.

The Bakers have posted their fundraiser on Facebook at Get The Baker Family Back on their Feet.

The Emerllahus have created a GoFundMe page to “rebuild our home.”

A few blocks east of the Bakers and Emerllahus, the Herrera family had a wall of water burst through the windows of their basement. Water filled the basement but didn’t damage the foundation.

Bankruptcy may be the only solution, said Natalie Herrera, who shares the home with her parents.

“It was as if we were getting hit by a hurricane, it was so bad,” Herrera said, showing cellphone video of two sideways geysers gushing through the windows of the basement.

The family has been airing out what can be salvaged. But bags and bags of family possessions are piled high alongside the house, ready to be thrown out.

Not far from the Herreras’ home, Michael Pierce was ripping up carpet from the home he rented.

“Everything we had down there was destroyed,” he said of the basement, which took on about 5 feet of water. “It came up through the drains; it was insane.”

He and his fiancée lost a couch and television, among other possessions. The landlord has replaced the air conditioner, but other appliances in the basement will need to be replaced, too.

Another neighborhood resident, Chris Davis, said the smell was “horrendous” when his basement flooded. He and others say sewage came up with floodwaters when water rose through their drains.

“It was bad,” he said. “Messed up.”

Luckily, his family lost only their water heater. His neighbors, he said, were much worse off. One neighbor across the street had a yard piled high with stuff Sunday after the storm. Another neighbor still has a backyard piled with possessions.

The night of the storm, water surged around his home, he said, and “it looked like the Missouri River.” The manhole cover in the street danced 3 feet in the air, on a geyser.

These families and an unknown number of others are getting a rude lesson in natural disasters: Flooding isn’t covered unless flood insurance is expressly purchased. And disaster aid is rarely provided to the public.

While the homes along Center Street are in a low spot, there are no visible creeks that would imply a flood risk, residents point out. The area is not a federally designated flood zone.

It’s a good idea to purchase flood insurance, even in areas without a flood risk, said Michael Cappannari, spokesman for the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The reality is that floods can happen anywhere (and just 1 inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage),” he said. “Most homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.”

Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said individual Nebraskans have received federal disaster assistance only twice in the last 10 years: after the floods of 2019 and 2011. In other words, when there were widespread, catastrophic losses.

Additionally, federal disaster aid is a bottom-up process. It is up to the city to initiate a request for federal disaster aid for the public.

City Engineer Todd Pfitzer has said he doesn’t think there have been sufficient private losses to request aid for the public. The city is, however, seeking a federal disaster declaration and aid for its losses.

But there doesn’t appear to be a systematic effort at the local level to determine how many homes and businesses have been damaged.

The city has so far received about 20 reports of private property damage from the flood, said Carrie Murphy, spokeswoman for Mayor Jean Stothert. Most were for leaking roofs, windows or foundations, she said.

Storm-related inspections are the same as any other inspection, Murphy said, and are prompted by reports to the city. The city doesn’t conduct random or areawide storm inspections.

So those reports don’t capture the full scope of the problem. The Bakers counted 11 homes damaged by flooding on their block alone.

Because governmental aid appears unlikely, Tuma said financial help for people who lost belongings will have to come from nonprofits, faith-based groups and others in the private sector. Those organizations have established relationships with local governments to help out in disasters, he noted.

For Elfete Emerllahu, this has been a tumultuous year.

Earlier this year, her husband of 35 years, Naser, went back home for a visit to Kosovo. While he was there, the couple achieved their No. 1 goal for coming to America: The youngest of five children graduated from college.

When Elfete sent Naser a picture of their son’s degree, it brought tears to his eyes, she said. But then, not long afterward and while still in Kosovo, Naser contracted COVID-19 and died.

Grieving the loss of her husband, Emerllahu made the couple’s final mortgage payment in June. She had begun packing and was preparing to return to Kosovo to visit her husband’s grave when the flood hit. Precious mementos and the legal papers she needed were in her suitcase in the basement. But now the family is uncertain if it’s safe to go into the basement to retrieve possessions because of the damaged foundation. Mud and debris in their basement appear to be a couple feet deep in some areas.

It’s been a really tough year, one daughter said, and they “hope there’s something better because we’ve been through enough already.”

And while Emerllahu faces the prospect of starting over at the age of 52, she’s grateful that her children, all adults, survived the flood. Three shared the home with her, and one son had his bedroom in the basement. Had the family not been watching a show together on the main floor, she said, he might have been in his room and could have drowned given how fast the water surged in.

In 2015, a rural Fairbury, Nebraska, woman was found dead in her basement after flooding from a nearby creek. And in 1999, Omahan Leo Daskiewicz died after he went downstairs to check on his basement during a rainstorm. Similar to what happened on 48th Avenue this year, water built up outside his home along Cole Creek near 69th Street and Military Avenue before breaking through the foundation and sweeping him away.

“I am so lucky,” Emerllahu said.


The Bakers are grateful, too, for the help they’ve received from others. But they need disaster aid if they’re going to recover, Emma Baker said.

“We are asking for help,” she said. “There’s no white horse coming.”


Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Email: nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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