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Iowa businesses persevere despite the flooding Mississippi River
Barge traffic stalled, establishments submerged, operations delayed — but businesses still forge ahead
The Claytonian Inn was built in 1910 in Clayton, a northeast Iowa river community between McGregor and Guttenberg. Kaitlyn Kuehl-Berns, a native of the area, purchased it at just 21 years old in October 2022 — fulfilling her dream of maintaining both the town’s and her family’s history.
Six months to the day of her closing on the property, the stretch of the Mississippi River flowing across the street crested at 22.91 feet by Friday — the third-highest for the area. The inn’s deep basement was two feet underwater, at least three sump pumps operating in tandem to siphon water out. The basement floor is heaving from the pressure of the water seeping through. An old furnace is now partially underwater.
“I knew that flooding was an issue with the property, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a major or historical flood right out of the gate,” said Kuehl-Berns, now 22 years old. “We were checking (the basement) every two, three hours ... It was like a roller coaster.”
Water from melted historic snowpacks in Minnesota and Wisconsin is still slowly making its way downstream via the Mississippi River. Iowa communities as far downstream as Bellevue have already seen the river crest — most reaching water levels in their top three highest historical records.
The flooding is making a dent in business along the Mississippi River. Barges are parked along the waterway, waiting for floodwaters to recede and passageways to open again. And local businesses are taking hits in revenue with flood-induced closures and damages.
“It came up fast,” said Annie Nieland, an administrative assistant of the Northeast Iowa Marina in McGregor. “Like, we knew it was coming, but so many people were in denial.”
“I’ve never seen the water this high in my lifetime,” added Brian Kimball, a member of the marina’s dock crew.
River transportation stalled
The upper Mississippi River is punctuated by 29 locks and dams that allow boats and barges to traverse the waterway.
All locks and dams above Lock 17 — which is near Wapello in southeast Iowa — are currently closed due to flooding. That could last for the next three weeks, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its April 27 grain transportation report. Closures could extend downstream into Missouri this week, too.
No access to locks and dams means no barge traffic along the river — and that means adjustments to supply chains and impacts to related businesses.
Some grain warehouses, for instance, tweaked their operating schedule to prepare for high water levels. Viterra’s Dubuque barge terminal arranged for barges to visit early before the area hit major flood stage.
“We took steps basically to try and minimize the business impact so that we can keep operating as normal,” said location manager Mitch Montag. “The biggest impact has been the slow physical movement of commodities on the river.”
For example, grain can’t get downstream and dry fertilizer and steel can’t get upstream. Some barges had to be diverted and offloaded; others line sections of the Mississippi River, waiting for the green light to start moving again.
“It'll take some time to get caught back up over the next month or two,” Montag said. He noted that his facility came into the flooding with high inventory levels, so local impacts have been minimal.
Without any barge movement, the tugboat companies are stalled as well. Riverview Boat Store and Riverview Tug Service normally deliver groceries and supplies to barges and help them navigate through locks and dams. This is the first season in the last few years where the company’s operations are completely shut down.
“We are seeing nothing right now coming in, so financially it'll probably put a little bing in us for sure,” said vice president Julie Putman, who works out of the businesses’ Bellevue office. “We're at the mercy of what happens, but we are used to it. This is not the first time that we'll be shut down; it won't be the last time. We just kind of roll with the punches and take it as it comes.”
As the clock ticked closer to noon, customers streamed into Bill’s Boat Landing, a bar and restaurant in Clayton. The smell of eggs and bacon wafted from the kitchen, where Kim Kuehl — the business’ 50-year-old owner -- and Kuehl-Berns’ mom fulfilled orders with a few flicks of the spatula.
Just outside, the choppy Mississippi River splashed against a sandbag barrier constructed the week before with the help of loyal customers. The swollen waterway raced by the restaurant windows; patrons looked on, raising a beer to their lips.
After closing for a weekend, Bill’s Boat Landing was back in action — even with a raging river at its doorstep. And it was packed.
“They saw we were open on Facebook, and they were like, ‘We’ve got to go down. We’ve got to support them,’” Kuehl said.
Whether through flood infrastructure or stubborn perseverance, river communities and businesses have learned to co-exist with the Mississippi River and its uncertainties.
The Big Buoys Tiki Bar in McGregor, for instance, has only been open for a year or so. But the structure, which sits along the river, is no stranger to flooding.
That sentiment is reflected in its unique set-up: A trailer holding the bar, bathrooms and appliances normally sits in the middle of the establishment. In times of flooding, it can be wheeled away to higher ground.
“In about half a day, we were completely ready for the flood,” said co-owner Dylan Borglum, 31.
The remaining building shell — complete with garage doors instead of windows — was inundated with at least three feet of water. When the floods recede, the structure can be power-washed, cleaned and reunited with its central trailer unit once again.
The Mississippi River should crest in Keokuk in southeastern Iowa by Wednesday morning, and it has already started dropping upstream. But businesses may have to persevere even longer: The waterway isn’t projected to be below flood stage until around mid- to late-May.
In the meantime, higher water levels may dissuade visitors that bring revenue to riverside communities.
“In 2019 when it flooded, it wasn’t as bad as this, but it stayed high for a long time,” Kuehl-Berns said. “The impact of the people who come up to the area in campers, who have summer homes, who go out on the river — it will be interesting to see this summer.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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