Flooding Dampens Economy

Thursday, July 12th 2007, 5:33 pm
By: News On 6

COFFEYVILLE, Kan. (AP) _ It may be years before the economy here rebuilds from the oily floodwaters that submerged a quarter of this southeast Kansas city, business leaders said.

``We are just trying to figure out which way is up _ and go that way,'' said Lisa Kuehn, executive director of the Coffeyville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Six out of its seven hotels, one of its two grocery stores and about 70 businesses in Coffeyville were soaked for days in a toxic soup of oil, chemicals and sewage, after the rain-swollen Verdigris River topped its banks and mixed with an oil spill from the Coffeyville Resources refinery on July 1.

``We are finding out there were businesses there we didn't even know about,'' Kuehn said.

Employees in dozens of businesses have lost their jobs as small business owners _ many struggling themselves after losing their own incomes as well _ take stock of the damage to their equipment, inventory and buildings.

Jack Cooper, owner of Jack's Auto Repair, looked hopelessly inside his oil-saturated shop in Coffeyville that provided the family's only income. But since his house is a half mile inside Oklahoma, he has been repeatedly told by disaster officials he will not qualify for any disaster assistance. He said ruefully that the only help he has gotten is bottled water.

``I got a home to live in and clothes. I got $30 in my pocket. I have bills,'' Cooper said.

He has no flood insurance to help him rebuild.

``My wife she has been crying, 'What are we going to do?''' he said.

The economic ripple effects reach far beyond the Coffeyville Resources refinery, shut down as workers there assess damage to their facility while fielding hundreds of damage claims from frustrated property owners downstream hurt by an oil spill during the flood.

In Coffeyville, the price for gasoline at the pump reached $3.39 a gallon on Thursday amid predictions from oil analysts that Kansas and other Midwestern states that depend heavily on output from the refinery would see some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation this summer.

Coffeyville Resources is still assessing the damage and hasn't decided when it will reopen. But the company has said it plans keep all its employees on the payroll in the meantime and use them to get the facility up and running again.

But others, such as Terri Johnson, a waitress at the Cactus Grill, and her husband, a waiter and maintenance man at the same restaurant, are without jobs because their workplaces were flooded. The Johnsons' home was spared from the flood damage, and they have been helping with the cleanup at the restaurant.

``We have rent, utilities to pay _ and we have no way to do it,'' said Johnson.

Johnson said she has received nothing but water from disaster officials, but she was hopeful an upcoming appointment with officials from Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services would lead to economic help.

More than a hundred business owners from Coffeyville and Independence gathered at a meeting Wednesday to hear representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration give a presentation on low-interest loans for which they may qualify.

At the meeting, Kuehn tried to diffuse anger against the Coffeyville Refinery, telling business owners: ``We are all trying to work nice together because we have to live here together after this is over.''

Jack Miller, owner of P.J. Storage, said he planned to rebuild the warehouse elsewhere and sell to the refinery. He not only lost the income from his warehouse business, but his job when the car dealership where he worked was flooded.

``Coffeyville Resources told me they would take care of any lost wages and rent from the warehouse until it sells. I can handle it,'' Miller said. ``They are trying to do what is right.''

Jack Overton, the 62-year-old owner of The Body Builder automobile body shop, said he had considered retiring rather than rebuilding _ but not for long.

``I hope to reopen,'' Overton said. ``I have six employees that need a job bad.''

For more flooding information, check out our STORM ZONE web page.