Coffeyville flood: one year later
‘Still Open For Business’ is prevailing attitude for Coffeyville
BY ANDY TAYLOR
Montgomery County Chronicle
COFFEYVILLE — One year after record-setting floods devastated the east side of Coffeyville, city officials say they are contending not only with the rebuilding of that portion of the community but also fighting with the perception that the entire town has shut down.
That’s why bright yellow banners greet motorists as they enter Coffeyville on U.S. 166 and U.S. 169 highways. “Still Open For Business” read the banners, which also contain the theme “Come Watch Us Grow.”
And, telling people that Coffeyville is fully functional is the anthem of city leaders.
“If there is one thing I tell people who ask about the condition of Coffeyville, I tell them, ‘We’re still open for business’,” said city clerk Cindy Price. “I think a lot of people have the idea that the entire community is somehow paralyzed by the flood. That’s just not true.”
Granted, multiple blocks of Coffeyville’s east side are nothing more than bare lots today — where more than 320 homes stood in the aftermath of the floods that began on June 30, 2007. And, one half of the 70 businesses impacted by the floods have restarted their operations. And, somewhere in the region are about 930 displaced residents, some who are residing with family members, others who have taken up residence in other homes, and many more who have simply left and lost contact with their former hometown.
Yet, city officials say progress toward redeveloping, rebuilding and even rethinking the community’s future takes place on a daily basis — albeit slowly.
“The 2007 flood totally changed the way we do business as a municipal government, and the floods have changed our goals and plans for the future,” said Coffeyville city manager Jeff Morris. “The flood has pushed our goal for a comprehensive community plan to the forefront. And, that’s an important step for Coffeyville’s future.”
Among the chief aims of a comprehensive community plan is the redevelopment of new homes. Several housing initiatives are being instigated — but not without controversy. One program would involve the development of income-based apartments on West First Street, north of Windsor Place. Several residents in that neighborhood have voiced stiff opposition to the development of the property, where plans also call for more than 100 new homes to be built. A majority of the city commissioners have vowed to press ahead with the housing development despite the opposition from some residents.
“I think the impact of the flood is now reaching parts of the community that were not initially impacted,” said Morris, adding that the development of new homes was a community priority before the 2007 flood. “When we discuss our community’s future in the aftermath of the flood, all areas of the community are impacted, not just the east side.”
While developing new homes may require a different mindset on the part of Coffeyville residents, the town is grateful for the development of several new businesses. Among them is the construction of the new Sleep Inn hotel on the former Memorial Hall lot on East 11th Street. The Days Inn, formerly the Apple Tree Inn, and the Best Western Bricktown Lodge also reopened their doors earlier this year after being heavily damaged in the floods. And, several smaller-yet-vital service businesses in Coffeyville’s east side have also reopened.
Last month, Coffeyville received a huge morale boost when Quartz Mountain Aerospace — a manufacturer of single-engine airplanes based in Altus, Okla. — announced it was putting its sheet metal subassembly plant in Coffeyville, bringing with it several dozen jobs. The plant will be in operation by July 1.
The community did receive one jolt in recent weeks. Pressure Cast, a manufacturer of valves, announced it was closing its Coffeyville plant due to a downturn in the U.S. economy.
But, even with Pressure Cast’s absence, Coffeyville’s industrial community, which has been the backbone of this largely working-class community for decades, appears vibrant, Price said.
“Things are still going strong,” she said. “Except for the closure of Pressure Cast, the economic downturn hasn’t dramatically effected our local industries.”
At Walter Johnson Park, where Floral Hall’s roof slid off its supports and the basketball nets at the City Rec Building turned brown with oil, mud and scum, new life is being breathed into the park in anticipation of the Inter-State Fair and Rodeo. The 2007 fair and rodeo was cancelled, and the livestock show was moved to Oswego.
In 2008, the fair and rodeo returns in a park that has never looked better. And, the event could not be held at a better time: its 100th anniversary.
“I think people are going to be absolutely amazed at what they see at Walter Johnson Park when the fair and rodeo arrives in August,” said Lisa Kuehn, Coffeyville Chamber of Commerce director. “The City of Coffeyville was poured a lot of money and time into getting the park and fairgrounds ready for the 2008 fair. Everything has been cleaned, all of the buildings have a new coat of paint, the City Rec building is getting remodeled with new paint, new plumbing and wiring, and new floors. For the 100th anniversary of the Inter-State Fair and Rodeo, everything will be new at the park.”
Kuehn said the business sector on Coffeyville’s east side has been slow to revitalize, however those businesses that have reopened have made a huge contribution to the community — not only in economic redevelopment but also in morale.
“When the hotels reopened earlier this year, we could breathe a sigh of relief,” she said. “That’s because it proved that life could begin again on Coffeyville’s east side.”
What is missing from the east side business district are convenience stores. Kuehn said she was hopeful that several convenience stores and restaurants will reopen later this year.
“When you don’t have a convenience store operating in prime locations along a highway, you’re basically telling motorists to go on to the next town to buy gasoline, food or drinks,” she said. “That’s why convenience stores and eateries are major elements in a business community.”
Refinery: a top player
The 2007 flood was unprecedented in its volume and size. It also had an additional aspect that separated it from other natural disasters: an oil spill.
Amid the chaos of the Verdigris River spilling over Coffeyville’s levee system on the night of June 30 was the Coffeyville Resources refinery. One of the refinery’s large storage tanks leaked tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the flood river. The oil — when combined with the other chemicals from other businesses and residences — left a toxic scum throughout Coffeyville’s east side.
And, because of the hazardous nature of the flood-induced oil spill, the clean-up and removal of flood-damaged homes was put on the fast track, Price said.
That’s when Coffeyville Resources become the key player in the flood recovery. The company put together a property buyout program where flood-damaged homes or businesses could be purchased at 10 percent beyond their appraised value. Some 322 property owners took advantage of the buyout project, and all of those homes acquired by Coffeyville Resources were demolished earlier in 2008. The company spent $17.5 million in the buyout project and spent millions more in demolition costs.
“The flood recovery could not have moved forward without Coffeyville Resources taking a key role,” said Morris. “Within one year, Coffeyville Resources has taken it upon itself to buy more than 300 properties and demolish each structure — as well as provide a lot of the clean-up of properties on the east side. If you look at other communities that were impacted by the flood in 2007, they are only now starting their property buyout program. In Coffeyville, the flood buyout program is completed, the flood-damaged homes have been removed, and the chemical and oil clean-up is completed. That’s an impressive list of accomplishments within a short span of time.”
Not only did the Coffeyville Resources play a role in the flood clean-up, it also focused on its own refinery property. Submerged under water more than one week, the refinery employees and contractors were able to make the necessary repairs to get the refinery into operation by late August 2007, beating its own goal of a mid-September restart date.
So, what will happen to those properties purchased by the refinery? Morris said the refinery plans on placing some deed restrictions on various properties. However, he said the city and refinery were developing ideas to put “green space” between the refinery and the unimpacted neighborhoods with the hope of putting new homes and businesses in some areas of east Coffeyville.
“When I drive through east side, I have mixed emotions,” said Price. “It’s sad to see what happened, knowing that more than 300 homes and 900 people were displaced. At the same time, I see it as an opportunity for Coffeyville — to take hold of a part of town ruined by a flood and redevelop it.”
In looking back at what has transpired in Coffeyville during the past year, Morris said he has to continually remind himself that the majority of Coffeyville was not directly impacted by the 2007 flood.
“Only 25 percent of the town sustained flood damaged, which left 75 percent of the town still in need of the daily city services,” said Morris. “Even in the hours and weeks after the flood, there was still trash to pick up, crime to enforce, weeds to mow, and streets that need repaired. And, that was the one thing that was on my mind last summer: I still had a majority of the town that relied on continued city services each day. For the most part, people were pretty understanding if there was a delay in trash pickup or any other minor inconveniences. I didn’t get beat up too badly over it.”
One lesson learned during the flood was the release of safety information that yielded dire consequences. That was the case on Sunday, July 1, 2007. Because flood waters were jeopardizing the city’s water treatment plant, Morris asked all city residents to begin conserving water.
But, rather than ration their water usage, residents heeded Morris’ call in their own way — by filling up water jugs and bath tubs with available water. The rush to “conserve” water was actually a rush to consume what available water was left. As a result, the city’s entire system of treated water went dry just hours after the conservation notice was issued.
“I’m not sure I would make that same statement again,” Morris said, laughingly, when retelling the story of the water conservation notice.
Another lesson learned from the flood: pay attention to pets. Morris and Price both said the focus of city staff and department chiefs in the hours and days following the flood was on saving people. They did not consider the role that house pets would play in the disaster.
“It was several hours into the flood when we started getting calls from people wanting to know how they can back to retrieve their pets,” said Price. “We had not thought about it at that point. But, that’s when organizations started coming forward to offer their assistance. We had organizations like the U.S. Humane Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service providing pet retrieval services by boat. And, then the pets were either reunited with their families or placed in a shelter.”
“And, the pet shelter was another issue in itself,” Morris continued. “We had to think of a climate-controlled place to house pets. Luckily, one of the former school buildings was available for use as a pet shelter. But that was one of those cases where people and agencies stepped forward to create a pet shelter. It didn’t require a lot of work on our part at City Hall. It just happened by people who put their heads together to create a plan.”
Such volunteer efforts took place throughout Coffeyville last July, which was yet one more lesson learned by city staff: never take for granted the role of volunteers. Price said she was amazed the far-reaching role that faith-based organizations or volunteer agencies provide in a disaster. The American Red Cross was one such agency that promptly came to Coffeyville’s aide. The American Red Cross brought its fleet of vehicles — complete with kitchens and laundry facilities — to Coffeyville to help the more than 900 people who were immediately displaced by the flood. And, faith-based organizations brought volunteers to town to begin repairing homes and businesses, cleaning debris, or offering emotional comfort.
“We also had several hundred National Guard members in town plus dozens of firefighters and police officers from across the state to provide relief to our local departments,” said Morris. “They needed somewhere to stay. That’s when Coffeyville Community College opened its dorms to them. Stuff like that happened. People pulling together for the common good. It didn’t require our nod or approval to happen. It just happened. And, it worked.”
From the outset of the flood, Coffeyville’s city staff placed fire chief Greg Allen in the role of incident commander. Through his training and disaster protocol, Allen was able to procure assistance from dozens of governmental agencies.
“Good training on the part of city staff is important,” said Morris. “Greg had just gone through our incident command system prior to the flood. So, he and others were well versed on how to respond to the disaster.”
Another valuable lesson from the Coffeyville flood: the role of radio. At the KGGF radio station, manager John Leonard was in contact with city staff in the hours prior to when the Verdigris River breached the city’s levee system.
And, once the flood waters started to pour into Coffeyville’s east side, Leonard was on the air for almost 24 straight hours. His voice was sometimes filled with anxiousness throughout Saturday, June 30, as he alerted people to the quickly-rising level of the Verdigris River. His often-heard news reports — replayed multiple times each hours — included the frightening statement, “It’s not a matter of if Coffeyville’s east side will flood, it’s a matter of how much and when.”
“I was in constant contact with Jeff and Cindy at City Hall during the day on June 30, and when the flooding forecast started to increase the night of June 30, I knew I had to be on the air,” said Leonard. “I didn’t leave the station to go home until Sunday afternoon, July 1.”
KGGF AM went off the air at 2 a.m., Sunday due to a transmitter problem. Information was simulcast on other stations, including KGGF FM, KUSN and KKRK. The AM station was back on the air by about 10 a.m., Sunday, thereby putting more information on the airwaves.
Ironically, when Leonard left the radio station on that balmy Sunday afternoon, July 1, he was confronted by a surreal image: a pickup truck packed high with mattresses, chairs, lamps, and tables was traveling west on Eighth Street in front of the radio station. The family in the vehicle was obviously fleeing the east side of Coffeyville. Tired, wet and beleaguered, the stoic family kept their view on the street while keeping hold of their personal belongings. And, coming from the speakers inside that truck was John’s own voice booming over KGGF – a recorded message alerting residents to evacuate the east side of Coffeyville.
“That’s when I quickly realized the role that radio can play in a disaster,” he said.
There is one aspect of the flood that no city staff members or emergency crews could prepare: the displacement — and eventual disappearance — of many residents.
In the cacophony of evacuations one year ago, many residents left Coffeyville. According to Federal Emergency Management Agency statistics, some 930 residents were displaced in Coffeyville. Of that number, only a fraction have made contact with Coffeyville officials.
“I know many victims went to live with family members, others simply moved to area towns,” said Price. “But, it has been a mystery to us as to where most people fled.”
The 2007 flood is one of those historical moments that is seared into the memories of Montgomery County residents.
But, no image of Coffeyville was more memorable than the aerial photographs and video taken on Sunday, July 1.
As far as the eye could see, the Verdigris River transformed Coffeyville’s east side into a lake. Mixed in the river’s usual brown water was crude oil from the refinery and countless of other chemicals pouring from residential garages, basements and businesses. It formed a swirl of brown, gray and black colors, quickly staining everything it crossed.
And, when Morris flew in a Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter for his first aerial view of the community on July 1, he glanced down to see the Verdigris River continue to spew its waters over the levee.
“At that point, it was a helpless feeling,” he said. “And, that’s when I quickly understood the magnitude of the flood. The east side of town was already underwater, and the river was continuing to rise.”
The National Weather Service on June 30, 2007, forecasted that the Verdigris River would rise to 26.3 feet on the evening of June 30 (the city’s levee reaches a height of 26.5 feet). City crews were dispatched to set up barricades. Sandbagging efforts started, and evacuations were underway. The Coffeyville Resources refinery went into an emergency shutdown mode. However, the river was rising at a frightening average of six inches per hour.
By late Saturday, June 30, the National Weather Service had amended its forecast showing the river would crest at 29.5 feet — a level that would push the river well over the levee system.
The first signs of water coming over the levee were recorded at 11:30 p.m., Saturday, June 30.
By 4 a.m., Sunday, July 1, the flood water was starting to cross U.S. 166/169.
By mid-afternoon Sunday, the flood waters had engulfed the entire east side and came just feet shy of the U.S. 166/169 highway intersection and Patterson Avenue in the heart of the community.
And, at that usually-busy highway intersection, television satellite trucks and network TV cameras pointed their viewfinders east as the Verdigris River buried a portion of Coffeyville under water.
“When you have the Weather Channel, Fox News, CNN and all of the TV stations in the region at your busiest highway intersection, you know it’s not a good news moment for your community,” said Price.
At that point, images of Coffeyville’s polluted flood were seen across the globe as the town’s name became an international dateline for several days.