TEKAMAH, Neb. — To get a front-row seat to the slow, insidious destruction of cabins and houses by two months of flooding, step aboard a boat with Dave Brainard.
Murky, greenish-brown floodwater covers much of the Harbor 671 development, which has been marooned by a new quarter-mile-wide channel of the Missouri River.
The rushing rapids chew away at the gravel road that served as the entrance to the area, about seven miles northeast of Tekamah and 40 miles north of Omaha.
Propane tanks and docks are anchored and chained down so they don't float away. Ornamental shrubs and some trees stand crusty, brown and dead in inundated yards.
Mud, mold, gnats, mosquitoes and raccoons now inhabit the weekend cabins, full-time homes and trailers that sit along an old oxbow of the Missouri River.
"It's a sad situation," Brainard said, as he motored down a flooded roadway. "I don't think people realize how bad it is. They think the flood's over."
Brainard, a resolute 68-year-old carpet salesman, has been riding out the flood of 2011 with his wife, daughter and nine yapping lap dogs on the only dry land left in Harbor 671.
The development owes its name to its location 671 miles from the Missouri River's mouth at St. Louis. But the half-block-long patch of bug-infested high ground where he lives has lately become known as "Brainard's Island."
"They call me the tour guide," said Brainard, for the frequent boat rides he gives residents to check on their now-flooded properties.
About half of the 48 dwellings, and many garages and storage sheds, have standing water in them. Others, including Brainard's $200,000 home, have damaged floors, carpeting and drywall from seepage.
The water has been slowly receding and is down a few inches from its peak on July 22. But much of the damage remains hidden.
"Nobody has any idea what's going to be under this water. We already know it's going to be mud, we just don't know how deep," Brainard said. He guessed 6 inches to 2 feet.
As he slowly boated past each flooded dwelling, he pointed and predicted its fate.
That one, with water up to its windows, will probably have to be torn down. Another, sitting higher, might be saved. The next one is scheduled for demolition — the owners have already bought a place in town. Another, owned by a 70-year-old widow who sunk her life savings into it, is a total loss.
Few people have flood insurance. Brainard said newer cabins and homes were built one foot higher than the 100-year flood level, with the expectation that they'd never get wet.
While his neighbors packed their valuables and fled in early June, Brainard stayed behind with his wife, Kathy, a daughter Kellie, and nine Havenese and Coton dogs. They moved to a neighbor's cabin, the only dwelling still hooked up to electricity.
They communicate via cellphones, and Kathy posts pictures on Facebook to inform neighbors. The sheriff calls about once a week to check on the family.
Brainard has strung extension cords to his house next door to power the air conditioner and a maze of fans and portable pumps. It's a 24/7 fight to stave off the seeping, smelly water and the onset of mold.
It's been a mostly losing battle in Harbor 671.
One nearby home, a custom-built A-frame, has splotches of grey-green mold that have crawled six feet up the walls, despite Brainard's applications of Clorox and Pine-Sol.
"I just treated this two weeks ago and look at how bad the mold is," he said. "This drywall will all have to be torn up."
It's eerily quiet in the A-frame, a showplace of custom-made cabinets, furniture and woodwork. The home has been sitting in muddy water for weeks. Every so often, a loud bubbling noise comes from a spot near the huge picture windows, signaling a seep hole for the floodwaters.
A couple of doors down, Brainard anchors his speedboat in a flooded driveway and wades through 18 inches of water to enter a home he had been renovating for resale.
Floodwaters have retreated somewhat, leaving a stale and musty smell and a slick coating of muck, spotted with raccoon tracks.
The walls are a skeleton of wooden studs. Brainard and some buddies have cut away the drywall and stripped out the pink insulation about two feet up the walls.
The partial demolition — an emergency effort to prevent the onslaught of mold — seems to be working. The remaining drywall is stain-free, except in one area where it hadn't been cut away.
"This is what everyone's going to have to do ... and hope," Brainard said.
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Authorities in flood restoration and home construction say it's hard to tell what can be salvaged and what can't until the flood recedes.
"There's not a lot you can do when the floodwaters are still there," said Chris Mangan, president of the Omaha office of Paul Davis Restoration.
Generally, Mangan said, if floodwaters recede quickly, just about everything that got wet can be salvaged.
But after two months? The best comparison might be Hurricane Katrina, which left New Orleans with about 20 percent fewer residents.
"This is not a normal flood circumstance," Mangan said. "Most of the time, the framing and the concrete block is fine. But we're kind of in an uncharted territory."
There are new technologies that can salvage things that couldn't be saved 15 years ago, he said, but the fixes are expensive and not always covered by flood insurance.
As for mold, spraying with bleach or other biocides has only a temporary effect, according to Carroll Welte, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension agent in Burt County. Mold will resume growing again in a few days because of the mold spores in the air, she said.
A tip sheet on "Entering and Cleaning Up Flooded Homes" is available at the UNL extension website at www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/sendIt/g2108.pdf.
Brainard said he expects that there will be homeowners at Harbor 671 who cannot afford the cost of rebuilding or renovation. Retirees, he said, have it the roughest.
Gary Lewis, a retired Omaha art teacher, had just put his retirement cabin up for sale when the flooding arrived.
He and his wife have already purchased a town house in Omaha. Now he can't bear to visit his old house with its raised gardens of lilies and hostas and a pottery shop of kilns and wheels.
Water has invaded the garage and maybe more. Lewis said he's neither physically or mentally able to rebuild and return.
"We're going to enjoy our life and not worry about things like that," he said. "We lost a tremendous amount of equity in our home — that was our nest egg."
"But a lot of folks are less fortunate. Everything they owned was sitting on that property," Lewis said. "They have no idea when they can go back."
The owner of the A-frame, Joe Holewinski, knows that his house is a moldy and muddy mess. Much of the drywall and insulation will have to be torn out, and all the flooring. Homes aren't made to sit in water for two months.
"I'm going to have to redo it," said Holewinski, a general contractor from Omaha. "I've got too much time and money in it to just let something like that just deteriorate."
He and Brainard are squarely in the camp of flooding victims who think the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mismanaged the river, reacting too late to a surge of water from melting snow and heavy rains this spring.
"I've said it over and over again: We can put a man on the moon and we got seven dams and we can't manage water?" Brainard said. "Where in the world have you heard of a flood lasting for 60 days?"
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Brainard has burned out motors on three boats during his daily trips across the floodwaters. The motors clog up with flood debris. A boat repairman in Tekamah is Brainard's new best friend.
Overall, he's been able to manage the flood of 2011.
He moved hundreds of boxes of carpet samples off the floor of his storage shed. Loaner boats from neighbors have helped him ferry his special-needs daughter across the floodwaters to a waiting car, and then on to a jobs workshop in Oakland. And he's been able to make it to work.
He's starting to think about tearing out drywall in his own home and treating the walls to stop the mold. Maybe, by the middle of August, the job of digging out the mud from homes, yards and farm fields can start.
There's one other big worry. Recent aerial photographs of the flooded Missouri bottomlands are showing dozens of huge cottonwood trees that have fallen over in the submerged, and oversaturated soil.
Towering cottonwoods surround his own home and others in Harbor 671. He sees another menace ahead.
"I guess the next prayer we should say is 'God, don't send a windstorm because these big trees will fall,'" Brainard said.
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