Life is returning to the fire-damaged apartment building at the historic Ernie Chambers Court in north Omaha, but full repairs are going to cost north of $1 million and take months.
Four of the 21 apartments in the Majestic Building were cleared to be reoccupied Friday. People began moving back in that day for the first time since a Dec. 20 fire that displaced 33 people and burned through the roof but injured no one. Those four apartments are on the west end of the building, farthest away and beyond a fire wall from the end of the edifice where the blaze started.
Omaha Housing Authority staff worked with contractors to restore electricity and water to the western half of the building, said the agency’s CEO, Joanie Poore.
They’ll “continue to work on some sort of more semi-permanent roof options to get that far east end of the building covered so that we can dry it out,” she said. “Mold and other things that come with the substantial amount of water that was poured on that building is happening. And so we’re trying to really do everything possible to reduce additional damage.”
Poore said insurers had yet not submitted their final estimate for repairing the building, but repairs are expected to cost at least $1.5 million.
Three of the four buildings at Chambers Court, 16th and Yates Streets, suffered no damage. The blaze, suspected to have been accidentally started by children playing with matches, was limited to the eastern half of the Majestic Building.
The Chambers Court apartments are owned by the housing authority’s development arm, Housing In Omaha. They are a mixture of public housing, Section 8 housing and low-income housing tax credit units.
Eighteen apartments were occupied at the time of the fire. The displaced people, with financial assistance from the American Red Cross and Douglas County Emergency Management, stayed temporarily in hotels, with relatives or in temporary housing. Poore told the OHA board last week that all displaced people have now found permanent housing. Some moved to other units at Chambers Court, and some moved to other locations.
On Friday, Rochelle Starks and her two daughters, with help from friends and neighbors, moved their belongings from their third-floor apartment near the middle of the Majestic Building, a section that can’t be occupied yet, to an apartment in another Chambers Court building. Starks’ grandchildren, ages 4 and 1, live with her as well.
She was at work at Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy, where she is a nutrition manager, and her daughters and grandchildren were home when the fire occurred. Starks rushed home, where she found that everyone was all right, if shaken, and the Red Cross and OHA were already setting up to help families.
She said some of the family’s possessions got a little damp, but everything was OK, including the little ones’ Christmas presents. The family stayed with relatives until making the move Friday.
“It took a while to process everything, the paperwork and everything, but it wasn’t too bad, considering everything that happened,” Starks said.