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Hamburg Small Business Owners Face Uphill Struggle After Western Iowa Flooding

In the community of Hamburg in southwest Iowa, people continue returning to their homes and businesses to assess the damage from last month’s widespread flooding.

On a walk through the Hamburg Inn motel in early April, dried mud crackles beneath every step. Standing water is anywhere from ankle to shin-deep.

This is the town's only motel, and it's deserted. The 18 rooms have floors lined with thick mud. There’s mold growing on the ceilings.

“Looks like it’s total loss,” said Bob Patel, one of the motel’s owners. “Rebuilding this property is not possible because all this mold.”

Bob and his wife, Tina, have owned this place for 13 years. In early April, they returned for the first time since about 10 feet of water flooded it in March. With all the mold that’s grown, Bob Patel said they would have to demolish the motel and rebuild.

“Which is going to cost lots of money,” Bob Patel said. “Maybe $800,000 to $1 million to rebuild new.” 

Their apartment, room No. 11, suffered the same fate: lots of mud and mold. Dr. Mike Wells, the superintendent of Hamburg Community Schools, joined the Patels on their first visit back, and he could not believe the sight.

“Horrible. Heartbreaking. This was beautiful,” Wells said. 

When he heard Hamburg would flood, Wells helped the Patels move some of their belongings out or onto shelves, hoping to keep them safe.

“We put everything up high,” Wells said, “because we didn’t think the water would get this high.”

But, it did. Some of their things, like nice clothes and kitchen appliances, were damaged. 

"If you decide you want to rebuild, we rebuild somewhere else. If not, we help you with whatever." -Dr. Mike Wells, Hamburg Community Schools Superintendent

As the Patels looked at their motel in ruins, the only words they could use to describe it were, “totally heartbreaking.” 

In the hour or so they spent at the motel, the Patels seemed comforted by Wells’ presence. They knew each other before the flood, but the flood brought them closer together.

“It’s hard. It’s hard,” Wells said, looking at all of the mud and water outside.

“I’m not worried because you’re here,” Tina Patel said.

“Yes, I am here. I love you. We will help you,” Wells said, giving her a hug.

They’ve been staying at an apartment in Shenandoah about 30 minutes away, but Tina Patel said she and Bob can’t imagine moving away from Hamburg or starting a business anywhere else.

“We don’t like a bigger city,” Tina Patel said. “We like a small, quiet town.”

She said there are a lot of generous people in Hamburg here to help, like Dr. Wells. He told them everything will work out.

“If you decide you want to rebuild, we rebuild somewhere else,” Wells said. “If not, we help you with whatever.”

A business can get up to $2 million in loans through the Small Business Administration after a flood hits. They start to pay it back five months later. The Patels were initially denied a business loan, but are applying again.

They have flood and property insurance, but they’re not sure how much those will cover. They’ve applied to FEMAto cover the loss of their apartment and the U.S. Small Business Administration for a loan, but were denied. 

Tina Patel said they were denied a business loan because they couldn’t prove they have a source of income to repay it. She’ll start working at a nearby Walmart soon, and they plan to apply again.

A business can get up to $2 million in loans through the Small Business Administration after a flood hits. Five months later, they start to pay it back. A spokesman said Tuesday that the SBA has approved five business loans in Iowa for almost $1.2 million.

But a lot of small businesses face an uphill struggle after a disaster.FEMA says almost 40 percent never reopen

“How are you going to help ‘em?” Hamburg Mayor Cathy Crain asked. “They’ve lost their business and their home.”

Some business owners have no place to go right now, she said.

“I can give you three other people – they’ve lost their business and their home,” Crain said. “And for a small business that is self-employed, you’re S-O-L.”

Crain said she doesn’t want to lose businesses. She’s looking for a way to keep them in town. They don't make a lot of money, but these small businesses matter to Hamburg, she said.

“And they do it because they have a passion for the people. They are the true mamas and papas of a small town,” Crain said.

That’s why Crain said Hamburg will rebuild. Even with the Patels’ and other business-owners’ fates up in the air, she said locals and volunteers who have come to help will bring the town and the businesses back.

Crain is already calling it “Hamburg 2.0."

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.