Fitness Clubs Try to Regroup from Summer Floods

The extent of the damage caused by flooding in Iowa this summer won't be known for several weeks, perhaps even months. The rising waters from the Cedar, Iowa and Mississippi rivers wrecked havoc on several homes and businesses. Fitness clubs, YMCAs and university rec centers were not immune to the waters' wrath.

For Iowans, this is the second so-called 500-year flood to hit their state since the Great Flood of 1993. As of June 26, this year's flood killed two dozen people and injured 148 more. Approximately 35,000 to 40,000 people had to evacuate their homes. A total of nine Iowa rivers crested at record levels. The Cedar River crested at 32 feet — 12 feet higher than the record set in 1929. In Cedar Rapids, water covered 1,300 city blocks, or 9.2 square miles.

The clean-up process has been in full swing for some time now. Despite the hardships, club owners and operators are soldiering on. In the aftermath of the floods, hope, as well as some good old-fashioned Midwestern decency, shined through.

By the time flooding started to overwhelm the state of Iowa on June 9, water had already made its way into the aptly named River Plaza Athletic Club in the aptly named town of Waterloo, IA. The water was about “ankle deep,” as one employee described it, in the main level of the club, and it was worse below in the swimming pool area.

Water pumped out of the club seemed to make its way back in. Minutes after one room in the club was fairly dry, it was soaked again. In fact, water didn't stop coming into the club until June 18, says owner Vern Nelson III.

“It's kind of demoralizing,” Nelson says. “It was just an ongoing battle.”

Nelson has about 20 employees at his club, but during the flooding, about 100 people — friends, family and members — showed up to help move equipment to one side of the cardio room, pump water out of the club and put sandbags around the building. With 10 to 12 wet/dry vacuums and water pumps going almost around the clock, flooding on the main level reached no higher than a couple of inches. The basement, however, filled with about 7 feet of water.

Even with a little water still creeping in, the club re-opened on June 16. The third and fourth levels were untouched, and that's where members could use the racquetball courts, the basketball court, the running track and the aerobics room. Nelson had to close the cardio room and free weight area on the main level and the swimming pool, hot tub and sauna below.

“Everybody in the Cedar Valley here has had a rough go of it,” Nelson says. “Some exercise is definitely one way of releasing some of that tension.”

Just one year after the club underwent a $500,000 renovation, Nelson is planning for an unscheduled renovation. The early cost estimates of the damage are between $150,000 and $200,000, but that doesn't include the possible replacement of the cardio equipment. Nelson and his staff salvaged most of the equipment, but with so much moisture on the ground and in the air, he doubts the machines will work properly. Free weights have already started to rust, and the pool equipment is likely lost for good, he says.

Also, Nelson will have to replace the insulation and re-do dry wall up to 4 feet high on the walls in the main level. Rubber mats in the weight room have been cleaned and disinfected.

Nelson does not have flood insurance for his 26,000-square-foot club, which he says is not located in a flood plain, but he did look into some insurance policies after this year's flood. Other clubs contacted for this story also do not have flood insurance. One insurance agency executive says flood insurance is available to any business or home except for some small pockets of coastal areas in Louisiana, Florida and Texas.

Y Woes

Flooding affected Ys throughout Iowa, too. The Riverfront Family Y in Des Moines, located 20 feet from the Des Moines River, had 4 inches of water in its lower level, which houses a pool, locker rooms and a small workout area. Most of the facility's fitness equipment was not damaged because it was located on the second floor, says Jackie Matt, director of development and marketing for the Y of Greater Des Moines, the umbrella organization for seven Des Moines Ys, including the Riverfront Family Y. The Y minimized flooding in the facility by sump-pumping.

“We had staff here that stayed overnight,” Matt says. “We had a back-up generator and kept the sump pumps running. If we had not been keeping those running, we would have been in an entire world of hurt.”

Although the facility has flood insurance, Matt recently learned that flooring may not be covered in the Y's policy. The Y estimates the lower-level damage will total $25,000 to $75,000, depending on what insurance will cover, she says. The Y also had significant damage to its kids' camp areas, which were flooded with 2 feet of water.

“We had water flowing through our basement for two weeks, and we did lose the lower level's flooring and carpet,” she says. “One of the elevators was damaged, and we are going to have to replace the aerobics floor, but it's just really hard to complain when you think about the Cedar Rapids Y.”

Of the four Ys of the Cedar Rapids (IA) Metropolitan Area locations, the Helen G. Nassif Y suffered the most damage. Despite 25 tons of sandbags filled by staff, Y members and volunteers, the Y's first floor was flooded with7 1/2 feet of water that caused an estimated$3 million in damage. The Y was built five years ago, funded through a $10 million capital campaign. The facility has flood insurance, says Shannon Hanson, director of marketing and membership development for the Y.

As of press time, hazmat crews were cleaning the first-floor pool, the locker rooms, the nursery, the three-court gymnasium and the multipurpose room. Cleaning was expected to be completed by July 4. Hanson expected the second floor of the Nassif location to open this month.

While the Helen G. Nassif Y was closed for repairs, its members could work out at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids or at the Y's local Marion and Stoney Point locations.

“A few of the members were affected by flooding,” Hanson says. “We have put some memberships on hold, so they don't have to worry about that payment. We're very understanding of that. We feel their pain.”

Other facilities in Cedar Rapids were affected, too. The Aspen Athletic Club did not have physical damage, but several members who lost their homes, jobs or both are cancelling their memberships, says Lisa Vrba, operations manager.

“We grow close to our members, and it's very sad to hear story after story of how someone has lost everything from the flooding,” Vrba says. “Lots of our members owned businesses downtown and lost everything. Everyone on our staff knows several friends or family members who lost their homes, including several employees who lost their homes.”

The Rockwell Collins Recreation Center also was unaffected structurally but had to close showers and stop offering towel service because flooding of some of Cedar Rapids' water substations caused its mayor to order water conservation that shut down the club's laundry facilities, says manager Mike Duffy.

On Campus

The University of Iowa in Iowa City was completely shut down the week of June 16. Well, almost completely shut down.

Two of the three campus fitness facilities were open for limited hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., providing a way for students and faculty to relieve some stress, says Harry Ostrander, the recreational services director for the university. Those two facilities did not have full power, and the buildings had no steam for hot showers, Ostrander says. The third facility closest to the flood damage was shut down, but none of the facilities suffered building or equipment damage, he says.

The Iowa River, which rose 31 1/2 feet (9 feet above flood stage), cuts through the heart of campus.

“You couldn't get around,” Ostrander says. “Every bridge was off limits. Roads were covered with water. It was very difficult to maneuver anywhere.”

The main concern for Ostrander and the university's administrators is the $70 million wellness recreation center that is under construction. The center, which is adjacent to the Iowa River, was scheduled to open in April 2010, but administrators have pushed back that target date by a month or two because of the flooding, Ostrander says. The underground tunnels that bring utilities to the building flooded, he adds.

“We did take in a little water and had to pump it out of that site, which may have some impact on us in our final design of that facility,” Ostrander says.

The four-diamond softball complex, including the main field used for intercollegiate athletics, was under 10 feet of water, Ostrander says. He estimates the repairs to the softball complex as well as the outdoor track could reach $2 million. That doesn't compare to the damage to the rest of the campus, in which 20 buildings flooded.

“The overall impact on the university is going to be out of sight,” he says.

Lending a Hand

Fitness facilities that did not suffer damage were affected by the floods, too, but in a positive way. The wellness/recreation center at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls is located away from downtown Cedar Falls and potential flood areas, and it did not sustain any damage, says Tim Klatt, associate director for Northern Iowa's wellness and recreation services. However, one of the gymnasiums on the campus served as an American Red Cross relief shelter.

The Gold's Gym in Davenport, IA, opened its doors for flood victims to take showers in its locker rooms. Two of those people were so enamored with the club that they bought memberships, says general manager Brock Reed.

“Part of our responsibility is outreach and support, whether it's to our members or whether it's to our nonmembers here in our community,” Reed says. “If they were in need, we wanted to help provide them anything that we could to help the situation with the flooding.”

Ys from Omaha, NE; Sioux City, IA; and Des Moines have called the Y of the Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Area office to offer their help and resources, including collecting toys for the nursery that had to be gutted. The Y of the USA has also been in touch with the Cedar Rapids branch to help.

About 200 members of the National Guard found a temporary home in Cedar Rapids in the Rockwell Collins Recreation Center's 30,000-square-foot court area.

“Since the Guard was on rotating shifts, you could find some troops sleeping at any one time during the day,” says Duffy, who adds that many Guardsmen got in workouts and checked e-mail at the club.

Of the 6,000 members of the rec center, Duffy says he received only a couple of complaints about services being interrupted.

“It was great to see how most all of our members were in support of what we were doing,” he says.

Despite the offers of help to and from clubs of all types, the main help needed, now that the flooding has receded, may be financial.

The Cedar Rapids Y is in the process of applying for grants from local agencies and the Small Business Administration (SBA). The Y also is working with FEMA.

Back at the River Plaza Athletic Club in Waterloo, Nelson says he has inquired into assistance from the SBA and FEMA but does not expect to receive federal money.

“It's not encouraging, lets put it that way,” says Nelson, who adds he may turn to his local bank for a loan.

Nelson hoped to be back to “normal” later this month. Little by little, the club is returning to what it used to be.

“We're going to take advantage of this and try to make something good of this,” Nelson says. “I just don't see any other way to go about it. We're starting to see the light.”

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