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Dredging the Bottom

Rebuilding businesses destroyed by Gaston may take years.



A man with shaggy hair and bags under his eyes inspects a sewage-coated Macintosh computer sitting on the sidewalk, between the red emergency tape and broken glass, while an insurance adjuster takes pictures inside. Perhaps the computer's hard drive can be salvaged, despite being submerged in 6 feet of water, and the insurance company will pay for the damages without a flood insurance policy.

Reality, however, is beginning to sink in.

In the wake of the worst Richmond flood since 1972, Phil Conein, co-owner of computer-firm Techead, was among hundreds of business owners and residents displaced by Tropical Storm Gaston. Days after the Aug. 30 storm, they talked gallantly of rebuilding their businesses, pulling together as a community, getting through this mess. But behind the fuzzy talk, a different, more urgent story is emerging, and it's even uglier than the mud-coated streets and sewage-stained buildings in Shockoe Bottom.

It may now take several months, probably years, for the Bottom to regain its momentum as an economic engine for the city.

Most of the business owners affected by the flood had no flood insurance, and many are owners of small, independent restaurants and shops that can ill afford to lose a few weeks of sales. And new questions about the false security of the flood wall, which jump-started so much new development in the Bottom when it was built in the mid-1990s, may seriously hinder future reinvestment.

After the flood wall was built in 1995 to keep the James River from reclaiming Shockoe Creek, Conein and his wife, Philise, decided that they didn't need flood insurance. So did most of the business owners between 17th and 18th Streets.

How painfully wrong they were.

Still, the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. The stench is unbearable, making Conein's lips purse. He coughs violently while showing the adjuster how the water first came up through the basement through an HVAC pipe Monday afternoon. (He tried wrapping duct tape over the opening, which was spraying water a foot into the air. It worked temporarily.) He breaks into tears when Danny Hall, a damage assessor for the Virginia Department of Emergency Services, stops by during a tour of the damage to offer a few comforting words.

Conein wipes his eyes with his arm, his hands covered in muck.

"Then we started seeing the wall of water," he says, recounting how the flood began to climb furiously up 17th Street, past the Farmers' Market and toward his business. "That's when I told the staff to grab the servers and run for your lives."

Matthew C. Davis Jr., owner of Well-Laid Carpets Ltd. at 15th and Main Streets, left his two buildings at about 4 p.m., when the water was a foot deep in the basement. Davis recalls the 30-foot waters of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. He points to the bottom of the overhead train trestle, where the watermark is still visible ("They tried to paint it out three times," he says).

Davis didn't wait to get washed out. "I went home, sat down, had dinner and thought about it," he says. "But I didn't want to see it on television." He didn't once turn on the TV news.

The next morning Davis discovered one of his buildings, the one that warehoused the carpets, had crumbled. It had withstood more floods than he cares to remember, but never had it been slammed so violently by floating cars. A pink vegetable truck from Loving's Produce was the knockout punch, says Davis, pointing to barely visible pink metal scraps under a massive pile of bricks.

Davis figures just about everything is a loss. The carpets, the antique furniture, all of it pretty much destroyed. Even the looters bit. "I was told somebody was going up the street with the Victrola," he says.

At 76, he's pondering whether to retire.

"I just don't know," he says, looking on as city crews pull several cars from underneath what used to be his building.

Even the bigger, wealthier restaurateurs say it could take at least three months to rebuild and reopen. And that's if they decide to reopen at all.

Scott Poates and Mike Fleck, co-owners of the 1950s-themed River City Diner, say it will likely take at least 60 to 90 days to reopen their flagship restaurant at 17th and Main streets. Still unsure of the cost, Poates doesn't know if he and his partner will reopen in the Bottom. On Wednesday, the landlord informed them that there was no flood insurance. Meanwhile, Poates and Fleck have two other diners to worry about, one at Chesterfield's Bellgrade shopping center and the other on Parham Road in Henrico County.

"They have not supported us in Shockoe Bottom," Poates says of the city, while standing just a few feet from Richmond Mayor Rudy McCollum at the Omni Hotel Wednesday. "We've been looking at other areas for a while."

Michael Ripp, owner of the idyllic Havana '59 and O'Brien's pub on 16th Street, estimates the damage to his two restaurants at $700,000 or more.

He and his wife, Angela Whitley Ripp, are working on plans for a second Havana '59 in downtown Los Angeles — next to the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers. He says it's unclear how long it will take to get his Bottom restaurants back on track. He also has no flood insurance, but he has access to deep pockets. His father is Richard Ripp, who owns 18 Arby's franchises and other fast-food restaurants across Central Virginia.

"We are going to rebuild here, definitely," he says. But how long will it take before the restaurants reopen? "Probably March," Ripp says.

The effect is devastating. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared metro Richmond an official disaster area Friday, how much federal aid that may be available to local businesses and residents is still up in the air.

John Woodward, Richmond's director of economic development, says the city is feverishly working with state officials on possible monetary relief. On Friday, for example, he received word that he could tap into a $300,000 city enterprise zone fund to help flooded businesses with reconstruction expenses.

"It's not going to be a panacea," Woodward says. "But it would help with those pressing needs to get the business back up and running."

But no amount of reconstruction funds will make up for months with the doors closed, not generating any money whatsoever. The bills don't stop coming.

Ted Cox, who owns and manages some 22 buildings in the Bottom, says the damages to his buildings and business owners is between $1 million and $2 million. His properties will be OK, he says, even though none of them have flood insurance. But he can't think of any of the restaurants, especially, being able to withstand serious flood damage. How many can make it? "None of them," he says.

Cox says the question is: What will the city do to encourage future development, especially if many of the current businesses are forced to close for good?

"What do you do to protect the long-term investment in that area?" he asks.

His feet propped up on his desk the day after the storm, Bruce Baldwin, general manager of the Richmond Braves, may have the answer. A tumultuous month of poor field conditions forced the team to play home games in Norfolk. But now, the day after Gaston dropped buckets of water on the field, the team has decided that it can play baseball at home again, the following night.

"We got lucky," Baldwin says. "Mother Nature took care of us. The wind blew the rain off the field."

It seems impossible. But Baldwin is speaking impossibly, or so it seems. Hours ago the very place where the Braves hope to build a new $40 million baseball stadium — Shockoe Bottom — was under 10 feet of water. Baldwin says the site not only is still viable, it may be just what the city needs to jump-start the Bottom again.

"Why couldn't a new ballpark rebuild all of that down there?" he asks. "All you have to do is hop on my back. I'll take you for a ride."

He says they could incorporate all kinds of things into the baseball project. Perhaps an African-American sports hall of fame. A movie theater, or a bowling alley. With the Braves as the anchor, Baldwin says, anything is possible. And as the cleanup price tag continues to climb — at press time, the city estimated $60 million — some businesses located on the stadium imprint may be more willing than ever to sell.

"And what if we offered original price?" Baldwin muses.

Still, talk of a new baseball stadium does little to stem the immediate pain of Gaston. A new park would still be years away (perhaps in time for the Queen in 2007), and there are countless businesses and displaced workers in need of work.

Oddly, though, there's a twisted, almost comforting familiarity for some. Irving Koslow, 82, the former owner of the old Standard Hardware & Supply on 17th Street, has survived many a flood. Standing in the now-empty hardware store space, he points to the water lines from the 1972 flood that still mark the walls. In a white beard and fishing cap, Koslow says a little flood is no big deal.

"Most of the businesses that were doing well, they'll be back," he says.

Down the street, three of the greenest restaurant owners at CafAc Gutenberg get a visit from Jeffrey Ruggles, who ran Main Street Grill for 18 years before selling to the Gutenberg trio in 2003. Carrying a drenched Webster's, cafAc co-owner Steve Graca smiles, shooting Ruggles a playfully annoyed glare. He's lucky. CafAc Gutenberg had flood insurance, as well as business-interruption insurance. They'll probably be fine.

"You gotta smile, cause there's nothing you can do," a grinning Ruggles, sporting a Lincolnesque beard, tells Graca. "Now you really are Shockoe Bottom veterans. I don't have anything on you." S

Those interested in applying for flood relief from FEMA should call 1-800-621-3362.

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