Brekke family picks up after flood

In twenty short minutes, surging floodwaters uprooted the lives of English teacher Joe Brekke and his family. On August 10, 2010, the night of the big storm, thunderclaps could be heard booming and rattling windows. Earlier that night, lightning had hit the house of social studies teacher Joel Sullivan and science teacher Aileen Sullivan. Across the street at the Brekke’s place, “my parents were downstairs – they were visiting, helping take care of the kids while we got ready for the new school year,” Brekke said. “They were in a basement bedroom, and around 11:30 pm, they came up and told me that water was coming in through the basement windows.” When Brekke and his wife went downstairs to investigate, there were already a few inches of water in the basement. When the basement was still in its prime condition, shelves full of photo albums and books (an estimated one thousand books!) lined the walls. They figured the water wouldn’t rise more than a few more inches, so they started grabbing photo albums and books off of the bottom shelves and carrying them upstairs. Brekke also searched for his Martin guitar, which was very precious to him, but his father told him, “Oh don’t worry, I put your guitar on the futon.” As Brekke, his wife, and his parents were standing on the stairs, hauling stuff up, they heard an explosion of glass. The window well had filled completely with water, and the basement windows had burst under the pressure. “Then,” Brekke said, “it was just a waterfall into my basement from the backyard.” Immediately, the water level in the Brekkes’ basement started rising in a very visible several inches per minute. When the water had risen past the electrical outlets, Brekke knew his family had to leave. “I was worried for the safety of my children. I was worried the water might be electrically charged.” They went to wake their kids up, and by the time the family was ready to leave about 15-20 minutes later, there was 7 feet of floodwater in their basement. “The piano, the fridge, the washer and dryer were all floating,” Brekke said. “I can’t tell you how weird a sight it was.” Outside, a small river was gushing between the Brekkes and their neighbors’ backyards, and down the street, a parked car was submerged up to its windows. The Sullivans were sloshing around in their rain slickers, checking on their neighbors as the Brekkes piled into a car and made their way to Mrs. Brekke’s parents’ place in northeast Ames, weaving through the already flooded streets of Ames and around police barriers. The next day, Brekke headed back out to his own house. He had rented a pump to pump the seven feet of floodwater out of his basement, but when he arrived around 7:30 a.m., Brekke found that the waters had already receded, leaving a soggy, jumbled mess of items in his basement. He and his wife started taking things out and making a pile on the front lawn. “At this point,” Brekke said, “time was a blur because we were just pulling stuff out.” Later that morning, junior Jack Espeset and two other cross country members came over and asked if they could help in any way. “Jack’s mom works with my wife, but I didn’t know him too well,” Brekke said. “The other two boys I had never met, but it was awesome that they came to help.” They formed a human train on the stairs, and pretty soon, a pile of wet things, largely waterlogged books, started taking shape on the Brekkes’ lawn. “Mr. and Mrs. Mooney, the Schmaltzes, the Sullivans, Mr. Vertanen and his dad, and neighbors all came to help,” Brekke said. “And then some guy who doesn’t live in our neighborhood walked by and said, ‘Our house stayed dry. But you guys got hit – can I help out?’ And he stayed the whole day! I didn’t even know him, just a good Samaritan helping out.” “We had an overwhelming crew of people helping us out,” Brekke said. Some strangers and some friends spent hours helping the Brekkes dig out. They tore out the carpet and tore out the walls, carrying the heavy stuff (fridge, dryer, and washer) upstairs, and taking a saw to the piano, dismembering it and taking it up piece by piece. In fact, all the waterlogged items were out of their basement that day. Remember the Martin guitar that Brekke’s father had placed on a futon as a safe place? This was the only possession Brekke was truly concerned about – his thousands of books and photos were just “stuff” at the end of the day – and when he went to open the case, the guitar was dry. “It must have floated to the top,” Brekke said. “The case must have been airtight.” Brekke also said that even though it was sad to lose the piano and photo albums, they felt lighter without having all the stuff anymore, much of which they’d been wanting to throw out but hadn’t gotten around to. However, Brekke and his family are still trying to put together the financial pieces. “We got some help from FEMA,” Brekke said, “but it didn’t cover everything.” They’ve already bought a new furnace, water heater, washer, dryer, AC, and moved back into their own home three weeks ago, but haven’t made plans to redo their basement just yet. “You know, it’s something that we might do down the road,” Brekke said. “Right now, we’re just not sure.” Despite incurring thousands of dollars of damage, Brekke feels really blessed and fortunate to have a chance to see and reconnect with all of his neighbors, friends, and colleagues and be surrounded by amazing people. “We feel strangely lucky to have gone through this experience just to see the support we have in the community,” he said. “Sometimes these difficult events have ways of bringing people together,” said Brekke. “I don’t feel like we suffered greatly – it wasn’t a big deal, everyone was fine – we just felt lucky to be loved and cared for.”