The Ottumwa Courier

February 2, 2011

Businesses struggle against storm’s wrath

‘Business as usual’ proves to be difficult during a blizzard

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Tuesday’s weather left most people wishing they could stay home.

But some businesses make sure they stay open because bad weather is when their customers need them most.

“It’s very, very busy,” said Rick Small, meat market manager at the Ottumwa Fareway store.

He couldn’t see what everyone in the front part of the store was buying, but the store was packed. Back in his department, purchases were a bit different than normal.

“Customers are buying lunch meat, and stuff they can prepare easily, that can get by for a while if the power goes out, and they can eat [without cooking],” Small said.

Employee safety is important, he said, though workers who live nearby are staying to serve customers.

“The only people we’re sending home are those who live far away,” Small said.

Supermarkets around Ottumwa were seeing lines form before the worst of the storm could hit. As the storm approached, drivers wanted to make sure they were ready. Gas stations had lines and auto repair places had their hands full, as well.

“We’ve been pretty busy this morning,” said Paul Tolle, manager of the Expert Tire store in Ottumwa. “Generally, we can expect an increase through the door when people see the weather coming. It usually [increases] a couple of days before and after.”

Customers who had been getting by putting air in their tires due to slow leaks came in for flat repairs or new tires, others came to purchase new car batteries.

The shop will stay open for normal hours, Tolle said, because a local customer or an out-of-town traveler can break down in the middle of a storm.

“We keep our doors open for those emergencies. We’re there for them. It [could] get to the point where I’ll send some people home, but we’ll keep someone at the counter, and a technician who can make... repairs.”

The massive winter storm didn’t just make it hard on drivers. It effectively shut down Ottumwa’s airport.

“For airplanes to legally land, we have to have about half a mile visibility. On a nice day, it can be 20 miles. Right now, we’re down to less than 50 yards visibility,” said Steve Black, owner of Ottumwa Flying Service and the fixed-base operator at Ottumwa Regional Airport. “It’s supposed to get worse. There’s nothing to stop the wind at the airport.”

Local businesses adjusted their schedules and staffing requirements to weather conditions. Some health care providers were calling patients to reschedule appointments, while area shop keepers were deciding whether to send employees home.

Black was getting ready to do just that on Tuesday.

“We’re probably going to close up shop to send our people home early so they can get home safely. And I talked to the city; we’re probably going to shut down the airport, although I’ll still be on call for emergencies. It’s been quiet all morning.”

At least they could make it in to work. At least one Ottumwa business didn’t open because the owners couldn’t get in. Bubba Knapp, owner/operator of Bubba-Q’s restaurant, told the Courier by phone Tuesday he was trapped in Omaha, Neb.

“The weather was so bad, we decided to stay [in Omaha] Monday night. So [the restaurant] is shut down today,” Knapp said. “We stayed here Sunday night to pick up a truck Monday morning. Monday, it was ice everywhere, and it was misting on us all day, and that would freeze right away. We went for coffee, and came out less than half an hour later, and our windshield was frozen solid again. I already called my mom and told her we might not make it in Wednesday. I told Mom and my wife, ‘I love barbecue, but not to death.’”   

Knapp figures he is skilled enough that he could make it back from Omaha through Des Moines and to his downtown business — if there was no one else on the road. But it wasn’t worth the risk.

“I have plenty of years driving a truck. It’s the other knuckleheads I worry about.”

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