KEARNEY — Floodwaters still were rising Tuesday afternoon, and two of Kearney’s largest hospitality companies — Holiday Inn and Ramada Inn — were hot on the phones, alerting customers the hotels were under water, and trying to salvage what bookings they could.
A lot is at stake as Kearney hotels and restaurants work to recover from the flooding.
An estimated 1,600 people are employed in tourism in Kearney, and the industry is a major generator of municipal sales tax as well as lodging and occupation taxes. Those revenues help promote tourism and subsidize some of the city’s biggest attractions, including The Archway and Classic Car Collection and some major statewide events.
A large group planned to meet in Kearney tonight, and the annual Miss Basketball event was scheduled to begin Friday, but now has been cancelled, according to the Mr. Basketball website. A week or two later is Cruise Nite and other significant gatherings — the kind of events that help Kearney to rank fourth in Nebraska for tourism.
Roger Jasnoch, executive director of the Kearney Visitors Bureau was scrambling Tuesday to see how many of Kearney’s 1,800 motel and hotel rooms might be available for Miss Basketball teams that were coming to Kearney from around the nation.
Jasnoch estimated that the flooding has put 400-500 rooms out of commission.
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“The next biggest hurdle is when do we get the power so we can start rehabilitating things?” he said. “How many groups can you delay their event in order to accommodate them? This flood will affect us drastically.”
As the Kearney City Council meeting concluded early Tuesday evening, City Clerk Lauren Brandt was on the phone with local hotel owner Paul Younes, who was intent on making arrangements so customers still could have several weddings this weekend, even though his Holiday Inn was under 2-3 feet of water.
Aside from finding suitable venues, relocating the weddings would require having a liquor license for the places. Brandt said she already was working with the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to help Holiday Inn acquire the special designated licenses.
Tuesday was supposed to be a day off for Ramada Inn Manager Tammy Jackson. Most of the Ramada’s guests had been evacuated when she arrived later in the morning. The water was rising rapidly as she and her staff performed a quick walk-through.
Then the power went off.
“It was dark and eerie and there was water everywhere,” Ramada staffer Katelynn Gerlach said, “I felt like I was on the Titanic.”
Jackson, who has been employed 37 years at Ramada, said her eyes became misty as she and the staff took a final look around. They walked through knee-high water as they left.
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“It hit me when I went outside, what has happening to my second home,” she said.
But her unusual day wasn’t finished.
One of the Ramada’s guests, tax valuation referee Jameson McShane of Omaha, called to tell Jackson his dog, Juniper, a 60-pound lab mix, still was in his room. When McShane left for the courthouse earlier there were no indications of the flooding to come.
Jackson said she would do what she could to retrieve the dog, but in order to save Juniper she had to find the state trooper to whom she’d given the key to the hotel. She had an idea.
She called her neighbor, Dan Engel, and asked, “Hey, Dan, do you want to help save a dog?”
A retired Kearney police officer, Engel told KPD about the dog in the hotel room, and they tracked down the trooper with the key and retrieved McShane’s dog.
On Tuesday night McShane was with Juniper on the fifth floor of Centennial Towers West at UNK, one of the several hundred hotel guests evacuated to the university residence hall.
“Her feet were a little wet, but she was happy as can be, getting along with the policeman at the police station,” McShane said about Juniper. “The police probably were worried more about people first, so I want to thank whoever went in to get her.”
In addition to rescuing Juniper, Kearney police made 20-plus other rescues during Tuesday’s flood.