AP NEWS

‘Where I want to be’ — With help from Lincoln, Niobrara cafe owner rebuilds

May 13, 2019

She didn’t see her Café until the day after it flooded, because she couldn’t get out of Verdigre.

Laura Sucha knew the Spencer Dam had failed upriver, and that a wall of water and ice had swept away much of the low-lying west edge of Niobrara, where she’s spent 25 years either working at, leasing or owning the Country Café.

She’d filled it with her antiques, catered to locals and tourists, staked her reputation on homemade food and replaced most of the kitchen with new appliances. Only the grill was old, and she’d planned to replace it this summer.

The busy season was approaching, but she was stranded at home, surrounded for the first time by floodwaters from Verdigris Creek.

But on March 15, she spent nearly an hour navigating back roads to Niobrara, normally a 10-minute drive down Nebraska 14. Her son-in-law had to use an excavator to pick a final path through the ice so she could get close to the Country Café.

“It was unbelievable; it was heart-wrenching,” she said. “The ice crushed everything — it came in through the walls.”

The flooding Niobrara River had punched through her walls and dislodged her roof, filling the Café with water and ice. Her kitchen was destroyed, her dining room swamped, the ice chunks so massive they would need heavy equipment to drag it all out.

“There wasn’t a whole lot left. Everything was sitting in 7 feet of water.”

Sucha took stock. The ice-filled water had moved the roof, but it could be moved back. It had breached a quarter of the walls, but three-quarters remained intact. Some of the tables and chairs appeared salvageable.

What looked like a total loss at first was starting to look like it could be rebuilt.

“I was kind of thinking this wouldn’t work,” she said. “But this is just where I want to be.”

She had help. A few volunteers showed up to assist the family with patching the walls, repositioning the roof and wrapping the building in new siding.

But the dining room and kitchen were still gutted, stripped to the studs.

Nearly 200 miles away, a Lincoln construction company was looking for ways to help flood victims. Brester Construction encourages its 73 employees to donate their time and talent, said owner Chris Brester.

“This is something we believe is very important,” he said. “It certainly blesses us as a company.”

His company had launched a program that pays its employees to volunteer, and it challenges them to match the contribution with their own time.

After the historic mid-March flooding, its executive team gathered, looking for ways to help. It had the personnel, machines and materials to help build, or rebuild. They asked employees if they had relatives affected and heard from just one, whose family’s farm field was covered in debris. But the field was so muddy it might have taken months before they could help.

Then Brester talked to his mother, whose family is from Verdigre. He learned one of his own relatives had suffered.

“Mom was talking to her cousins and found out Laura’s Café had been basically wiped out,” he said. “It was still standing, but it was a huge mess.”

Brester Construction offered its employees a list of flood-related volunteer opportunities, including the Country Café in Niobrara.

The employees picked the Café. And after talking to Sucha for nearly a month to determine her needs, the company sent a team of five employees in three trucks and trailers north from Lincoln last week.

They cleaned up and regraded her parking lot, which had been scarred by water and ice. They hung fresh plywood in the dining room, and then covered all of the walls with barn roof tin on the bottom half — like wainscoting — and reclaimed barnwood above.

They prepared the kitchen for its restocking. And they restored Sucha’s hope she’ll soon be back in business.

She still needs to install kitchen equipment. She needs to furnish the dining room. And she needs to wait until the town repairs its sewer lift, so the bathrooms work.

But she’s eager to put her part-time employees back to work, and to begin serving her community again.

“The Brester boys, they’ve got everything looking good,” she said. “I was hoping it would all come together, and it is.”