Special to the Daily News
It’s more than a tourism slogan for some grateful Northeast Nebraskans.
Because on March 14, Al Rajaee, owner of Cornhusker Auto Center in Norfolk, experienced what the saying truly means.
Rajaee has been in the car industry for over 35 years and now owns three car dealerships in Norfolk after recently acquiring Courtesy Ford of Norfolk. In all of his years in the business, Rajaee said he experienced something last month that he never imagined he would see.
After first being informed about the evacuation of a good portion of Norfolk due to flood concerns, Rajaee said he was in shock. But he quickly realized he needed to take measures to protect his business.
Once he arrived that Thursday at 6:30 a.m., he began assessing everything he needed to do internally and started to move all of his computers and other technology to higher perches.
But then it hit him: What about all his vehicles? With how bad things were looking, he put everyone in action to start moving them.
One of the biggest challenges for Rajaee is not having flood insurance. He was aware there was no insurance for the dealership property itself, but what he didn’t know until that morning was that his vehicles weren’t protected, either.
Once he realized he had about $20 million worth of inventory that could be affected by the flood, it became unreal.
“I just couldn’t put it in words,” Rajaee said. “It’s the worst feeling you can have knowing you could lose everything you worked for all your life.”
So, Rajaee and the 10 employees who were able to come to work started by moving the newest vehicles to higher ground. Luckily for Rajaee, he was able to find three places in town to accommodate his vehicles: St. John’s Lutheran Church, El Dorado Golf Course and Uncle Jarrol’s Pub-B-Que.
As Rajaee and his employees began moving cars, other people started pulling in to Cornhusker Auto Center with a straightforward question: “What can we do to help?”
Students from Northeast Community College, people who had done business with the dealership before and their landscaping crew all volunteered to help. At a peak, they had around 30 people helping move vehicles.
Having strangers drive the vehicles was, admittedly, a bit of a worry for Rajaee. They used a shuttle driver and he would follow people. They also first had to defrost all of the vehicles. The roads were icy later in the day and the wind was strong with gusts up to 62 miles per hour.
With those factors and others, the vehicles easily could have been damaged. Rajaee said he also was worried about parking them in different locations because people could have broken in and taken anything. Fortunately, they didn’t have any losses.
But through it all, the flooding was the main concern.
Some of the volunteers helped and then had to leave, while others stayed the entire time, and Rajaee didn’t get the chance to thank a lot of them.
“That’s the beauty of Norfolk and smaller communities like this. People are generous. They rally around their neighbors and help their neighbors and take care of them. It was really evident,” Rajaee said.
Ultimately, they had to leave some of the cars behind because the levee had reached a point that made them really concerned. The dealership ended up moving 340 cars in total, which took them until 2 p.m. Thursday.
Meanwhile, Rajaee continued to reach out to the people in charge of the flood control asking if they were in any imminent danger because he was not willing to risk anyone’s life while moving vehicles.
A challenge for Rajaee was the fact that new vehicles can no longer be sold as new if they go through a flood.
“That was our biggest challenge. What would happen if our new vehicles got damaged and they could no longer be sold as a new vehicle? Now you have to sell them as a used vehicle and take a big loss,” Rajaee said.
Rajaee has now started the conversation with his insurance carriers about possibly getting flood insurance. He has started to look at ways to be more proactive and be more open to making those types of moves.
But there’s only so much planning one can do, he said.
His employees began bringing all of the vehicles back to the car lot on Friday, which took a bit longer because they had to reorganize and park everything in a specific way.
Since then, Rajaee has been trying to take care of his employees and rally around them. Many of them had water in their basements or had their entire basements cave in. The New Car Dealer Association has offered to financially help some of those employees, and the manufacturers have stepped in to offer customers incentives or special pricing if their vehicles had been damaged.
“I think that we’re all in this together. I think everyone is realizing we have to lift each other up, and we’re going to do our best to give back to the community that supported us during that time,” Rajaee said.
His business suffered during this time. The shops were completely shut down. Only 10 out of his 70 employees between the three dealerships were able to come in. Some of them even stayed in shelters.
Rajaee has tried to reach out to some of the people who volunteered.
“We still can’t get over it,” Rajaee said. “When we started seeing that outpouring of support, people coming in saying ‘What can we do to help? Just direct us.’ It was amazing. There would have been no way we would have been able to move all the cars in that amount of time without their help.”