Is a big-box store like Costco the best or worst place to get stuck in a natural disaster? Collin Jahnke has an answer.
“Oh, without a doubt, definitely the best,” he says.
Jahnke, his girlfriend Raechel Ramirez, and almost 80 strangers had an accidental sleepover at the Costco in Middleton during the flooding on August 20, 2018.
The couple had gone to trivia that night, despite the rain.
“I’m originally from California, and I never really used to look at the weather,” said Ramirez.
Their car died in flood water on the way home, so they pushed it into the Costco parking lot, which, at the time, was dry.
Around 9 o’clock, the parking lot looked like a lake, and Jahnke and Ramirez went inside the store. By 10, water began to seep into Costco itself.
“And then water starts coming in through the front, and then every door, and then the sewage backed up,” said Jahnke. “And then water starts working its way up through all the cracks on the floor. And as this is happening, our area to stand that’s dry is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Eventually, water swallowed up that concrete island and rose knee-high. Video from that night posted on Facebook captures what it sounded like. Amidst sloshing water, a voice exclaims: “This is surreal! Isn’t this surreal?”
“I think I even said that this must have been how the people on the Titanic felt that at first with the water slowly creeping in and cornering you,” said Jahnke.
Costco did not allow its employees to comment for this story. But Jahnke and Ramirez say that they pulled out couches, mattresses, and recliners so that folks could escape the rising tide.
They say staff also passed out snacks–chips, popcorn, bottled water–and even clothing.
“They were going around getting people’s shoe sizes to get them sandals so that they could take off their wet shoes and they were getting people’s socks, shorts, sweatshirts,” Jahnke said. “This is actually one of the sweatshirts that we got from them,” he said, gesturing to the bright red University of Wisconsin hoodie that he still wears more than a month later.
The whole set up sounds pretty plush, right? Well, sort of. Jahnke said it felt eerie, like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie.
“I don’t want to overplay it say like, ‘Oh it felt like it was the end of the world.’ But it definitely felt like it could have been.”
It was dark in there. The store lost power early on and they only had flashlights–and, no, they did not play flashlight tag.
And as the water rose, towers of boxes sucked up moisture, got soggy, and toppled over. All night, pistachios, pill bottles, and toilet paper crashed into flood water, echoing through the dark warehouse.
“And you would just hear things crash and you’ve got water right up to your knees, so you’re like, ‘What else is in here with us?’”
Jahnke was on edge. But Ramirez was curious.
“I was just like, ‘I want to go explore Costco in the dark,’” she said, laughing.
That was a hard ‘no’ from the staff. Safety came first–and, besides, Jahnke was told the store was out of kayaks.
Jahnke and Ramirez escaped the next morning, grateful for the staff’s kindness even though the two weren’t members at the time.
“But we are now,” he said. “We went back as soon as they opened up and became members because the way they treated everybody it was like being welcomed into a family.”
In the end, Ramirez had just one question for her boyfriend: “Does this happen often in Wisconsin? And he’s like ‘No, absolutely not.’”
But if it does happen again, they know where to go.