Record flooding, particularly in Iowa cities such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, is battering industry retailers.

Bon-Ton Stores Inc., which operates the Bergner's, Herberger's, Boston Store, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman and Younkers chains in the Midwest, among other nameplates, is among the retailers that have lost business.

Although Bon-Ton did not suffer flood or tornado damage, "customers have been unable to get to some of the stores with all the flooding, and the threat of tornadoes have kept customers from coming out," said Mary Kerr, vice president of investor and public relations. "It's a case of the customer's inability to come to our stores."

Bon-Ton's corporate offices in Milwaukee, which are on top of a building housing a store, were evacuated twice last week because of tornado threats. Bon-Ton operates 19 stores in Iowa: 17 Younkers, including four in the Des Moines area and two in Cedar Rapids, one Elder-Beerman and one Herberger's.

General Growth Properties closed Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids from Friday through Sunday to conserve water and electricity, said Nicole Spreck, director of public affairs.

The size and scope of the Iowa damage will take weeks to determine accurately, but the economic losses are expected to eclipse the $2.1 billion generated by disastrous floods in 1993, experts said. Much of that impact was absorbed by Iowa's agriculture industry.

"It's not even possible now to assess a dollar amount...because there are immediate and long-term effects," said David Swenson, a professor of economics at Iowa State University in Ames.

"There are so many types of damage to deal with, such as people losing their homes and valuables, and businesses losing productivity and inventories that they couldn't get upstairs or to a higher level before the flooding began," Swenson said. "There's also going to be the major expenses that cities will have to spend on fixing roads, bridges, parks and other affected areas."

Among independent retailers, both units of the Velvet Coat contemporary boutique in Des Moines and Iowa City have suffered revenue losses, said owner Connie Parsons. She was forced to clear all merchandise and furnishings from the Des Moines unit on Friday and close because of the threat of high water. The store was spared and Parsons hopes to reopen by the end of the week."I honestly can't put a number on [the losses], and I hope it's better than we think it's going to be," she said.

The shutdown of the University of Iowa in Iowa City — the Iowa River runs through the campus — because of at least 16 flooded buildings is particularly devastating because the school is a major economic engine for the area, she noted.

"I've been in Iowa almost my entire life, and this is something that no one has ever seen here and I hope we never see it again," Parsons said.

There was some shopping Monday at Kathy's, a bridge and contemporary boutique in West Des Moines.

"What I hear a lot from customers is they are preoccupied with sandbagging and helping out businesses that are still in trouble," said owner Kathy Dundar. "Then you still have daily life with weddings and events, and they know they can hit the west side because it's not flooded."

Retailers had already suffered through a bleak winter.

"We had ice storms every weekend from Thanksgiving right on through and that killed us," Dundar said.

The hardest hit districts appear to be downtown areas because they are closest to overflowing waterways such as the Cedar and Iowa Rivers.

Many chain retailers, including Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney, appear to have escaped damage. However, flooding is "preventing some associates from being able to reach the stores," said Penney's spokesman Tim Lyons.

As the waters start to recede in Iowa, with a forecast of partly cloudy weather for the rest of the week, the Mississippi River is rising, and there is a flood risk in states like Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

About 36,000 people in 11 Iowa counties have been evacuated from their homes, including an estimated 25,000 in Cedar Rapids, and at least three people have died because of the flooding, officials said. Eighty-three of the 99 counties in Iowa have been declared state disaster areas. More than 4,000 National Guard soldiers and volunteers have been deployed to assist in the recovery effort. Roads, bridges and railroad lines have been submerged, and power cut to thousands of homes and businesses.President Bush is scheduled to tour the ravaged region on Thursday.

— Holly Haber, David Moin and Rusty Williamson

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