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Coming Back from Catastrophe

Los Angeles, Billings laundries share stories of disaster recovery

LOS ANGELES and BILLINGS, Mont. — In one case, the rain fell and fell and fell, and then the roof did.

In the other, it was a tornado in a state that rarely sees such things.

American Coin-Op recently spoke to two store owners whose laundries suffered a catastrophe but have found, or are finding, their way back to business.


It’s been a bittersweet couple of years for Richard and Helen Nakawatase and their Clean Coin Launderland. Shortly after remodeling their Los Angeles store and upgrading laundry equipment in August 2018, the couple learned that Helen had been diagnosed with cancer and kidney failure; she’s now on chemotherapy and dialysis, Richard says.

Business began to pick up and things were looking good at the end of 2018 as a smaller coin-op down the street had to close due to rent increases.

“Our revenue in mid-December and January (2019) was really up and things were looking really rosy after many lean years,” he says.

But on Feb. 2, 2019, things really came crashing down. Los Angeles was hit by a deluge of rain and by mid-afternoon, the downpour was too much for Clean Coin’s roof. A sizable section collapsed. No one was hurt but the store has been closed ever since.

“It’s a hassle dealing with our insurance and also with the landlord and their insurance, since the roof had to be replaced, but to do so they had to move whatever equipment was in the store that was still good,” he says. “Our insurance company had to determine if it was more cost-effective for them to just replace everything new or move, store, recertify the equipment, etc.

“This took a while but in the end, they decided to total everything since they also weren’t sure how the computer boards, etc., were going to be affected by being in the damp store for weeks.”

Today, the roof has been replaced and contractors are working to rebuild the laundry. Once all-new equipment is installed, the store could reopen by mid-April, according to Nakawatase.

“Assuming we get up and running as planned, having good insurance, capital saved, and using a public insurance adjuster has been helpful,” he says. “The adjuster gets 10% of the recovered amount from the insurance company, but I am pretty sure I would be going crazy if we hadn’t used them.

“Getting good advice from Michael (Ambrose with distributor Western State Design) has also been helpful.”

Nakawatase doesn’t think anyone could’ve truly prepared for what befell Clean Coin.

“At the end of the day, we will have a brand-new store, replacing one that has been in the family for over 40 years,” he says. “So, to look at the bright side, it will end up being a good thing out of a bad situation.”


Tornadoes are uncommon in Montana, where fewer than 10 touch down annually. But when that rarity struck Billings on Father’s Day afternoon in 2010, the Lake Elmo Coin-Op—an unattended, 1,800-square-foot store—was in its path. The EF-2 twister packing winds up to 135 miles per hour peeled the roof off the building the laundry shared with a dance studio and barber shop.

“Typical Father’s Day Sunday,” recalls Jake Witham, a second-generation laundry operator whose parents had owned the business since the mid-1980s. “We were supposed to have my folks over to my house for a barbecue. Sirens went off. Big hail. After it passed, my mom called and said, ‘You need to head down to the store. A customer called and said we lost some windows.’”

Witham’s father had been trying to buy the building housing the laundry for 20-plus years. Two weeks prior to the tornado, a deal had been struck.

As Witham’s vehicle topped a hill behind the Laundromat, pieces of insulation strewn along the roadside told him something major had happened. The twister left Lake Elmo Coin-Op without a roof.

“I got to the bottom of the hill and saw the building … I was pretty much in shock. I sat there in my truck. Didn’t even know what to do.”

Despite the tornado passing through one of Montana’s busiest intersections, no deaths were reported. Witham learned that some customers rode out the storm beneath folding tables. Most ran to a bar next door and took refuge in a walk-in freezer.

The area was under martial law for about a week, Witham says.

“First thing we did once we were allowed in was we took all the money out and left every coin box sitting open on every washer. We didn’t want anyone coming around and thinking they could break in. We also took the money out of the changers and left them wide open.”

Two days before Father’s Day, Witham’s father had gotten his first insurance premium notice for the building. The morning after the tornado, he stood at his insurance company’s office door, check in hand to pay the first installment, Witham says with a chuckle.

As the Withams started the rebuilding process, they received guidance from an insurance agent family member and a commercial real estate agent who connected them with an architect. The city wanted the building setback moved 20 feet (reducing the building size by that much) but the architect successfully argued that the project was reconstruction, not new construction.

The store was out of commission just a few days shy of one year. When it did reopen in 2011, it was as the expanded 2,900-square-foot Spin Fresh Laundry. “We had a year of business interruption insurance, so we wanted to make sure we did it right,” Witham explains.

Had the tornado occurred before his family took ownership of the building, the laundry might’ve been lost because the Withams would’ve had no property on which to house it, he adds.