May 22, 2011

Water World

Written April 24, 2011

A hundred year rain. That’s what the weather prognosticators called it on that soggy April day 17 years ago when we first looked at buying our second house. Eight inches of rain fell and local rivers overflowed their banks. The ground was saturated and all the water cooler talk was of flooded basements and sandbags.

We had been looking for a larger house. While it was less than ten years old, our first house was small and poorly insulated. Our electric bills were high, and we were crowded. Time for something bigger and better insulated. However, we never had any concerns in that house about flooding. The house was a good two miles from the river, sat on a hill, and didn’t have a basement.

As we toured this house with our realtor, we noticed how nice the finished basement was. Plush brown wall-to-wall carpet highlighted the large L-shaped basement family room. There was none of that “basement smell,” that slightly mildewed, pungent odor that many basements have. The house was three times the size of our first home, and had many amenities even though it was an older home. The backyard had a large deck and was wooded and private. The kitchen was at least four times the size of our “one-butt” kitchen in our first house.

We made an offer and moved into the house in June. A week after we moved in, we heard the sound of machinery and chain saws. Almost all of the wooded area that provided us privacy (which was on another person’s property) was being removed. Though surprised, there was nothing we could do. We weren’t that upset because the change exposed the lake view, but it was somewhat disconcerting that everything changed that quickly.

We later learned that there had been another change, one not quite as pleasant, and one unseen.

Our home, a ranch with a walk-out sits on a pie-shaped piece of property. The all-electric home is very well insulated and has low heating/cooling bills also due to the way the house sits in the hill. Aye, here’s the rub. Our house is at the bottom of the hill. The backyard is a little bit higher. When our neighbor took out most of the woods, he fiddled with nature's water table.

When a 100-year-rain came, if the ground was saturated enough the water flowed downhill and under our house, and consequently, in to our basement.

We had water three times in our basement before we figured out how to stop it. It’s not as easy as it sounds. French drains made of tile that worked fine in 1977 erode over time. You cannot simply tear up your driveway, patios, deck, and all the stonework around a house and redo them. Actually, you can but it will cost you about twice what your house is worth.

After our first Water World, we spent four grand on a water-proofing system that as far as I know never worked at all. Never saw those guys again, despite a “guarantee.” You live, you learn. We put in all new guttering; we’ve added landscaping that evens out the water table; we’ve taken the carpet out of the basement and put in tile.

And we’ve had some bad luck. Once while on spring break, we had a contractor put ceramic tile in our master bath. He had to take out the commode to install the tile. He didn’t put it back in correctly and we came home to a significant leak in the lower level.

While we were on vacation and on my 40th birthday, we got an urgent call from friends who were watching the house. Our water heater “let down” and flooded the basement. Thankfully, those two incidents were covered by insurance. The others were not. Considered an Act of God.

A week before our basement flooded the last time, my husband’s car was flooded at work. The storm drains near his university didn’t function and a parking lot with 100 cars flooded. His car had water up above the seats. We took our Wet Vacs in to the university and helped students clean their cars. This was in late September of that year. Can you imagine the freshman calling his parents and telling him his “car was flooded?“

Thankfully our insurance paid to have the seats removed and cleaned.

Water in your basement, a half-inch or ten inches, means you have to go to battle immediately against mold and mildew. You have to move all your furniture (once we were storing oak planks for installation in our upstairs and had to move all of them quickly) and you learn how to use a Wet Vac expertly. One of the skills we sent our son to college with was learning how to cope with a flooded basement. He’s quite handy with a Wet Vac and one of those yellow wringer mop buckets.

After years of fighting water battles, we may winning. But never say die. We installed an ejector pump large enough to suck up Lake Michigan under our house several years ago.

But I’ve lost my peace of mind. I used to enjoy listening to the pouring rain as I fell asleep. Last night I was up at 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m., timing the typical groaning and creaking of the ejector pump as if I were timing labor pains.

Our basement is still dry, thankfully. We woke up this morning to a distant but familiar sound. What was it? Then it hit me. Wet Vacs. We could hear several Wet Vacs around the neighborhood, which gave me a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Now we wait for the three to five inches of rain predicted for tonight and more later this week. We’re ready.