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Monday, June 22, 2009

A River Floods Through It

Home ownership. It’s one of those privileges that should be a right. It’s a sanctuary, allowing your to push all the troubles of the world aside, draw the blinds and hide under your blankets. It’s a place of worship as you sit in your man cave and pray to the Sporting Gods so that your team can win. It gives you shelter from the elements and ridiculously nutty neighbors withtheir lawn ornaments. It can provide for you if you have a garden out in the backyard. Owning a home can give you countless joys and also countless headaches and heartaches. It’s kind of like marriage.

It can also be threatened and needs to be defended. In Revolutionary times, British troops could just come right in and search your home without cause. Home invasions and burglaries can threaten your belongings and even your person. And in these tough economic times, foreclosure and bankruptcy can cause you to lose your home right out from under you. While all these old and new concerns are dangerous to home ownership, none is as threatening as mother nature. The elements alone can be the most dangerous to your safety. Fires can happen from lightning strikes, the house could be ripped from its foundation from tornadoes, and water can invade a home instantly during flash flooding.

But all of these threats and deterrents should not stop someone from wanting to own a home but it can be cause for some forethought into protecting and securing a domicile. You should be able to make your home your castle. A basement doesn’t just have to be a place for a washer and dryer and other junk. It shouldn’t be an environment only fit for the furnace monster that scares you from going down for your snowsuit when school has been closed and the back hillside is just ripe for sledding. It should be more. It should be a retreat from upstairs doldrums. It should be the rocking underground party that is separate from your upstairs, conservative, button down living room with pictures of Nana and the kids.

We have many names for this retreat of the residence we’ve created or renovated. During the mid 20th century they were sometimes called dens and usually existed on the main level of the home. As the length of hair went down our backs, so did the level of the den, descending into that dark abyss, forcing the furnace monster to look for new lodging. Basements became game rooms and rumpus rooms. They can even be called rec rooms or the secluded man cave. These newly designated living spaces became framed in wood and covered with paneling or dry wall. Flooring choices were built up from dirt and cement to tile and carpet. The lighting moved from dark and dreary to bright and bouncy, yet still maintain a certain level of control to set the mood for family movie night or teenage make out sessions. Yes, the new age of home ownership became a test of creativity and innovation as we looked for ways to incorporate a big screen and a Beermeister into the aesthetic mix of couches and recliners.

But then…lighting crashes and rivers rise. The sanctity of the man cave or game room can be threatened by nature and those long hours we toiled away in our off time laying tile or framing a bar can all be washed away from existence leaving you to lament the loss of your pool table or surround system, ruined by standing water. My family has seen and experienced mother nature’s cold wet wake up call to arms, brooms, and mops and the rec room has risen from the ashes like a civilization built upon the ruins of its ancestors. Here’s examples from both my parents and in laws.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan did more than just devastate the Caribbean and Gulf States. It continued on as a weakened but still dangerous remnant carrying torrential downpours on into the Mid Atlantic States, including my home turf. Long after Miami survived the monsoon, Pittsburgh got plunged into the rising waters of Ivan’s leftovers.

20 years before a single drop of Ivan invaded I-376, my parents had built the home they live in today. For nearly two decades we lived in a two story home with an unfinished basement. It served as a laundry room and a mud room. The damp smell of wet cement and dirt permeated the dark cavernous nature of our cellar and the décor was worthy of Buffalo Bill’s chamber of horrors as described in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs.

When my parents decided to build a new home out in the semi-rural / semi suburban area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, they left the option open to finish the basement. The new construction was a departure from the old days of the cellar dweller furnace monster. The basement was well lit with an outside entrance up to street level and three to four windows on the back side of the house where the sun sets into the West.

A year after we moved in they made the decision to finish the basement into a game room. Plush red carpeting flowed down the steps to a landing giving you the option to go right into an area with the furnace, refrigerator, freezer, and door to the outside. If you would rather, you could turn left from the landing and head into the living area with a television, couch, and chair as well as a hearth and wood burner on the far wall, extending the brick along the entire length into an area with the love seat and pool table. One of the support poles made it difficult to make some shots but it was carpeted as well like a human sized scratching post. This is where we gather for Christmas as a family, opening presents as the Christmas tree gleams in the corner of the room.

But when Ivan hit Southwestern PA in September 2004, the drain outside the basement door could not handle the rushing water and my parents’ rec room got wrecked. The carpet rippled like Aladdin’s mode of transportation across the Arabian sky as the water sloshed underneath it. Eventually, they redid the flooring and now a deeper wine colored carpet adorns the scratching post by the pool table but as my father, my insurance agent will tell you, “Insurance doesn’t cover Mother Nature.” The expense to fix up the room was all on them.

Get Three Rivers One Drain on a shirt
from Mongo Angry! Mongo Smash! The Store

Five years later, I am reminded of Ivan’s wrath as I stand in my garage squeegee in hand, keeping the water at bay. A hellacious storm rolled through our area this past week, reminding us that Mother Nature is a cold hearted bitch. My gravel driveway acts as a plug in the drain that sits just off the garage floor slab. The collection of dirt and stone inhibits the drain from removing a bulk of the water that pools outside the door in bad storms. The shoddy masonry on the side of the house allows water to flow underneath the side door of the garage and another drain in the cement on that side is so clogged with dirt and rocks that it cannot carry enough water away before I am forced to get into the thick of it. I had taken a few peeks into the garage to make sure it was still dry, but as the storm neared our home and the rains picked up, it was too late. When I finally noticed that the side door was leaking on Wednesday evening, we had already heard the bad news, my In-Laws were under water.

Sometime around the middle of the 90’s, my Father-In-Law had a vision. The walls of his small ranch home along the busy pavement of Rte 130 in Harrison City were closing in on him. Three children, two at time living, in the house with him and his wife confined the family to the upstairs level for comfort and shelter. By nature, they were entertainers and tales of their parties are still recalled throughout the years.

In order to truly feel comfortable in a setting with friends or family, they needed to expand, and the only direction was down. Ever the crafty craftsman, he took an open floor plan and turned it into an almost separate studio residence. Coming down from the steps along the Eastern side of the basement he put in a wet bar with cabinetry and tile flooring. If you were to turn left, you’d see a pool table and gas fire place, complete with a hearth and mantle.

Along the Northern wall three closets for storage lined the wall with an office area on the bar side and an entrance to the fruit cellar under the porch on the other side. As you move past the warmth of the gas fireplace you headed into the living area with a love seat and two recliners positioned around a coffee table, antique looking tea cart, and flat screen television.

Turning left from the living room you could access a full sized kitchen with an old style refrigerator and range oven. Floor to ceiling cabinets and counter tops framed in the small but functional kitchen with a sink on a diagonal in one corner.

Continuing left you passed through a small entryway and down a level into the laundry room complete with half bath and another two freezers. Out of the laundry room you were back to the steps where a tile floor curves around to the garage with two big folding door pantry closets were stocked with goodies. On your left was the bar back up a level by the steps with more built in cabinets underneath.

He did all the work himself and it took almost three years to complete at the cost of his muscles and joints. Now 70, he spends a good portion of his days there with his family eating dinner and enjoying the warmth of the fireplace while watching television. Now, it was filling up with water.

There had always been the threat of flooding into the home. Their driveway slopes down from the road into their garage and only a trench drain at the base protects them from disaster. Over the years, the busy road has been built up and the path of which water flows now comes down the road and into his yard, ponding-up on the side of the house before moving over the hillside into his driveway and hopefully the drain. The driveway itself offers another obstacle as the poor drainage system installed by the township only has loose gravel covering the top portion next to the road. Rainwater pushes the gravel and dirt down into the drains blocking them, turning his driveway into a bathtub.

When my wife got the news about her parents’ home, I ran into our garage and saw the similar invasion happening to us. Water had begun coming underneath the side door. The drain on the front of the house had clogged. I opened the main door and a wall of water fell into the garage and rushed towards the back wall. Dirt and gravel carried by the current settled on the floor drain stopping the water from leaving the room. I grabbed my pry bar and ran back into the house. The only way to keep water from getting in was to clear the drain and I could only get there from outside. I ran out the front door and into the wading pool of water in front of my garage. I stabbed blindly into the water with the pry bar looking for the iron gate that sat on top of the drain. Once removed, I could fish around for the PVC lid covering the drain proper. Tossing it aside, a whirlpool formed and the water level receded.

Heading back into the house, soaking wet, I now had to get rid of the water on the side of the house, as well as the interior part of the garage. With the water now gone in front, I could squeegee water out of the garage and into the drain. I pulled water from the side entrance, that had pooled up, and kept more from coming into the smaller door. Finally realizing what was going on with the interior drain, I cleared the debris and water fell through the floor and away from my feet.

My wife appeared in the doorway telling me she had to go over to her parents’. I told her to get the baby ready and I would make preparations to shore up the garage from future flooding this evening. I grabbed any and all towels and shoved them into plastic bags. Running the handles underneath the bottom of the interior door, I could create a barrier against the inside by pulling the handles of the bags which would push on the inside of the door, shutting it. I lined more bags on the outside as well as the exterior door.

In the car, my wife attempted to start the car and the familiar sound of a dead battery rang in my ears as the car wouldn’t turn over. With no way to push the car towards the entrance of my driveway, I had to figure out a way to get out other car to the dead one. I ended up driving through my yard and nearly into the wall of the house. Sitting a good foot higher than the driveway, I worked to get the hoods open on both cars in order to run jumper cables between them. Lightning flashed in succession like a strobe light as I hooked the positive wires to both cars. I hesitated on connecting the negatives as I wondered what would be the likelihood of being electrocuted in the process. My second question was which would get me first, the battery or the lightning?

After connecting the last clamp, I yelled to my wife to turn the key. The car sputtered into life and I put all my toys away, before leaving. Rivers of dirty rain water rushed down our hill and the main part of our town was already flooded and closed off from travelling. A creek runs through three towns with us in the middle and we had to get to the other end. Turning onto the next road, we could see mudslides above us onto the road. Hydroplaning was a threat as the flowing water moved from one side of the street to the other and soon, downed trees offered a chance to practice serpentine movements in the car.

Upon reaching my In-Laws, the rain began to slow up. We made our way down into the basement, yelling at my Mother-In-Law to get herself upstairs. She is diabetic and has no spleen. Not a good combination for someone standing in dirty water with cracked feet. She headed upstairs to watch our daughter while my wife, her father, and myself stayed downstairs to remove water. The smell of fuel wafted through the air from the garage. An overturned heater had spilled kerosene into the garage which was now being carried into the rest of the house.

A half hour ago, the water had not been that bad. A small stream had trickled under the garage door and into the laundry room where it left via a drain in the floor. My Father-In-Law stood in the entryway with a broom, pushing the water towards the laundry room while his wife spoke on the phone to my wife. The they heard this loud pop like someone had slapped a wooden paddle across a child’s corduroy covered ass. Before she could tell my wife about it, another noise that sounded like a wave crashing broke the air and water spewed out from under the interior door to the garage. Quickly, the level rose over the top of the raised platform and flooded the basement. A broom was no longer going to cut it as they just realized that the garage door had buckled. At that moment, my wife’s face drained of color and she looked at me as if to say, “All his work. All the pain and sweat he put into that downstairs was now being washed away.” That’s when I headed into my garage.

But now, the water had leveled off and we began sweeping it from the kitchen into the laundry room. We took the carpet steamer and began sucking water from the run as a friend stopped by with a Shop Vac. As we tried to remove water from the rooms, mud and silt remained on the tiled portions. Dinner, which had been set on the table, stood untouched.

At 12:30 AM, nearly dead tired from dumping a full vacuum of water out again and again, the standing water had been vacated, leaving only the soaked carpets and flooded root cellar left to clear. We headed into the garage. Confined and cluttered, most of the items had been pushed to the back of the house, beyond the interior door. An outside door could have served to divert a lot of the flooding out of the back of the house, but it was now barricaded by everything that had been in the front of the garage. We could see the bottom panel of the garage door had broken free from its track, flipped up and onto the back bumper of their car. Pots and planters full of dirt in the garage had been toppled, clogging the floor drain, adding to the problem. A water and debris line stretched across the car above the tires, inside a Father’s Day present soaked up water that had come inside.

We worked to fix the garage door, to guard against any additional rainfall throughout the night. Down the road in town, others were still battling the waters as people had to be rescued by emergency services from local businesses and an apartment building. Fighting our own battle earlier, my wife instructed her parents to call 911 but they could not say when they could get there. Additional attempts to call 911 met with busy signals. We considered ourselves lucky.

After fixing the garage door, we finally sat down to dinner at 1:00 AM. By 2:30 we had finally left for home. The road home was littered with more mudslides and even we could even see the creek cresting its banks as it rushed alongside the road in the dark.

We arrived at our house to see little if any more water damage than when we left. By 4:00 AM I had taken a shower and gone to bed. My wife told me in private that her Dad had been seen wandering around the basement just devastated at the damage. While it was confined to mostly a structural nature, it was apparent that there was a lot of work to be done, ripping up carpets and the flooring as well as getting into all the cabinets and closets to remove any remnants of this disaster. At 58, the renovation of their basement, by himself, was taxing on his body. At 70, it would be near impossible.

While I have the good fortune to live on top of a hill, I know my home is not free from the threat of rising water. Poor drainage and poor design leave me open to a similar fate I had recently redid half of the basement floor in ceramic tile and it does offer an easier clean up than carpet, it doesn’t give me any more comfort in knowing that the hard work I put into it and any future projects down there could be gone in an instant. For now, I’m just happy to be drifting off on the river of dreams, letting go of the pain of sore muscles. Tomorrow will be another day of cleaning up, but right now I’m headed out to a sea of sleep, dreaming of…..


Damn that car.

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