On July 16, Justin and I made tacos for dinner and then hunkered down to watch the last episode of Downton Abbey. Our roommate had moved out the day before after leasing our third room for three months (and occupying it as a guest for about two weeks before that), and it was our first full day without having to jockey schedules, keep the noise down, or worry about whether we grabbed bathrobes on the way into the shower.
“We’re finally getting our life back,” I said as I spooned sour cream on to a taco and glanced out the window at the rain pooling in the front yard. A thunderstorm had rolled in while we were cooking, and the low spots in the lawn were collecting water like they usually did. I thought about how we’d have to grade the yard eventually, and wondered how much dirt it would take. I sighed, knowing that it would probably be twice as much as thought it would be, then turned back to the TV to watch the opening credits roll for the last time.
The storm also settled in, and our viewing was punctuated with repeated house-shaking booms and lightning so bright we were sure it must have struck a neighbor’s house. We didn’t lose power though, which came as a surprise considering how easily it’s gone out in the past.
Then, about halfway through the 90-minute episode, there was a crash followed by the sound of rushing water. Justin and I stood up from the couch and immediately headed toward the basement door. A couple of months ago we’d had an issue with the washing machine drainage hose disconnecting from the house’s wastewater pipe, causing it to dump an entire drum of water on the floor. We’d fixed the problem ourselves, and we both assumed that our fix hadn’t held and it had happened again.
Thing is, the washing machine wasn’t running. I hadn’t started a single load all day.
Instead, when we opened the basement door, we were confronted by knee-deep murky water at the bottom of the stairs. It was swirling counterclockwise at a steady clip, cardboard boxes and plastic tubs bobbing in the current. The water was also rising—visibly.
We turned to each other and asked in the same stupefied tone, “Who do you call when your house is flooding?”
We went with 911.
While we waited for a firetruck to arrive, we started gathering supplies to evacuate. As we paced back and forth through the house gathering clothes, food and water, and important documents, we had time to assess the situation in more detail, which revealed that our driveway, sitting largely below street-level, was completely filled with water; my car, which I typically parked at the bottom of the driveway, was almost fully submerged. Luckily, Justin’s car was parked was parked on higher ground, but was still surrounded by a calf-deep stream of swiftly flowing water.
When the fire department appeared on the scene, there was nothing they could do for us (and, truthfully, very little they could have done even if the circumstances had been more favorable). Because the circuit breaker is in the basement, they were not able to throw the master on the breaker and the power remained on. They asked about the locations of the electrical meter and the master shut-off for the gas, because they have the tools to access both, but in the moment neither Justin nor I could remember where exactly they were located, and with the rain blowing sideways at this point the firefighters couldn’t see them. In the end, we had to trust to emergency auto-off features and just leave while we still had one salvageable vehicle.
We ended up spending the night in a hotel, and then returned the next morning to survey the damage and try to determine what had happened. The water had completely receded in the seven hours since the storm had stopped, leaving almost no sign of its passing beyond a high water mark around four feet high and a layer of sludge coating the floor (and, by extension, anything touching the floor).
The vortex that we had witnessed the night before had torn the hot water heater partially free of its connections and laid it out on its side—which is really something else, when you consider that it weighs 500 pounds when full. It had also submerged the furnace and part of the AC unit, and knocked the washer and dryer off their plywood plinth.
You’ve no doubt deduced that this was no ordinary thunderstorm. Depending on which stormwater engineer you ask—and we spoke to several—it was a 100-, 200-, or even 1,000-year flood. I’m told at its peak it rained 6 inches in 45 minutes. Fortunately, the car was completely covered under our vehicle insurance; unfortunately, none of the damage to the basement was covered, not even the garage door, because our homeowner’s insurance policy specifically excludes flooding. Fortunately again, our basement is unfinished, and beyond the appliances, the only things we were storing there were tools and DIY supplies, Christmas decorations, and a pile of miscellaneous items bound for donation, and of these things, nearly all of the Christmas decorations and about half of the tools/supplies survived. We didn’t lose anything of exceptional monetary or sentimental value, which was a huge relief.
Most fortunately of all, we have incredibly supportive family and friends, who descended upon us from points across North Carolina and Virginia the following weekend to help us shovel out and dispose of the debris, power wash and sanitize the basement, and reorganize those items that could be saved. With their help, we also got a new hot water heater installed, replaced/relocated two electrical outlets that had been submerged, rehabilitated the washer and dryer, unbent the garage door as much as possible, and set up a window AC unit to tide us over until the furnace and AC could be fixed a few days later. Their generous donations of time, expertise, labor, and materials saved us at least $6,500 in repair and cleanup costs. They also sustained unshakably positive attitudes in the face of triple-digit heat indexes with just a few box fans for respite, which was tremendously helpful whenever the situation threatened to overwhelm us.
Six weeks later, I finally feel as though we’ve gotten back to normal life. I’ve been itching to blog, and it was important to me share this significant event before trying to get into a regular groove. While I know it would have been my prerogative to leave things at “life happens,” that just didn’t feel sufficient, you know?
With that—with the last several weeks and months behind me—I’m finally ready to move forward. I just hope I remember how to use my sewing machine…