Saturday, March 19, 2011

WHEW! That was CLOSE!

I had a scare last week at my abomination station on Wheeling Island. The Ohio River has a record of flooding over 'Da' I-Lan' about every seven years on average. Let's see, last flooded in 2005, this is 2011, yep, she's due. When I acquired hedo-house in 2005, it had been flooded to the first floor in September of 2004 and again in January of 2005. The owner at the time was a widow in her eighties. Fortunately she had moved into assisted living before the flooding so she was safe, but the damage to the house was a problem for her. The electrical panels and some of the wiring had been destroyed, the water heater was destroyed, a finished room in the basement (itself a fool's project) had been obliterated, the first floor carpeting had been soaked with mud, and numerous other parts of the house had been damaged. She had some restoration work done, but her funds were limited. She eventually just put the house up for sale, 'as is', at a reduced price. Enter your most humble and obedient servant who was searching for a base of operations for his completely corrupt lifestyle.

Most of the intervening years between 2005 and 2011 had been spent in cleaning, restoring, replacing, remodeling, renovating, and a bunch of other "re's" that totalled up to a significant amount of $$$$ and a whole lot of perspiration. Other than residual flood damage, the house had not been too bad to start with, but six years of work had turned it into quite a comfortable den of iniquity. Among the improvements were the installation of a sump pump in the basement, relocating the electrical service to the first floor, and blocking up two open window openings into the basement. I didn't understand the existance of that one either but hey, "It's Da I-Lan mon', some strange thin's goin' on ober der".

When you live on an island, you have to know 'your number'. Every house has one and it's not an address, it's the river level at which water begins to come into your house. At the 'clap shack', that number is 38.3. The numbers come from river elevations as monitored and predicted by the U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers who control the system of locks and dams that prevent the catastrophic floods such as happened in the 1930's. They have a website with a 'hydrograph' and without getting too technical, it is a prediction of river level changes that will occur based upon predicted rainfall.

(right click, Open in new window)

For instance, the normal river level at wheeling is about 22', but a 3" rainfall over the huge Ohio river watershed area can result in a peak flow that reaches 40', well above the 36' flood stage. When extended rainy weather or snowmelt is predicted, Island residents with computers check the website regularly to see if emergency measures will be necessary. Those without computers monitor television and radio reports of the predicted river level.

Built in 1910, my place has a full basement with no drain. Subsequently, if a gallon of water went into the basement, it stayed in the basement until it evaporated or until an ambitious homeowner mopped it up and carried it out. What that meant to previous owners was that, if the river came up to 40' and your number is 39', you had a foot of water in your basement. Among the numerous things I failed to understand about the previous owners was why they tolerated such a condition. By locating the low point in the basement floor, digging a hole, and installing a sump pump with an outdoor discharge, water could be pumped out of the basement. The big question in my mind was, why did it take 95 years for someone to figure that out? The other question was why window openings into the basement had not been closed up. But anyway, I digress.

I had several other scares in the past. Predictions of above flood level had me making plans for quick removal of stored property and utilities from the basement, but until last week, the river crest would fall below flood stage before it reached Wheeling. Last week was different.

Two and a half days of light to heavy rain had brought surrounding creeks to above flood level and the predicted level at Wheeling was 42.7 feet. Flood level is at 36', my number is 38.3, the land around the house is at 41, the street is at 40.5, and the first floor of the house is at 45. In March of 1936, a monumental flood put water up to the second floor of my house. At 42.7, I would have 2.2 feet of water in the street, 1.7 feet around the house, and the potential for 4.4 feet of water in the basement. Time to get serious.

The good news is that flood crests can take days to travel up the Monongahela River and down the Allegheny River, meeting in Pittsburgh and travelling many miles down the Ohio. Day one was spent in preparation by sorting and packing possessions into plastic containers for easy removal. The second day saw me testing the sump pump, checking the seal around blocked up basement openings, prioritizing vehicle storage, and generally finalizing planning. The crest would hit about noon on day three. I was glued to the computer for the hourly monitoring reports and modified predictions. Typically, the predictions were conservative, predicting higher crests than would eventually occur, and I hoped for the same. The end of day two saw a revision down to 40.3 feet. This was a relief because it meant that there would probably not be water in the street. If that held, the vehicles would not have to be moved.

Especially after images of recent tsunamis, people tend to think of flooding as a giant tidal wave that sweeps over the land. In the open ocean that is true, but river flooding is more like filling a bathtub. Close the stopper on the bathtub, put some solid object at the high end, and turn on the water. The level raises slowly and steadily around it until it is innundated. On a river island, the same thing happens until the surface is covered, then the water flows with the river current, carrying mud and debris with it. The devastation of river flooding is as much the mud and debris left behind as it is the water damage.

The morning of the third day brought with it a revised level of 39.3 feet. This was a great relief for me, but it still meant flooded basements for some with lower numbers, including the Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino. As the crest passed at approximately noon, the racetrack was flooded by about 3' of water, knocking out the ground level betting area, poker room, employee locker rooms, underground parking, and some of the lower parking lots. Fortunately they prepared well also and their damages and operational interruptions were minimal. Godfather's Gentleman's Club, next door to the Casino, never missed a beat.

I stood in my basement not knowing what to expect. Would water come gushing up through the floor, or through the stone walls? After all of the worry and careful preparations, all I finally experienced was a steady trickle of water up through cracks in the floor and slow seeps at the base of the walls. The water ran immediately to the sump pump where it was soon pumped out. The relief was glorious. Sooner or later 'the big one' will come to test my preparations and planning, but for now, WHEW, that was CLOSE!