Flooding from Ida
(this was written weeks ago but seems to never have gone live)
Picture this – Saturday Morning, at my home in Milford, with a slight cold, 50 degrees outside and looks to be a fantastic weekend of chilly fall weather, listening to Discover Weekly on Spotify, on my house-wide Sonos system.
After I rattled a few cages at the municipal level, I resorted to the press to get the word out about the dire situation -
Weather events – disasters, rarely merit much attention outside of the disaster's direct orbit (and those charged with the emergency response). Live 2 miles away and the event barely registers. Next county over and the event could as easily be in another country. Events in other states- regardless of the pictures streaming across our devices- are abstract, besides the off-handed pity. The events are meaningless and non-impactful.
If it happens to you, your family, your community, these events that reach the threshold of FEMA action are devastating in their short and long impact. They create fear, dislocation, trauma, disruption and expense that can hardly be over-stated.
I have built homes and messed around with land for the better part of 20 years. I’ve weathered hurricanes, floods, winds, droughts, massive snow, wind and and ice storms. Been without electric for weeks, paid untold tens of thousands of dollars – soft and indirect – such as lost time and redirected resources, to hard costs such as the cost of clean up and plowing. I once had an acre of land in front of house with gigantic pine trees get blown over – a very expensive fix. I have plenty of stories like that.
However, nothing prepared me to wake to a text saying I had 8’ of water in a 2500 sq ft basement in Phoenixville PA, near Valley Forge, where all the Revolutionary War history took place. That’s literally 100,000 gallons. 4 big swimming pools. And where did it come from? A burst pipe? Nope, the Schuylkill River, which lays 200 yards away. Hurricane Ida came through, tracked through New Orleans, Tennessee and made itself an inland traveler state by state, blowing in on already saturated ground several hours of torrential rain – and the thing that stinks is Upper Providence where my homes stand, didn’t get hit with more rain than it had in the past – it was up river and the aggregate water volume lifted the water and the rivers and canals to higher levels than the Hurricane of 1972 that the entire East Coast remembers. And the speed in which it rose was dangerous, and why more people lost their lives in NY, NJ and PA than where it hit in Louisiana.
The area, and it is a weird a little area, where the flood waters rose and decimated 100 homes, is narrow and confined and just weird to how isolated and targeted the impact was. It’s now a federal disaster zone, which seems like just a phrase until you realize what impacts had to be endured to reach that level of designation.
My sister lives in Phoenixville, and has for 16 years. My mom used to live there, as did my brother. It’s a cool not quite Main Line town, known for its steel production throughout the 1900’s, went into decline like most steel towns after the 70’s, was known as a pocket of value as the Main Line exploded with people and prices, and really hit its gentrification groove about 10 years ago and now, for anyone who owns property, has seen a true escalation of asset pricing. (aside – I don’t use the word gentrification as an insult – I think business and residential investment in a community is a good thing). It’s got a great downtown with a vibrant energy and lots of small business investment. Neat people, neat place that hasn’t scrubbed itself clean of its blue collar steel town roots, but is a solidly developing place.
So, when I was riding my bike in 2014 down by the River Schuylkill, on a trail that runs 25 miles to downtown Philly Art Musuem and another 25 miles back, and I came across this building, with a big piece of land (5 acres) sitting there, somewhat derelict, seemingly abandoned, not pretty but intriguing. Offered for $400k, I bought it for $195k from a charter school that never grew wings. It sat in a flood plain, but nothing in recent memory, or even generational memory, would overstate or emphasis that importance. One flood in who knows how long – how dangerous could that be?
As a quick aside – as a real estate speculator, I have bought literally 500 properties by now, many when my experience with land was pretty thin. I’ve made a lot of decisions regarding land, and while I chose to buy this one, I’ve turned away from another dozen other at-risk-for-flooding properties. So while you or more likely, me, can easily say, "why did you buy that dummy,?" and "why did you then invest $300k improving it?", as I worked my way through the trauma and 2nd guessing, I realized I did hedge my bets on this property, that I bet on Phoenixville as a great investment opportunity and at the same time I consciously turned away dozens of others, including my primary home when I moved to Milford PA. That process of self-recrimination was just part of the dozens of serious emotions one goes through when the worst case happens. It’s hard to remember risks not taken when you are faced with a catastrophe on the one risk you did take – though even that is a ridiculous statement – I take immense risk every day, this one just didn’t pan out in this situation, temporarily.
I remodeled this 1932 Community Hall and built 2 new homes down there in this prime-time area, 2 of them well out of the flood plain, which I discovered when I had the property properly surveyed, and immediately created a lot of value on the property. The whole project took 7 years of my life, was very expensive, time-consuming, and taxing, stemming partly if not mostly from the fact it was located 3 hours from my home, and we remained very busy up here in my primary line of work.
Flooding – You hear about it on the news. You see the rushing water, the helplessness, the buildings left in grotesque angles with half the building missing. But up close it’s so much more specific and tangible – the devastation, people crying on the stoops of their ruined homes as they contemplate the effort of the next move, displaced, the smell of rot and mold. Older people sitting in lawn chairs on their driveways, unable to go in, unwilling to go away, as the shock expands through their consciousness. Walking dead and wounded, not physically, but spiritually and emotionally. Ruined life’s possession, ruined life’s memories. The odor of moldy homes settling into the valley. The fear and PTSD of any forecast of rain. The piles of debris being pulled from each home, at different rates depending on the health and financial resources of the respective homeowners, set out front, as the town had a roving trash truck circling and picking it up. Debris – furniture, pictures, rugs, beds, heirlooms, kitchens, appliances.
Down by the river, the river folk don’t have much but they are happy to give – like Credence song, right? The only real area that hadn’t been thoroughly suburbanized or brooklyned – the same people who had lived there for 20, 30, 40 or 60 years. Down by the Fitzwater Pub, where my neighbor Randy has bullet holes in his house from the aftermath of complaining to the police about the Hell’s Angels back in the day.
The building I bought was the original community hall of the micro-area. Then it was an underground lesbian bar, then a biker bar, a Korean church and almost a charter school. Now a single family residence. The houses around are older – not in a Sears catalogue way – just older, non-improved. Old houses; they had been flooded before. Some people still remembered. Most didn’t. A house here and there was being bought by a new generation.
The last big Flood was Agnes, 1972, where water came up to the 2nd floor in most houses. But that was ancient history – 50 years ago. Tons of rain and water events since never came close to reaching those levels of water – though according to FEMA maps, they could. Once in a 100 years, once in 500. 2 in 50. These memories have faded, flood insurance not renewed as it went from $1500 to $12,000 a year. Like a war, or a depression or the holocaust – once the primary memories fade of the people who were there, it’s a lot more abstract. It’s why you hear about your grandparents not putting money in banks after the financial collapse of the Great Depression – once you lose your money, once you get flooded, once you are interned in a concentration camp, once you fight a war – you don’t get to choose the pivot of your reactions – these are life-altering, conscious-altering events that get factored into every decision thereafter – mostly resulting in a ‘risk-avoidance’ mentality – a money under the mattress mentality. The primary sufferer of these cataclysmic events don’t forget –it’s the next generation that forget and engages in normal risk evaluation that would seem unwise to the preceding generation. It’s human nature. So as the memory of flooding recedes, the risk tolerance of the possibility of such an event grows in a correlated fashion.
A big challenge with water that high is most homes have their mechanicals and more importantly their electrical panel in their basement, so once that gets submerged, all sorts of issues arise as to when you can actually turn the lights back on, even when the street grid goes live. Without electricity you can’t simply pump out your basement, get fans and dehumidifiers running, and start the process of reclaiming your home. No lights, no water, no toilets.
Because Ida ran a course from Louisiana to NY, the insurance company adjusters are overwhelmed, meaning they can’t get to the homes to tell people their $100k project will get reimbursed $45k if at all. Without the adjusters, people are afraid to start demo’ing their wet walls since they need the ok from the adjusters. Cars flooded and ruined, stuff stored in the garage, tools, compressors, appliances - all gone.
The moldy aroma of decay and lost hope, helplessness. Shock. Truly shock – all good one day, life in ruins the next. Zombies walking around, dazed, regardless of insurance age or income.
I had 104,000 gallons of water in my basement, which was 1/3 finished. It took us 4 days to pump it out. It missed destroying the first floor by 3” - another 3” and I would have been out $175,000. Near misses like that do not promote peace of mind. They promote paranoia and fear and trepidation every time it rains.
My guess is over time this disaster will present me with opportunities. Rarely do I spend time anywhere without getting an idea planted and seeded. Talk to me a year, and I bet I have some efforts going in the way of creating out of the flood plain residences from families who walked away from river living. But for now, the near miss was truly traumatic, and this is coming from a guy who deals with a lot of real problems every day.
- The home has been pumped dry, dehumidified and protected against mold growth
- I've purchased at least one piece of vacant property out of the flood plain.