Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Great Flood of '09

I arrived home from work yesterday just before 9 PM, threw my walleye fillets (bluck – fish – hate it!) in the oven, boiled some corn on the cob, and immediately put on my pajamas. When the food was done, I called my brother to get his share and I settled myself in front of the television with the dog, my dinner, and a throbbing headache.

While I ate, I thought I heard the water from the corn still boiling, though I swore I turned it off. When I finished eating, I checked the stove and indeed, I had turned the burner off. Figuring it must have been something unimportant, I returned to the couch to finish the episode of CSI, and I continued hearing what I thought was boiling water. Irritated, I returned to the kitchen to find the source of the sound.

It was coming from the heating duct.

My first reaction was, how the hell did that much water get in there and what does this mean?

My brother, who’s worked in the construction industry for many years, installing flooring, rehabbing houses, etc., was my go-to guy. He pulled the vent off and we found ourselves staring at muddy debris floating atop a pool of water about six inches from overflowing onto the kitchen floor, and with the air being forced from the furnace through the water, it was gurgling and belching up air bubbles that were echoing in the metallic ducts. It was starting to sound like African drums.

We immediately turned off the heat. I suggested we mark the water level somehow in the duct to see if it was going up or down, so he did that, and then we set about trying to find a leak that could be draining into the ducts. Thirty minutes later, we returned to the duct to check the progress and the water had risen about ¾ of an inch. Also, we were no closer to finding the source, as everything else in the house was bone dry and functioning normally. We marked the new level and started to Google.

Perhaps the only thing scarier than Googling a home crisis is Googling a health crisis, and health doesn’t beat home by much. The doomsday information started a panic inside me that immediately made my heart race and my breathing quicken. If we didn’t find the source of the water soon, we were going to have to Google a health crisis as well.

We can thank Doggie Extraordinaire for what follows.

With my brother and me running around the house in a heightened state of anxiety, eyes wide, talking in semi-flustered voices, Doggie E. followed, equally if not more anxious than us, and no more or less knowledgeable about what was going on. The activity made him have to pee so I leashed him up and took him out in front. This was where I noticed that there was a large puddle of water, not ice, in the street in front of my house. Strange. A shallow puddle of water in 15º weather should not be water still. This was fresh. There had to be a connection.

Once inside, my brother and I started turning off all the noisemakers in the house, like televisions, fans, etc., and we listened. We noticed a sound, almost like a motor but not quite as stable and regular.

He said, “That’s running water. It’s coming from next door!”

Next door is a house where the crackhead used to live, but it’s been empty since early summer. Suddenly it all made sense. Empty house, no heat, no water running through the pipes, sub-zero temperatures, and the first day the temperature made it to the upper 20s results in flooded ducts in my house and the sound of gushing water, audible through two sets of walls, which said to me one thing: frozen pipes burst.

This is where things got fun. Yeah, fun.

With my Maglite in hand, my brother stomped through a foot of virgin snow on the driveway of the house next door to try to see if there was water coming out anywhere. He didn’t even get to the front door and found himself standing in a pool of water streaming from under the garage door.

I felt like celebrating. My house was in danger, my heat off, my ducts flooded, but I was happy because all I could think of was that someone else was going to have to pay for it and not me. The water was coming from next door!

We called the police and my brother helped the officer break into the garage. Thankfully, no questions were asked about how he knew how to break into the garage, though my brother was quick to offer up that he’d locked himself out so many times, he became adept at getting in our house in a variety of ways, which was all true, but it’s still nerve wracking to advise a cop on how to properly break into someone’s garage without harming the property.

Once the garage door was thrown open, we could all see the torrent of water coming from the rear of the garage, seeping through the area where the drywall meets the foundation. The water made its way under the garage door, which had about 6-inches of warped wood at the bottom now, and it snaked its way under the foot of snow on the driveway, where it was draining into the street where my cold toes met it.

The entire time I was patting myself on the back, thinking that we solved this problem before it was truly devastating and all my neighbors should be thanking us. I felt like a superstar in my own head, which doesn’t happen often.

The officer then tried to get into the house through the door leading to the garage, and when that proved to be locked, he searched the garage for a key, not to be found. Next line of offense: fire department.

The officer said, “If we’ve gotta break the door down, I’ll let the fire department do it. People seem to like them more, though I don’t know why.”

I chuckled half-heartedly, carrying with me that innate nervousness people feel around cops and not knowing why he couldn’t understand it.

My brother said, “Ah, it must be the handcuffs.”

DUDE, that was funny! But the officer didn’t laugh. Which is precisely why the joke was a joke to begin with.

Then things got really exciting! A door was going to be broken down! We were thrilled at the idea of big firemen with Paul-Bunyan-sized axes hacking violently away at the door, carnage, splintered wood, and hinges flying wildly. We were beside ourselves with anticipation! HURRY, firemen!

The fire truck pulled up, rumbling the whole block, which caused one of our neighbors to join us in the cold, wet street, standing around like useless spectators. The truck was equipped with a gigantic panel of lights, operated by remote control, which impressed the hell out of my brother as he watched the arms moving on their own, positioning the panel in the direction of the firemen.

I said, “Just wait. You haven’t seen how bright the lights are. You’re not going to believe this.”

As if on my cue, the sun came back out. Oh, wait, no, that was the lights on the fire truck. This panel was powerful enough to light up the entire street and make the neighborhood appear to have been rocketed forward or backward in time to about 2 PM on a summer day. There were some oohs and ahhs to be sure.

That would be the end of our awe. Two enormous firemen (or do they only look that much larger than life?) set about breaking into the house, and the first thing we noticed was the lack of Paul-Bunyan axes. Sad. Instead, one of the guys carried a tool that looked like a tiny hoe with yellow, plastic coating. Not impressive! Then we noticed the firemen were donning the classic fireman walrus mustaches and we surmised that they were surely the real deal, despite the lack of humbling weaponry to behold. We had only their furry upper lips to gawk at. (Sigh.)

Indeed there were frozen pipes, and indeed the house was flooded. Our uniformed rescuers shut off the water to the house and stopped the endless flow of water. One of the enormous firemen asked to see the water in our ducts, so we guided him into the house.

He was huge. Maybe 12 feet tall, give or take a foot. I swear, it’s true.

His boots were soaked and though we warned him to be very careful walking on the laminate in our front room, as I followed behind him, I saw his feet slip a few times.

Did you ever notice that instincts sometimes make no sense? Because there I was, walking behind this mammoth of a walrus-man who slipped slightly on my killer flooring, and I instinctively reached out with my hands to catch him if he was to fall. Uh, yeah, right.

As impressed as we were with the firemen and their light show, this fireman was impressed with our flooded ducts, which we thought were pretty lame at that point. However, this was when we noticed how much the water had risen in a very short period of time. Also, this was when I came to the conclusion that the house was starting to smell like camping. You know the smell -- wet, outdoorsy, moldy, musty, muddy, and a slight hint of decaying matter. All we needed was a canvas tent and a plague of bugs and the camping atmosphere would be complete.

The fireman told us to call our home owners association management company immediately to report the ruptured pipes because with the water still rising and the threat of mold in our ducts (which made him cringe), it needed to be pumped out and taken care of tonight. Yessir, we agreed.

I called the HOA managers and spoke with someone at an answering service who clearly was there to triage the calls before paging someone important. She asked what was going on, and by the time I got to the part about my ducts being flooded, I realized that the word ducts, when not properly enunciated, sounds much like ducks, but I’d already announced that my ducts were flooded.

She responded with an incredulous, “What?!! Your what? They’re what?”

Through laughter I reiterated, “My duck-ttttt-s are flooded. Not my ducks. I have no ducks. They are not flooded. But my DUC-KUH-TUHS are.” Who knew ducts had three syllables?

She paged someone at the company, who called me back around midnight.

This was when the fun ended.

I explained that we found our heating ducts in the floor of our lower level to be flooded with water and traced the source to the vacant house next door, which the police and fire department were able to get into and shut off the water supply to the house to stave off the flow.

She snottily said, “Okay, I’m not sure what you want me to do about this. It’s not really our responsibility.”

Me: Well, I was told to call you right away to report it.

Her: But how does anyone know where the water came from? I don’t really know what you expect me to do about this.

Me: Well, maybe you should call the police department or the fire department, who were the ones to break into the house and turn the water off. The fireman said to call you about the frozen pipes. Maybe you could clear this up with them.

Her: Oh, THE FIREMAN said frozen pipes? Well, why didn’t you say that? That’s what I was trying to find out from you! I needed to know where you got the idea that the problem wasn’t coming from your own house and who determined it to be a water pipe problem. I can’t just do things because you say so.

Me: *Sigh* SOOOOO, now what?

Her: I’ll have to get someone out there to see what’s going on tomorrow.

Me: Tomorrow?! I have no heat. The water in our ducts is three inches shy of flooding the lower level of the house and it’s rising about an inch an hour still, even with the water shut off. What would you recommend I do tonight? Should I go to K-Mart and buy a wet/dry vac and start drawing some of the water out myself? While I wait until you send someone out tomorrow?

Her: Oh. It’s still rising?

Me: Yes. And it’s about 55º in my house without any heat, and dropping.

Her: FINE! I’ll send out a contractor!

Me: Tonight? Is someone coming right away?

Her: Yes! I’ll call him now.

Me: Thank you.


The contractor showed up a while later with an 18-gallon shop-vac. That thing looked like magic to us. I had shop-vac envy.

At around 3:30 AM, he had sucked over 350 gallons of water out and we could still see the water level lapping gently against the riser in the duct. We were exhausted, we were freezing, and we all just wanted to get some sleep. The contractor left after making sure our heat worked and there was no gurgling and burping of furnace air struggling to get through water, and indeed the heat was working just fine. He advised we keep an eye on the water level and call back if it was getting bad again, but that the heat might help to evaporate some of the water. We thanked him and surprisingly he started trying to clean our floors for us.

Me: Whoa! No, no, no. You don’t have to clean the floors. We’ll do that!

Him: Nope, sorry, I feel I have to do this. I’m going to leave this house exactly as I found it!

Me: NOOOOO, do you have any idea how hard it will be to put all the dirt back on the floor and refill the ducts with water?!?

We laughed, but he finally stopped trying to mop my floors.

My brother and I agreed that he’d stay up late to monitor the water level while I got a couple hours of sleep, and then I’d get up and help my mom sort through the task of trying to get the problem taken care of in the morning. You really can’t leave something this huge in the hands of a woman on three anti-depressants, some narcotic pain relievers, and two muscle relaxers. She’s liable to forget what she’s saying mid-sentence, fall asleep, and wake up without remembering who she is. Because she was there while all this was going on, sound asleep, completely oblivious to the ruckus we made running around, yelling to one another from upstairs and downstairs about this or that, the lack of heat, the fire truck, the fireman stomping through the house, the dog barking like a maniac in my brother’s room, the contractor running the shop-vac for hours, slamming doors as he went in and out dumping water, furniture moving, and clean-up. She slept through it all. Drugs are nice that way. She wouldn’t have been able to handle it anyway. It was smooth as silk with her unconscious and not doing ridiculous things or trying to blame me for using tampons, which she claims is to blame for every water and plumbing problem our house has ever had. That’s how she works, and it doesn’t work well.

I finally got to sleep around 5:00 AM and as back up around 8:00. The water had receded some, but the house still smells like camping.

I’ve spent the entire day trying not to wring my mom’s neck because she cannot use her head and answer simple questions with simple answers. I think my brother got the better deal, staying up late, avoiding working with Mom on this stuff.

After some digging, I learned that the owner of the house next door is not a person, but a huge title company in the Chicago area, and the person who has played the role of “owner” is actually an attorney for the title company, and he has lied outright to us, our HOA management company, and is actually breaking building codes as I type this by sending a contractor out to vacuum the water out without replacing anything, and putting it back into the pool of rentals available. They are also not going through their own insurance company, and doing this all without any kind of regulation, out of pocket only. AND they’re denying that their multiple frozen pipes caused our flooding. Of course, the attorney had a contractor in the house at the break of dawn today, covering the damage so he can deny responsibility and claim that there was only a small flood that didn’t cause any damage to anyone else’s property.

And the fight begins.

Remind me to put attorneys and title companies at the top of my shit list.

The irony here is that I’m the one who saved that house. And they won’t pay the few hundred or one thousand dollars to have my ducts fixed because they were too cheap to keep the heat on during a record-breaking cold spell.

Wish me luck. Or send me an attorney.


Cat. said...

Damn, girl, you write well. This is funny to read, but what a huge PITA.

If you need an attorney, I know a couple. Get someone into your house ASAP to clean your ducts! That mold, once it starts, is invidious. Keep the receipts and submit them to the next-door owner, and go to the police and fire stations for copies of the incident reports. Document everything. You won't get it all repaid, but at least you're prepared.

Are any other neighbors connected to the same building? They should check their ducks...ducts...hee.

If you need a mom-sitter or dog-walker, I can do that. I can do hugs, too. K, I'm done being all bossy.

Rachel said...

I can't provide any help that you need :(
But I wish you luck on ripping that company to shreds! :D

Kate P said...

That sucks! Unbelievable. Go get 'em.

librarian nervosa said...

Arseholes. Good luck and I wish I could do something. :(

Shy said...

So sorry about your run of bad luck lately. Is your insurance company involved? They may advocate on your behalf to get payment from the other party.

Happy Villain said...

You rock. I wish we lived closer. We got quotes, the owner agreed to pay the duct folks outright, made us sign a waiver, and it's taken care of. He just didn't want to go through the insurance. Hmmm. And suddenly, a new family moved into the empty house today. They are noisy. I already miss the quiet of having a nice flood.

One of my many failings is I am intimidated by folks with money, probably because I know how much NOT having money holds people back, so we didn't fight, but we did get what we needed. I guess that's the bottom line, right?

Indeed it sucks, thanks. You know, I'm shocked so many people read this post to the end. It was so bloody long! So, thanks for that too!

Librarian Nervosa:
Just keep sending me the Tazzie email jokes that I have no idea what they mean, but enjoy them none the less. :) Seriously. Do we really speak the same language?

Yeah, our ins wanted to run with it, after we handed over our deductible (which I didn't have since I just paid $500 to the vet on Sunday). We had no money and no advocates, but somehow we made it work. Whew.