Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Horror of the Flooded Basement

Back in the twentieth century, I think many of us assumed that by the time we reached 2010, household disasters such as flooded basements would be dealt with by house-cleaning robots, or by miraculous self-cleaning and self-drying carpets, or would simply be a moot point because we were all living in flying cities or lunar colonies or something.  As it turns out, we deal with flooded basements in 2010 much the same way we would have in 1960, except that now we blog about it afterward.

Mary Lynn and I have been at war with our basement since we moved into this house.  The basement isn't exactly a basement; it's the lower half of a split-level section, and is about half underground.  The previous owners had converted this lower level into a master bedroom, and this was acceptable to us, except for one thing: the exterior stairwell.

Outdoors, behind the house, behind the split-level section, a concrete stairwell descends half-a-dozen steps to a doorway that leads into the bedroom.  We never really use this door, except to open it in the summer to let fresh air drift through the room.  The problem with this stairwell occurs when it rains.  Water flows downhill, of course, which in this case means downstairs, into the stairwell.  There is a small drain in the center of the bottom of the stairwell, but if this drain is blocked by leaves, the stairwell begins to fill whith water, and when the water rises to a level of about six inches, it's high enough to flow over the door sill and into the bedroom.

There have been several occassions where we have walked into the bedroom after a good storm to find that it has become a swamp.  The carpet down there is fairly thick (or, to be accurate, *was* fairly thick; but I'll get to that later) and absorbs all the water that flows into the bedroom, so we've never really been looking at standing water, just a thoroughly soaked carpet.  The days after this occurs are filled with wet-dry vaccuums and Rug Doctors as we attempt to get all the water out and clean the carpet as best as possible.

Just one of these floods was enough to encourage us to try to keep the drain clear as much as possible.  We're not always successful; sometimes we're not home, or just forget.  We went and purchased a small drain cover, a plastic cylinder with slots that is supposed to stand over the drain and block the leaves, so that the drain itself remains clear.  However, if the drain cover itself becomes entombed in leaves, then nothing can flow through it and we're looking at a flooded basement again.  Still, the drain cover provides more surface area that must be blocked, which means that a total blockage is more difficult, and we've gotten good enough at keeping the stairwell clear that we've been dry for a good while.

Until this week, when all of our preventative measures failed.  What appears to have defeated us this time is that a number of small trees and bushes have grown up around the stairwell, extending branches with very small leaves over it.  The rain and wind pulls down the small leaves, which are tiny enough to slip through the drain cover, but just large enough to bunch up in the slots of the drain itself.  The leaves, combined with the dirt flowing along with the water, cements the drain slots close fairly quickly.  Just sweeping the leaves off of the drain isn't enough to clear it; we must actually dig into the drain slots and scrape out the dirt and leaves.

As a result, we had two floods this week.  The first flood was about a 4 out of 10 on our basement-flooding scale; the water only spread out a couple of yards from the doorway.  However, this appeared to be one too many floods for the poor carpet; after we got it dry, it stank to high heaven.  It's been musty-smelling ever since our first flood; now it was atrocious.  We paid some folks to come buy and pull up the carpet and trash it, leaving us with a badly-painted (but reasonably dry) tile floor.

Then we had another flood.  And this time there was no carpet to absorb the water.  Mary Lynn woke up at about 2 AM, put her feet down next to the bed, and found a few millimeters of water.

In terms of surface area flooded, this one is about a 10 out of 10.  The water got into the bedroom closets, the corridor, the downstairs bathroom and laundry room.  Everything that was on the floor was soaked, and since we'd just moved a bunch of furniture around to pull up the carpet, there was plenty on the floor.  Which means that we are now spending our Sunday running around the lower level and dividing all of our worldly belongings into "dry" and "wet" piles.

Some investigation during the second flood showed us one contributing factor we've never noticed before; on the exterior of the house, at ground level, on a wall facing the stairwell, there is something like an air vent or grate.  During the rainstorm - in fact, even after the storm had ended - there was water gushing out of this vent.  I have absolutely no idea where this water is coming from.  Mary Lynn believes it's coming from a crawlspace under our living room, which is filling with water that seeps out of the sodden earth.  If that's true, then there's an unseen subterranean chamber under our living room that must be positively brimming with water after a good hard rain.  Who knows what else is down there?  Skeletons of Prohibition gangsters?  Deep Ones?

This isn't going to be cheap.  We'll need an expert to come by and figure out this whole situation and propose a workable alternative.  And in the short term we're going to have to be double-plus vigilant as regards the stairwell drain; we'll need to start checking it hourly or so during a rainstorm to make sure it doesn't clog.  I've hacked out all the little trees and bushes that had sprung up around the stairwell, and that should cut down on the fallen leaves, but at this point we have to be ready for anything.

All in all, it's a good house.  999 days out of 1000, it's good to be here.  But on that thousandth day, it's no fun at all.