Water Loves Basements, part 1

A story of eternal and undying love, and soggy basements.

You might think of your basement as a cold, dank place full of spiders and old Christmas decorations, but your basement is actually the perfect place for water to hang out, and water knows it. Seriously, Water loves your basement... how could it not? It's an empty space surrounded by porous walls partially below the water table. While you may think you can keep them apart, you're probably wrong because water will always find a way, and when you're fighting against 326 million trillion gallons of water, you're bound to lose.

Sure, you might think basements are nice to have for storage, or as a place to keep your heater or air conditioner, but for something other than practicing ballroom dancing or roller skating they are not a great idea. They are the lowest point in the house, so inevitably water will collect in them. Add to that the fact that basements are full of pipes and water heaters, and you can see what an insane idea it is to put anything in the basement that can be destroyed when the basement inevitably fills with liquid. Water will always find a way.

I was introduced to this concept when I was 10. We had just moved into a new house, and there had been a particularly heavy snow. Shortly after the snow started melting, I went down the stairs to use my model trains and was amazed to see two feet of muddy water instead of a floor. I thought it was kind of cool and made some paper boats to sail on the new lake in our house. It wasn't until after the fire department came and pumped out the basement that the extent of the damage had been realized. We had been storing some boxes in the basement, still not yet unpacked, including all of our family photos (they were destroyed). This was the beginning of a long and largely futile struggle to keep the two apart. Sure, after reworking the landscaping around the house, we were able to stop the source of that flood, but really, it's just a matter of time.

In 1994, there was a series of January ice storms which changed the back yard of our house into a hill of solid ice, gently sloping toward our house. We didn't realize the problem with this until one night when it started raining again and we awoke at 4AM to find water pouring into the house and basement under a sliding glass door. The door looked like a fish tank because there was about 8 inches of water on the other side of it, with no place to go but inside. My dad and I went out into freezing rain, chipping away at the ice with a pick and shovel to give the water someplace else to go, but it was futile because the ice was too hard to break and the water only had one place it wanted to go. To the lowest open space around, our basement.

Flood Waters RisingIn 1996, while I was living in an apartment in Yardley, Pennsylvania, I was evacuated for not one but two floods: a river flood and a flash flood, which destroyed my car. This was when I learned that along with getting into basements, water loves a nice low-lying area, even if there is no basement involved. But if there is a basement nearby, water will try to fill it up also... during the flash flood, the basement of our apartment building had six feet of water in it, clogging up our heaters and water heaters. I moved out of the apartment to live with Mary in her row home shortly after that.

Living in the row home in the city was great because of all the things there are to do nearby. Being on top of a hill, I felt relatively safe from water, though I soon learned that water is all around, and just waiting to soak your stuff. First, a leaking storm water pipe destroyed almost all of my drawings from college. It had probably slowly dripped for months before I noticed that the floor next to my portfolio was wet. After having that fixed, I found out that being connected to other basements made our basement vulnerable. One day in the middle of winter, our neighbor's water main burst, filling their basement with six feet of water. It sent streams of water flowing under the wall into our basement and the house on the other side of us for a day before we noticed. Fortunately, there wasn't much damage as I was becoming increasingly paranoid about keeping anything down there. Then, one day I was cleaning the fish tank and a hose full of water fell out of the tank, starting a syphon which drained about 10 gallons of fishy water through the floor into the basement below, destroying Mary's cassette collection. Nobody saw that one coming.

Hurricane FloydShortly after that, we moved. Our settlement was on the day after Hurricane Floyd, when water levels at nearby Neshaminy Creek reached historic levels and came up to our neighbor's yard. No water came into our brand new basement, even with the broken sump pump, so we felt relatively safe from flood waters. Still, I was pretty paranoid about storing things in the basement and keeping water away. I installed a new sump pump, put everything important on high shelves and kept all my paintings in plastic bags to protect them. Every time it rained I would go down the basement, and to my horror leaks would spring from walls onto the floor, which I was able to deflect into the French drain with aluminum pans. The water hose connected to our refrigerator ice maker found a chance to soak our basement when our kitchen was painted. The workmen pushed the fridge on top of the hose, crimping it and causing it to start leaking a week after work had finished. Only a few gallons of water managed to get into the basement before we noticed it, but the leak was lined up so most of it poured into a plastic box of financial documents, providing us with years of fireplace kindling.

The water heater tried to show us another way water could fill the basement, but fortunately we noticed the leak in time to prevent the impending flood. Still for every time we managed to stop it, there was always something new we hadn't ever thought of. One of the weirdest ones was in July of 2006. It was a clear, sunny day and after I came home from work, we ate dinner. In our house, the washer and dryer were in the basement, so I was used to the sound of water running in the basement while we were doing laundry, so when I heard that noise while we were eating I didn't think anything of it. After dinner, we went to a nearby park and went for a walk for an hour or two.

Returning home, the moment we opened the door we realized that something was wrong. There was the distinct, familiar smell of dampness in the house, along with the now louder sound of the rushing water. I quickly went down the stairs and saw to my horror that water was spraying out from a hole in the rubber hose connected to the washing machine. It wasn't a small stream of spray either, it was spraying wide into the basement in all directions and with great force. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Quickly I shut off the water to the hose, but by then gallons of water had drenched most of the basement. The new sump pump did its job by keeping the basement from filling up, so the damage was limited to the area directly in front of the washer. Unfortunately, this area was my main work area, which consisted of two desks with all my mail art supplies, unanswered mail, collage materials, my mail archive, my iMac for logging in my mail art, my printer/scanner for making color copies and the television I used to watch while I answered mail. Behind the desks was the work table where I made collage paintings, my drafting table and on the shelves behind that was a library of books I use while working. Everything was soaked. Fortunately I had protected my paintings in bags so they weren't damaged.

I lost the printer/scanner and the computer, and most of the mail was soaked beyond recognition. Fortunately the TV was fine and my mail archive was a little wet but not badly soaked. The hole in the hose was only about 1/8", but that was enough for a lot of water to come out. Our plumber said it was a good thing it wasn't the hot water line, because that's much worse... steaming hot water which ruins everything it touches. He replaced our rubber hoses with stainless steel ones, something I never knew was needed.

the wet deskThis is the desk where I would answer mail. You can see how far the water went by all the wet things on the shelves in the back.

Once again, there was a whole new way for things to get ruined in a sudden and completely unexpected way. Still, these adventures with water were nothing compared to what other people have been through. I'll talk more about that in part two of this story...

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