Moving forward after the water recedes.
By Ryan Leach
Istood on my upstairs balcony and screamed at the giant trucks as they raced down my street through the high water, “Stop speeding down our streets, asshole! You’re pushing water into our homes!” It felt good to scream at them. Truth be told, I already had about a foot of water downstairs, and it was rising. In that moment, as yet another truck sped through the floodwater, I realized why people love their guns so much. It was probably best that I didn’t have one.
When water floods your home, it doesn’t come cascading through the front and back doors. It comes through the walls. It encroaches from every corner and point of vulnerability in the exterior. It pushes you to the middle of the room like a rat.
There was a brief moment, as the clear rainwater started seeping in over my wooden floors, that I thought, “Wow, it sort of looks pretty.”
The water eventually topped out at about 18 inches, or halfway up the electrical outlets. This is when the real problem starts.
Act II: The Body Electric
Once the water reaches your outlets, you run the risk of electrical current running through it. They say you’re supposed to turn off the breakers if your house begins to flood. I suppose I could have done this in between frantically moving my dog upstairs, trying to save valuables and furniture, collecting food to bring upstairs, and crying.
During the first night of Harvey, water flooded my home and then receded—three times. After the second time, I went to a neighbor’s house on higher ground. That is where I stayed for the next few days.
The first day, I called my family and my friends and my boyfriend, and I cried. I didn’t cry about the house as much as about their kindness, love, and support. I was truly beside myself. I cried in the kitchen while we made dinner. It was an ugly cry. It was not soft and quiet, but loud and painful. I couldn’t get enough air in, and I couldn’t get my tears out fast enough. There was nothing that could soothe me. I couldn’t eat dinner, and eventually I cried myself to sleep.
The next night, the rain came again. When the water rose to the highest level it had ever reached, my neighbor started to worry that his home would flood. I just thought about my home, only a block away, sloshing around. My trash can was probably floating on top of the brackish water, spilling out garbage. It likely bumped into my table and cabinets, also swollen with water. Maybe it floated into the outlets, causing a spark and catching my house on fire. The bottom floor would be flooded while the top half burned. That’s poetic, I thought.
The water subsided again. No fire.
ACT III: The Black Mold
Everyone is an expert on floods. I discovered that pretty quickly. My neighbors, my family, my friends—all of them were experts. Every time I picked up the phone or walked out the door, there was someone should-ing me. “You should really call ServePro.” “You should really do demo.” “You should really try not to worry about it.”
One thing they all talked about was black mold.
The terrible truth is that the flooding itself is a very small part of the overall experience. There isn’t much you can do before or during the flood. It’s the weeks and months after that are the most enduring. You have to stop looking at the flooded part of your house as a home. The water ruins it and everything it touches. It’s almost liberating, in a way. That yearbook is now just wet pages and a soggy binding. Trash it. The photo album that’s so old it was made back when people had photo albums is trash, too.
At some point in the future you will wonder where your shoes are, only to realize that they probably floated right out the door when you were racing to get your car to higher ground.
The house smelled like wet towels and swamp when I was able to begin cleanup. I had ordered in my mind what I was going to do. Pick up the trash, then dry up the sludge. Then clean the floors. Then pack what survived. This is all done in preparation for demolishing the walls to prevent the growth of black mold.
You have to first take out all of the sheetrock, about two feet up the wall from the high-water mark. Then you must pull out the insulation. It will be soaked, like a sponge. Pull out the cabinets, too. Take your home down to the slab and the studs, and then spray them with bleach. Then blow about 10 giant electric fans through it for five to six days. You have now successfully prevented the growth of black mold—probably.
Houses, you discover, are just glorified tents. There isn’t much to them, other than the emotions we project onto them.
After I completed the mold-prevention steps, and my house started smelling more woody than wet, I started to feel a sense of control and normalcy. By the time the fans were removed, I had moved back in upstairs and was entertaining a new insurance adjuster, contractor, or repair person on a daily basis. All I needed was money, and that just involves waiting.
It should be noted that my experience was smooth sailing compared to that of other people. Factor in that I had insurance, my house drained, and I have an employer who understood my predicament. Many people who were flooded by Harvey didn’t have these things to lean on. Floods are about balancing leaning on others and prioritizing your tasks.
You can’t pull the covers over your head, lest the black mold gets you. You can’t stop going to work, lest the black mold gets you. You can’t stop living—unless the black mold gets you.
Act IV: Dust to Dust
The checks from the insurance agent eventually arrived. I have not, in what is now two floods, encountered an adjuster who tried to haggle with me. Sure, they need photos and quotes to justify the costs, but they generally work with you. It never happens fast enough, but it does happen. The last phase of the flood is the rebuilding. If you are fortunate enough to be able to continue living at home, your personal space eventually becomes covered in construction dust. I started to develop an asthma problem, along with my dog.
But at some point, your walls come back up. I forgot what it was like to have walls until I had them again. They are comforting.
Then the floor goes down. Floors are luxuries, I discovered.
The kitchen cabinets are replaced, doors are put back on, and furniture returns. In most ways, my home will be even better after the flood than it was before. Everything that had been broken will be fixed, and everything that was old will be new.
But you are never quite the same after you live through a flood, or any harrowing event. This experience made me realize how fragile and fleeting things can be. Things, and even places, are temporary. I was the constant, however. I could survive and rebuild. People talk about how “moving on isn’t an option.” That’s actually not true. We all move on from terrible things. Time keeps moving us on, like a broom and a dustpan. The trick to overcoming the trauma is learning how to move forward.
Houston is moving forward.
This article appears in the October 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.