Flooded house: Dreams get soaked

Ken and Heidi Vanderford had just gotten everything moved into their new home on North Berkshire Road. Tired from carrying, lifting, and unpacking, Ken decided to take a nap, contentedly dozing off to the sound of his wife putting things away.

Two hours later, their home was wrecked.

A flash flood poured through the downstairs not raging rapids from a river or from a hurricane, but a torrent from a collapsed drain in the subdivision. Despite extensive homeowner's insurance, the Vanderfords are, well, up the creek without a paddle.

Repairing the house could cost $20,000. But that's a droplet compared to the cost of preventing another flood. The initial estimate the Vanderfords got for fixing the problem was $100,000– more than half the value of their house. This is the story of crumbling infrastructure, and, so far, there's not much that officials can do to lessen the pain.

 

A corrugated river

 It was Sunday, August 3, when the Vanderfords' front yard began turning into a lake. Around 4pm, Heidi heard something give way, and then she watched in horror as a torrent like whitewater rapids poured into the first floor of the house. "I was afraid it was going to come upstairs," she says.

Monday, the first floor of the duplex looked like news clips from flooding in the Midwest. Mud was everywhere, and water was still in puddles on the floor inside. At the height of the 30-minute storm, the indoor water had "current and volume," says Ken.

The other half of their duplex is rented, and the Vanderfords' tenant, Wendy Scogno, who is blind, had to spend the night of the flood in a motel after the electricity to the house had been cut off. Scogno is pregnant, and Vanderford had watched her carry in bags of baby gifts the day before gifts he worried were ruined in the flood. (They weren't.)

He pointed to the mold inside a musty-smelling closet, damage from a month earlier, July 3, when a flood collapsed the parking area in front of their house, leaving two vehicles hanging over a crevice. He spent $1,100 to bring in six dump truck loads of dirt to repair that damage. "We thought it was a fluke," he says.

The culprit in these disasters is a 48-inch corrugated-metal storm drain that was put in when the neighborhood was developed in the 1960s and that runs through Vanderford's and his neighbors' yards. Vanderford is a plumber, and he says, "Any plumber's helper knows corrugated metal isn't going to hold up." But it was the common building material at the time.

Vanderford has appealed to the City of Charlottesville for help. And he's having a hard time understanding why public officials insist that he and his neighbors have to help pay to repair the storm drain, a massive neighborhood-wide operation that could cost between $400,000 and $600,000.

 

Natural drainage ditch

 North Berkshire Road is off Angus Road behind Kentucky Fried Chicken. Back in 1956, when Barracks Road Shopping Center was considered out in the sticks, R.A. Saunders bought an 83-acre parcel that had been Meadow Creek Farm and built a subdivision called the Meadows.

The Vanderfords' duplex is fairly typical of the neighborhood, with lots in the half-acre range. Built in 1969, it's one of the street's newer houses. They paid $166,650 for it in December, a little more than they wanted to spend.

"We're working people," says Vanderford. But they figured with the income from the rental, they'd be able to swing it.

Unbeknownst to the Vanderfords, their house and their street have a history of flooding. Frank Shifflett works in planning for the city, and he's been to the Vanderfords' house before. "The whole subdivision is a natural drainage ditch," he says matter of factly.

And while corrugated metal was a standard when the subdivision was built, it's subject to deterioration when salt is put on the roads for snow removal. Shifflett minces no words about its use as a storm drain: "I would not recommend the use of corrugated pipe under any circumstances by anybody."

A 1987 Missouri highway study found that corrugated steel pipe, although cheaper to install, had to be replaced one to four times during the life of one pre-cast concrete pipe.

Around the corner from the Vanderfords, that same corrugated metal pipe rusted out and collapsed. Richard Gibbs remembers it because his daughter was living in a duplex on the corner of Cedar Hill and North Berkshire, and when the basement flooded, water climbed "all the way to the ceiling," recalls the retired university policeman who's lived in the Meadows since 1969.

The city replaced that storm drain under its citywide drainage program, under which it pays 75 percent while the property owner pays 25 percent of the costs.

Vanderford is having a hard time buying into the idea that although he pays city taxes, he has to also help pay for infrastructure.

Jim Tolbert, head of neighborhood development, explains. "Essentially, the systems were put in privately. We have no easements, and we have no right to work on them."

There are problem storm drains all over the city that were either put in before the city annexed the property or were put in before there were standards, a situation that happens in a city centuries old. "We've got storm drain lines that run under houses," says Tolbert.

"Generally those are situations where the city did not have legal liability or responsibility for the problem," says City Attorney Craig Brown. The 75-25 percent program remedies situations that cause serious damage through no fault of the city, and "recognizes that they're big-ticket projects that if put on the homeowner, probably wouldn't get done."

"We're well aware it's a growing and dangerous situation for them," says city engineer Tony Edwards. "If it were in the public right-of-way, we'd be in there maintaining it."

Of course, the citywide drainage program that would cover the problem currently isn't funded enough to do so, according to Edwards.

"We're looking at that obstacle and what we can do to help them," he says.

Other cities handle the replacement of aging storm drains in much the same way as Charlottesville.

"Here in Raleigh, we have a 50-50 cost sharing on replacing pipe," says Danny Bowden, storm water services manager in North Carolina's capital city.

And one way strapped municipalities are funding deteriorating infrastructure is with a storm water utility project– a monthly fee to remove storm water similar to sewer fees. Charlotte and Durham already have such a program, and in March, Raleigh will too.

Still, even a city councilor has a hard time understanding why a city homeowner should be stuck paying for storm drains. "I've asked that question myself," says Rob Schilling. "It seems that would be the most basic responsibility a city would assume. That one is particularly egregious. We annexed the neighborhood, we gleaned tax dollars for years and years. So why aren't we taking care of that?"

"He's lucky he's in the city," says Councilor Blake Caravati. "The county has never done anything to replace pipes."

Caravati says, "There's a general drainage problem in that area because of topography." He estimates 15 to 20 houses throughout the city have similar problems and would cost $10 million to repair.

 

Know your neighbor

 Cathy Crosby owns a house two doors down from the Vanderfords. The collapsed pipe left her yard with an eight-foot fissure. She's asked the city to take the lead in organizing the affected homeowners.

"I have a big hole in my yard," says Crosby, "and if my neighbor doesn't fix his part, I'm wasting my money."

She's been told that 10 years ago, an attempt to resolve the problem fell apart when some owners refused to take part.

Caravati agrees that all property owners need to participate. If not, "It's a nonstarter," he says.

Meanwhile, Ken Vanderford figures it'll cost him at least $20,000 to fix the damage to his property. His insurance is no help. "If an albatross drops and crashes my roof, I'm covered," he says. But the flooding is not because "we're not in a flood zone."

He's got to replace the wood paneling and floor tiles downstairs, and he's relieved that while the wall studs show some water damage, they haven't lost their structural integrity.

Part of the reason Vanderford bought a duplex was for the rental income. Now, he says, "I cannot ask my tenant to carry her child safely into my home."

Scogno's baby is due September 19. Besides the expense of staying in a hotel for a couple of days, the front yard is still a mess where the steps collapsed, a particular hazard for someone who's blind. And although she's lived there for three years, Scogno is uncertain whether she'll be able to remain.

Worse, Vanderford– like many Americans– has recently learned of the dangers of toxic mold. If it tests positive, he and his wife won't be living there, either.

"We very easily could be bankrupt in four months," he says.

Caravati notes that the city has financed people in situations like the Vanderfords with low-interest loans.

On August 20, Vanderford met with city planners and engineers, who offered a plan under which the city would finance the first $5,000 of his cost over 10 years at no interest, with the balance to be deferred until the property sells. That proposal goes to City Council September 15 for approval.

Vanderford still objects to the fact that he's got to help pay for the storm drain, "but at least they're not saying I have to write a check for $30,000."

And he's looking for compensation for his ordeal. He's heard from neighbors that similar flooding happens every three to five years, and that 15 years ago, water came in with such force that it carried furniture out a sliding door.

"I am actively seeking counsel about whether information given to me at the time of the sale was incorrect or false," he says.

John Vallard Raham, the owner who sold the house to the Vanderfords in December, could not be reached by The Hook.

Ray Bloxsom at Hasbrouck Real Estate was the listing agent, as well as the duplex property manager. Vanderford says records show Bloxsom contacted the city about holes that appeared on either side of a brick wall on the property August 22, 2002, before they signed a contract to buy the house in September 2002.

Bloxsom maintains the Vanderfords knew about the holes, and had them fixed by their own contractor, but he declines to comment more specifically.

Responds Vanderford, "That's a crock. When we got here, there were no holes."

Since the flood, Ken and Heidi Vanderford haven't raced to mop up the mess. "We're terrified to clean up our home," he explains, "because it might happen again."

The effects of the flood on Heidi are Ken's strongest motivation to get something done. "She's more anxious and a lot more fearful than before, and my wife is a strong woman," he says. "Both of us become more twitchy when it rains."