Charms of an Old Farmhouse: Basement Flood!

By Christopher Matthews

As soon as I saw my neighbor’s number appear on my office phone on the morning of  March 11, I knew what had happened: water in the basement!

Not ours, but similar

While old farmhouses have a romantic ring, and certainly have their charms, they require tons of work, patience and good luck, because many things go wrong, like water seeping (or pouring) in through a stone foundation — and not for the first time. 

After three major basement inundations in the first six years of owning our 19th century farmhouse, including once while I was in Italy, we installed a sump pump in the basement, a pump that automatically takes water out from a collecting pit to a safe point outside the house. And, for several years — along with no cataclysmic rains — the pump had done its job. In theory, we were covered.

Our (normally) reliable sump pump

Until March 11. Starting Wednesday night, March 9, a torrential rain fell over the Northeast until Friday morning, including several inches in Northern Dutchess County, NY, where our house is located. On top of two feet of (melting) snow, several inches of rain had also fallen the weekend before, so the ground — still frozen in places — was completely saturated. Flood warnings proliferated across the Hudson Valley, and many creeks jumped their banks. Still, we had come through the prior weekend’s maelstrom without moisture down below, saved, perhaps, by the rain turning into snow half-way through the storm.

Daniel Borlandelli's "Vendaval" (Denise Bibro Fine Art)

On the Thursday night of the next storm, we attended a friend’s art exhibit opening in extreme west Chelsea (at Denise Bibro Fine Art), where, both to and from, we were drenched by a driving rainstorm. I began to have an uneasy feeling about the house, two hours north.

Our neighbor fortunately looked in on our place on Friday morning, hearing water splashing down in the basement. Turns out, the pipe fitting on the sump pump had come loose somehow, causing the pump to spray water back into the basement, instead of removing it — Murphy’s Law in effect. He managed to jury-rig the pipe back on, allowing some water to escape. Later that morning our plumber came by later and fixed it properly, so that by the time I arrived from the City, only pools of water in low-lying areas, rather than a subterranean lake, awaited. But water was still streaming in at the base of the foundation, and the rugs were soaked, so my work was far from done. After emptying the 18.5 gallon Shop-vac over 30 times, the water stopped flowing in around midnight Saturday. Then the clean-up and drying out began.

We were by no means an isolated case; the local fire brigades worked round the clock over the weekend pumping out basement floods before boilers and fuse boxes got swamped. And even if our pump had worked properly, I believe we would have gotten some water below, due to the total ground saturation. In the end, we were quite fortunate, incurring no significant damage or expense (save a sore back from pumping and dumping).

Putting the short-term hassle into a longer perspective, our house is well-sited on a knoll, with good drainage, and our basement is almost always dry, except (thus far) in extreme rain events.  After our very first basement flood, our neighbor, who has lived next door for over three decades (and was related to the former owner), expressed surprise, saying that he had never seen it so high, and that he could count on one hand the times water had entered the basement, usually due to a gutter issue. Well, in less than one decade, we’ve already experienced several significant floods, only one of which possibly due to a gutter snafu. All things being equal, through the murky lens of our basement, the conclusion becomes obvious: we are having “storms of the century” with much greater frequency and intensity in the Northeast, whether it’s tied to long-term weather variation or climate change.

Expect a rough ride.

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