A basement flood can make a homeowner go off the deep end. But if you have a sump pump, there are some precautions you can take
Illustration by Katy Lemay
When Robert Frost wrote the lines “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,” the gloomy poet must have been holed up in a dry, toasty room.
That could explain why he omitted one other obvious calamity: water. When bucket-kicking time rolls around, I’m certain there’ll be a deluge of Old Testament proportions spiriting me away to kingdom come.
A household flood will do that to you.
I used to enjoy the sound of water in my antediluvian life. I have two fountains in my home, and the gentle purling of water rolling over rocks filled me with serenity. No more. I haven’t turned the fountains on since the flood. Even the timid drip of a faucet in the middle of the night can amplify into fears of nightmarish oceanic gushes.
Water may be the source of life, but when it appears where it shouldn’t, it’s a source of misery.
It happened on an unseasonably warm winter evening. A steady rain was falling, and mounds of snow were melting. Suddenly, the electricity went out. I checked outside to see if my neighbors were in the dark, too. They were. It could be a long, candlelit, inconvenient night — or a mercifully short one if I turned in early, so I chose the latter. While I was in blissful dreamland, something ominous was happening in the basement.
I live in an area with a high water table, so every house in my neighborhood has a sump pump. Because they’re powered by electricity, pumps go on the fritz during a blackout. That’s why it’s crucial for every sump-pump owner to invest in a water-powered backup pump, which turns on when the main pump fails. I have a backup, thought I was safe, and drifted off to sleep.
Shortly after midnight, I was awakened by the sound of appliances and clocks kicking back to life. Power was restored, but the sump pump was cranking nonstop. I went down the basement stairs to investigate. When I turned on the overhead light, I let out a string of hyphenated cuss words, gaping in horror at the scene: There must have been 10 inches of water, wall to wall.
Then I witnessed something bizarre. One of my Tommy Hilfiger shoes floated by, looking like a little white toy boat bobbing on the water. But where was its mate? Right behind the shoe was a vintage mercury glass Christmas ornament, but its matching partner was lost at sea, too. As I stood on the stairway, I felt like Noah on Mount Ararat, accounting for the Ark’s crew.
By morning, the water had receded, but I had called a plumber to find out why the backup didn’t spring into service.
He told me the switch was broken, and suggested a new backup and regular pump. Replacing the pair was pricey, but the simple advice he gave me was invaluable. Every month, he said, pull out the plug on the main pump to test that the backup is working.
There’s something else I learned. Homeowner’s insurance varies widely on water-damage coverage. Mine, which was somewhat ambiguous, covered only what was “attached” to the house. So I was reimbursed for the carpeting, drywall, and molding. But possessions weren’t covered.
I’ve comforted myself by realizing how much worse it could have been. At least it wasn’t sewer water. The power could have been off longer, resulting in higher water. I thought I needed a new water heater because the pilot light was doused in the flood. But after a drying-out period, I was able to reignite it. And my vintage Blaupunkt stereo survived. Thank God for small blessings.
And all of my sodden belongings I had to trash? Well, I probably wasn’t ever going to sift through them anyway. It’s less junk I have to contend with.
But my greatest comfort is checking my backup pump every month and hearing it kick on.
Not to mention finding my Hilfiger shoe’s mate.