That Friday (September 16, 2016) things were going well. The rental car was waiting for me. All I needed to do was load my van, including my bicycle, and I was off on my planned bicycle tour of the C&O and GAP. The tour is a fully supported bicycle ride from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. This is an Adventure Cycling tour that I enjoyed the previous year and I looked forward to doing it again.
The plan was to pick up the rental near home and leave my van at the rental place. They told me ahead of time that they would charge $5 per day to leave it there. It was a one way rental that I would drop off at the airport in Washington DC. The tour was leaving Washington on Sunday and ending in Pittsburgh on Saturday where I would pick up another one way rental for the drive home.
I transferred my bike and all of my gear into the rental and was on the road to Washington by 10:00 AM. At about 7:30 PM I arrived at the hotel in Washington and checked in. There was plenty of time to have some dinner followed by a walk around Crystal City. I got to bed at 10:30 and planned to take the rental to the airport before 8:30 in the morning. Adventure Cycling would be running early tour registration for cyclists who were going to take the National Mall excursion at 10:30. I didn’t want to be rushed with rental return and registration, so I wasn’t planning to take the Mall tour.
Everything went well in the morning: I dropped the car and hopped the shuttle back to the hotel. Once back at the hotel I decided to ride south along the Potomac River while the Mall excursion would go north. I left the hotel at about the same time that the excursion departed and followed their route to the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac before turning south.
On the Mount Vernon Trail there were lots of hikers, joggers, and cyclists. The trail is well used on Saturday. After a couple of miles I came to one of the features that I wanted to explore, the Washington Sailing Marina. I hung out there for a while and talked with one of the staff. There was also a sailor that I met as he was rigging his catamaran and getting ready to cast off the dock.
As I jumped onto my bike to head further south, my phone rang. My wife, Marne, was on the other end back home. She said, “I’m not injured or anything, but you need to come home right away.”
“What’s the matter?”
She answered, “The basement is flooded with about eight inches of water. I can’t handle this alone.”
Immediately I thought about the hot water heater being the source. It didn’t matter. The house water supply needed to be turned off.
I began to walk Marne through the process, but first she needed to get some boots or shoes or something on her feet. There’s stuff all over the basement floor that could hurt or injure bare feet. She couldn’t get her boots to fit. She tried mine: too big. This seemed to be taking forever. She finally found something that would work. Down the stairs to the basement she went with the wireless telephone handset picking up each step and the sound of water sloshing as she walked to the corner of the basement where she would find the shutoff valve.
Communication issues began to happen. I told her to turn the valve counterclockwise. Of course, the valve handle wouldn’t budge. We needed a pair of pliers. Did you ever try to describe a specific tool to someone? I tried to paint a succinct verbal picture of the specific pair of pliers that I knew would work. I described the tool box where they could be found. No luck. There were some other pliers that would be easier to find on a shelf nearby. She found them, but they would not fit the valve handle. All during this time I could hear the sloshing like someone walking in the shallow end of a swimming pool.
Now that we had the general shape of pliers down, I sent her back to the tool box. She found the adjustable pliers and sloshed back to the stubborn valve. The pliers fit, but she still was not able to budge the valve.
During all of this she was receiving calls from people she had called for help, such as the service company that would ultimately pump the water out of the basement. When she took the calls, she would hang up and leave me for some time after a quick promise to call me right back. I stood there tapping my toes with my mind racing.
During the final call from her, we went for a slosh back to the valve for another go. On a hunch, she turned the valve handle clockwise and managed to turn the water off. It was a relief for me because I felt that the basement was still filling as we tried to turn off the water. Marne confirmed that the running water sound had stopped.
We disconnected and I headed back to the hotel. During the ride I had time to think about my next steps. I needed to reserve another rental car and hope that they had one available on short notice. The hotel shuttle would take me back to the airport to pick up the car. The Adventure Cycling staff needed to be informed that I was leaving. There were also people who were on the ride and who knew me that should be informed of my emergency. I also needed to shower because I just rode ten miles and was covered with sweat.
All of that happened more quickly than I thought and I was headed home by about 2 PM. The traffic in Washington and in New York City was horrible and I had an urge to scream several times. In fact, I did scream several times.
In spite of traffic delays, I was home by about 10:30 PM. The service company had been there to pump the water out and install a bunch of equipment to dry the basement. They installed twelve fans to circulate the air and three industrial dehumidifiers. The basement sounded like an airport with all of the fans blowing. The air was being heated by the dehumidifiers to enhance the moisture removal and the air was moist and warm like a sauna. There was nothing more to do that night but have a drink in an effort to calm down and get to bed.
On Sunday morning we sat around the breakfast table for a while contemplating our event. It took a while to gather the motivation to do what needed to be done. Once motivated, we headed to the basement to tackle the items that were most damaged.
The damage was confined to the lowest eight inches of the basement. There was nothing stored on the floor, but there were many items that were not raised high enough off the floor to avoid water damage. Everything was raised enough to avoid damage from a spill or the slight seepage that we get with heavy rain. We have never needed to raise things any higher off the floor.
We started at the bottom of the stairs. We would haul all of the discards out to the back yard. The artificial Christmas tree was in a box that was soaked and it was among the first things to go out. There were two or three boxes of books that went out. We filled garbage bags with soaked items as we sorted through the mess. There were about 150 vinyl 33-1/3 rpm record albums in cardboard sleeves that needed to be dried out. The bottom halves of the albums were wet. I brought them all upstairs and stood them up in the dining room to dry. We mopped puddles and swept wet junk from the floor.
We were doing all of this in the intense humid and hot air of the basement. By the end of the day we were wet with sweat and we didn’t have warm water to shower. We had dinner and cooled off as much as we could before going to bed.
By Monday things were calming down significantly. The service company came to remove the equipment. It was a jumble of fans and large dehumidifiers with power cables, extension cords, and drain hoses crisscrossing the basement floor. After that was removed, the room was much less cluttered and we finally had room to work. The plumbing company arrived in late afternoon to replace the water heater. I restarted our basement dehumidifier and by the time we showered and went to bed the humidity in the basement had dropped by ten points. We are left with a manageable list of cleanup items.
It was important that I leave the tour. The mess was something that Marne should not have handled alone while I was absent for a week. She is more than able to handle significant emergencies on her own. She did that several times when I worked and was on business travel. This mess was exceptional and needed the full attention and presence of both of us. Still, as I was cleaning up the mess at one point I couldn’t help but think, “Right now the tour is riding past Harpers Ferry.”