Rebuilding after the flood

Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Melissa and Carmel Johnson, sons Lee (right) and Tristan in front

A Pennington Bend-area family said the worst part of rebuilding a home after the flood has been the fear of the unknown.

“I am kind of concerned, especially after getting the first quote of nearly $38,000 from a contractor,” said homeowner Carmel Johnson. “What are we getting ourselves into? Who can we trust? Who can we not trust?”

Carmel, his wife, Melissa, and their 12- and 17-year-old sons lost virtually all of their clothing, furniture and household items, as well as her Chevrolet Malibu and his company car, after water reached the 2-foot level in their Penn Meade Way home. Since then, the days have been a disorienting whirlwind of removal, government paperwork, seemingly endless errands and a daunting price tag for rebuilding. To make matters worse, their decision-making abilities have suffered as a result of the disaster’s emotional toll.

“I’ve cried a lot,” said Melissa, who works in the hematology and oncology clinic in the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “I’ve got no more tears to cry.”

“We’ve both cried,” said Carmel, who helps the disabled find employment through his work at Gallatin’s Habilitation and Training Services Inc.

Because their house isn’t in a flood plain, they didn’t buy flood insurance, and their homeowner’s insurance won’t cover their losses. They purchased their home in 2000 for $98,500. Two years ago, they inquired about flood insurance, but Federal Emergency Management Agency officials told them at the time it wasn’t necessary.

The house needs new flooring, doors, bathroom and kitchen cabinetry, door framing, baseboards, insulation, drywall and paint. “Basically we will have a new house from four feet down to the floor,” Melissa said.

By Friday, their house was down to 18 percent moisture, but it must drop to 9 to11 percent before drywall can be replaced, Carmel said. Once repairs start, it will likely take two or three months before completion, so they probably won’t be back in their home in time to celebrate their 22nd anniversary in July. The family is staying with Melissa’s mother.

They’ve applied for assistance from FEMA — for whom the couple has nothing but praise for its quick response — and a loan from the Small Business Administration, and received the government-required declaration letter from their insurance company confirming that their losses aren’t covered. How did they know what to do? “Word of mouth,” Melissa said.

“We’ve been told so many stories that we don’t know which ones to believe,” Carmel said. “We’ve been told you need FEMA and Metro in there to make sure, before we put up drywall, that behind the walls are clear. We know we have to replace all of the light plugs because they were exposed to water.”

‘Overwhelmed’ by show of help

Sometimes the advice from experts and volunteers helping with salvage and repairs has been good, but secondhand misinformation has also caused them additional worry.

FEMA officials provided them with instructions on how to remove mold and mildew themselves, so they didn’t fall prey to companies asking $3,000 to do the job. “At first we didn’t know that we needed to go 4 feet above the water line to remove drywall,” Carmel said. “But then they said because the Sheetrock is easier to put in, and you don’t know when the waters were receding if they splashed a little bit.”

Fortunately, they have received some financial assistance from their church, Lincoya Hills Baptist.

Of course, the $38,000 estimate, as well as the total of any FEMA loans, will cover only the house itself. The Johnsons will have to replace all of their furniture, including a new sofa, washer and dryer, most of their clothes, a much-used PlayStation and the boys’ toys and sporting goods. What can’t be replaced are their wedding photo album, their oldest son’s basketball team photos and a lifetime of other memories.

“We are overwhelmed,” Carmel said. “I hate to say this, but it’s been a blessing because we’ve seen people pull together and work together in the neighborhood. The churches have been unbelievable. I mean, the faith that I have in churches right now — and not just one church, but all churches and all denominations.

“Honestly, that is what has gotten us through this,” he continued, noting that between six and 10 volunteers, many of whom the family didn’t know, showed up daily to help them remove waterlogged items and drywall. “People that I’ve worked with that I haven’t seen in years have called and helped out, just saying, ‘God bless you.’ People who have been through this situation have been coming out and saying, ‘Hey, we know what you’ve been through and we are here for you.’ ”

1 Comment on this post:

By: Oldasdirtguy on 5/24/10 at 8:21

Thanks, Ms. Keel, for giving us a closer look at what flood victims are experiencing. When we repeatedly read or hear 'they lost everything" and "they are trying to rebuild their lives", it means very little. There is no mental picture for most of us as a frame of reference. As a flood victim with only basement damage, I have some appreciation for what flooding recovery is about now. Your detailing the kinds of loss, the daily confusion with changing information and sources, the persistent depressing state of finding yet another lost item or memory or another line of interference in getting assistance or starting repairs helps to color the sense of what these people are experiencing. It gives me another chance to be grateful for my own life and realize that things could have been a lot worse for me and my neighbors. And it gives me a chance to see how some people really will come to the aid of others in their time of need, despite the predators and opportunists out there who take advantage of others' misfortune in these times. My heart goes out to the Johnsons and others like them and your writing helps us all to know we have a choice to join in an help out or to ignore the information. Thanks.