Cursed house: the smell of wet insulation

This is the second post in a series of personal stories about how my parents’ house has some really bad luck.

You know how scent is associated with memories? The smell of warm cookies reminds you of visiting your grandparents. A warm, salty breeze takes you back to that family vacation when you were a kid. But are you able to see something and then recall the smell? I can!

The summer after my freshman year of high school, my parents decided it was time to have some work done on the house. The first step was replacing the roof. Their house being old (like “parts of the original log cabin still exist” old), the roof was…rough. It had a rafter construction, so the roofers had to take the entire roof apart.

Before they could put the nice, new trusses in place, they had to make the top plate level. This took some Doing™ apparently, and they made slow progress. When Friday rolled around, it rained. The roofers had put tarps flat across the top of the house, but some water soaked through and damaged the drywall ceiling in a few places. No big deal—that’s easy to fix.

So then Monday rolls around. Both of my parents are at work, so I’m home with my sisters on a warm June day in the Ohio Valley. If you don’t know about warm June days in the Ohio Valley, they sometimes have pretty bad storms. Come the afternoon, several tornado warnings have been issued. Being the eldest child (and also a weather weenie), I keep my eye on the TV coverage. My memory is a little fuzzy on this point, but I seem to recall having to get my sisters to shelter at least once.

But the important part here is that it rained. And rained. And rained some more. Officially, Standiford Field recorded 0.86″ of rain that day. At my parents’ house a dozen miles to the northwest, it rained slightly more than that.

The tarps were still on the not-roof, but they were still flat. This meant that water could not run off and fall to the ground, but instead puddled. Slowly, water began seeping through the tarps. And into the house. Not just in one or two places like it had on Friday, but all over.

The living room. The dining room. My parents’ room. My sisters’ room. The bathroom. Water was coming in everywhere. (My bedroom and the kitchen were an addition and had a separate roof, which spared them). For the next few hours, we became a bucket brigade.

Everything we could find, we put to use catching the water falling from the ceiling. Trash cans. Buckets. Our sleds. The water became a steady stream in some places, filling up the small trash cans almost as soon as we could empty them. Meanwhile, severe thunderstorms still threatened.

Eventually the rain stopped and my parents came home from work. It was clear that staying in the house that night was not an option. Everything was wet and the ceiling was falling in the living room. We stayed in a hotel that night, and for the rest of the week. Then we spent three weeks in the basement of some friends. After six months in a rental house, we were able to return to our home.

All of the interior walls and ceilings had to be replaced. The floor (including the floor joists) in two rooms were also replaced. We threw out many of our possessions: books, toys, furniture, clothing. So much had been soaked through. High temperatures were in the 90s the rest of the week, making it oppressively humid in the house.

The smell of wet insulation and drywall is something else. It sticks with you. For years, if I saw a picture of damage, I could smell the insulation as if I were standing there in the middle of the aggressively moist house.

We fired the roofers. Our insurance company sued their insurance company. Life went on. But we never did the addition that we had planned.

Why I hate winter

Whenever snow appears in the forecast, I’m filled with dread. There are two reasons: 1) I hate shoveling the driveway and 2) people ask me “how much snow are we going to get?” I consider myself a pretty decent severe weather forecaster. It’s my particular area of interest, and I’ve given myself some practice at it. Winter weather forecasting is a whole ‘nother beast.

It’s not just that I don’t like it, or that I haven’t practiced (both are true), but winter weather forecasting is really more challenging. There are a variety of reasons — some scientific, some psychological. The most obvious scientific reason is that temperature matters. A three degree difference doesn’t mean much when the temperature is 80 degrees; the rain will still be rain. When the temperature is in the lower 30s, a three degree difference can be the difference between rain, snow, or some awful mix. Surface temperatures aren’t the only ones that matter; small differences in the low-level air temperatures can have an impact on the precipitation type.

Even when you nail the precipitation type, how much snow do you get? A common rule of thumb is that one inch of rain is equal to 10 inches of snow, but that’s a really awful rule. The snow-to-liquid ratio can vary widely. I’ve measured from 2.7:1 to 30:1 at my house, with the average somewhere around 14:1. With half an inch of liquid, the difference between the rule of thumb and my observed average is 2″ of snow.

Then there’s the psychological aspect. For the most part, people don’t care how much rain falls in a given event. Sure, ridiculous torrents like southern Indiana saw last weekend are noticeable, but how many people can look outside and tell the difference between .25″ and .5″of rain? I bet they can tell the difference between 3″ and 7″ of snow, though. Snow also requires more preparation than rain does. You generally don’t see grocery store bread and milk shelves scoured clean before a rain storm. The highway department doesn’t put in overtime to salt the streets before it rains. Schools very rarely delay or cancel classes because of rain.

Snow draws attention to itself. It’s the biggest prima donna of the non-destructive weather phenomena. The natural result is that people become very sensitive to how well a forecast verifies. Unfortunately, it verifies “not good” all too often. I suppose this is my way of saying “is it spring yet?”

Who’ll stop the rain?

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow (CoCoRaHS) project is really interesting.  It is a nearly-nationwide collection of volunteers who take daily measurements of the precipitation they receive.  I participate because my meteorological education has taught me that there’s always a need for more data.  The side benefit is that I get to see what others around me have received in the way of falling moisture.  The differences across small distances can be pretty large sometimes (although I suspect that is often due to a poor rain gauge setup), but seeing similar numbers can help you believe that you really did get that much rain.

Case in point: since Tuesday, my station has recorded 4.56″ of rain.  To put that in perspective, the average rainfall  for the month of May  is 3.93″.  On Wednesday, when I recorded 2.03″, I might not have believed it had other stations nearby not recorded very similar values.  Today’s 2.35″, on the other hand, was pretty believable on it’s own.  The lake that is my yard spoke volumes.

Last weekend, my wife and I hauled, mixed, and poured 3,200 pounds of concrete.  Why?  Because the walkway that goes from our front porch to our driveway sat lower than the ground around it, meaning when it rained, your shoes got wet.  I’m very grateful we got it finished, since when we got home from a friend’s house last night, our yard was a marsh.  Even now, over 12 hours after most of the rain has stopped, the ground just has nowhere to put the water.

The completed walkway.

Measuring nearly an inch of standing water in the yard.

Measuring nearly an inch of standing water in the yard.

Worms, worms, worms!

Worms, worms, worms!

As a result of all the rain, the Wabash River has gone from 6 feet to 16 feet since 8 AM Wednesday, with a forecast crest of 20 feet at 8 PM tonight.  At 20 feet, Extensive flooding increases. Flood waters begin to cover Stair Road located on the southeast side of the river just off SR 225 in NE Tippecanoe County. Low portions of Barton Beach Rd is flooded. Several river residences are nearly isolated by high water. River residences near Interstate 65 are affected by high water. River Road near Wabash Valley Hospital floods. Local roads begin to flood in the Granville Bridge area. River residents become concerned.