For Flooded Homeowners, The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

Sep 19, 2018

The closest John Nemeth could get to his house was about 200 yards. He had to stand in a neighbor's yard and look across the fourth fairway of his community golf course just to see his house. But the fairway wasn't its normal lush green. Instead, all he could see was the glassy reflection of standing water.

"And that water wasn't there when I drove across there," he said.

Nemeth and his wife had to escape on Saturday morning by driving their SUV across their back yard and over that fairway that looked more like a pond on Monday.

"That's our house there, you can see the water's up to the bottom of the windows. Maybe a little more," he said, shaking his head. With his palm facing the ground, he pointed to a spot about halfway up his right thigh. "So that means there's at least this much water in the house."

Nemeth and his wife are both retired from careers in the federal government. Him from Housing in Urban Development and her from the Internal Revenue Service. They moved to Wallace in 2013, but their house had not flooded in the past – even after Hurricane Matthew.

"I did not have flood insurance, because I wasn't in the floodplain," Nemeth said. "It's like, a 100-year floodplain, and they already had Floyd 18 years ago. So I'm like."

He shrugged. Nemeth said he thinks he will rebuild, something that he recognizes will eat into savings.

"Some of it will be covered through my homeowners insurance, and my car insurance. And some things will be recovered. But fixing the house, is probably going to come on me," he said. "And that's tough."

Floodwaters submerged N.C. Highway 41 east of Wallace so much that people could jet ski down the road.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

The worst of Hurricane Florence has passed. But floodwaters continue to damage homes across North Carolina. While homeowners can only watch and wait, they must also think about their first steps when they finally walk back through their front doors.

Before they think about rebuilding. The Nemeths will first assess the condition of their flooded house. A daunting task shared by many homeowners in the southeastern quadrant of the state. Experts say the most important thing to keep in mind when going back home is safety.

Be sure there are no structural deficiencies with the house, says Nathaniel Chaney, a Duke University assistant professor of hydrology. "If you left the main power on your home before evacuating, you're going to want to be very careful because of potential live wires in ponds of water," he said.

Then there's sanitation. Rachel Noble is a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences. She said North Carolina is unusual in that many homes use septic systems.

"The first real concerns come from trying to ensure that basic sanitation needs are met. That there's no returns of either sewage or septic waste up in to the house," she said.

Then starts the work of assessing damage. North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey said the very first call should be to your insurance agent. And catalogue the damage.          

"The first you want to do is take photographs. Take as many pictures as you can. You can't have too many," he said.

That will go a long way when filing the claim. Then dry things out quickly to prevent any future damage.

"Rip up any carpets or rugs that are in the house, get those out of the house, because they hold so much bacteria and mildew and that sort of thing," said Causey.

Causey added that it's important to document everything. Even those without flood insurance might have some things covered under their homeowners plan.

FEMA also has resources to help. And Causey said the department of insurance has people on staff to help file insurance claims.

Back in Wallace, John Nemeth says he'll tackle what he can one step at a time. He says the waiting is the hardest part.

"But we're safe, we're healthy, God bless," he said. "I figure God has a plan for us, and we just have to figure out what it is."