Weather causing unexpected, unforeseen headaches for homeowners
Jessica Wisniewski was sitting in her living room, holding her three-month-old daughter Harper, and watching the local news.
Her husband, Anthony, was upstairs working in his home office.
It was a typical, late summer evening. The kind the young couple imagined having when they purchased their modest three-story, four-bedroom home in Ft. Washington, Pa. soon after they were married in 2017.
They never expected what happened next.
In the span of five minutes, their lives would be turned upside down and that cozy family home would suddenly find itself on life support.
It was September 1, 2021. Hurricane Ida had wreaked havoc a couple of days earlier in Louisiana and the barreled northward into the continental United States. The storm was expected to die down over land – and technically it did. It was no longer a hurricane, but the storm still packed a punch. As it moved north, and then east heading back toward the Atlantic Ocean, the storm regained some strength as it targeted the suburban Philadelphia region and New Jersey.
Jessica knew the rain was coming, and kept an eye on the news broadcast, but initially wasn’t too concerned. She had just said goodbye to the cleaning agency who was at their house that afternoon who had left every room sparkling.
But then something changed with the news coverage.
“I started hearing them talk about severe weather in some neighboring towns,” Jessica said. “Then they were talking about possible tornadoes. When I heard them mention Upper Dublin, which is our school district, I called up to Anthony and told him he might need to get downstairs so we could go to the basement.”
When the news mentioned Ft. Washington, that was the last straw. Jessica, Anthony, and Harper went to the basement of their home.
Within five minutes they lost power. A couple of minutes later, the tornado was over. Anthony went upstairs and did a quick check of things. Everything seemed fine. The Wisniewskis thought they had dodged a bullet.
A few minutes later, it started to rain again. But this time, it was raining inside as well.
“We had a 56-quart storage container that we grabbed to catch the water coming in through the ceiling,” Anthony said. “It filled up four times.”
They found out later that a whole quarter of the roof was gone. The water continued to pour in. It destroyed their bedroom.
They went into their bathroom and the water was seeping through the recessed lighting in their shower.
The water was pooling in the ceiling of the bedroom. Anthony poked a hole in the plaster and the sheetrock to relieve the pressure of the water and try to centralize the leaking, but it was too late. Some of the water had already run down the wall cavity to the second floor and damaged their home office.
In the end, the Wisniewskis lost a roof, the entire third floor of their home, and a sizeable chunk of the second floor where the office was located.
“We never expected anything like this in this neighborhood when we decided to move here,” Jessica said.
And even though they’ve been displaced since the storm – living with Jessica’s parents about 20 minutes south – they considered themselves lucky compared to others in the neighborhood.
Three blocks away from the Wisniewskis, in a townhome community called Stewart’s Creek, every home was condemned. They had no roofs left at all. Not even the wood under the shingles. All the landscaping was uprooted.
The local high school and elementary school both had their roofs completely blown off. Ditto the police station and the township building.
“Relatively speaking, we were lucky,” Anthony said.
And they were. They didn’t have flood damage because there was no water that came up through the ground.
The same couldn’t be said for nearby Upper Providence Township where historic flooding destroyed 200 homes, or about 25% of the township’s residences.
Those poor folks waited two months – or are still waiting – for aid and assistance. As the calendar flipped to November, more than 500 people were still homeless and living in hotels.
Meanwhile, the flood insurance funds are held up by bureaucracy and some residents told the Philadelphia Inquirer that communication and resources from township officials have been scant.
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the township used GoFundMe to raise more than $10,000 for residents and provided them with a water tank, ice truck, a Salvation Army food truck, and several Porta Potties. But after three weeks, the township took them all away – much to the chagrin of the residents.
Finally fed up with the delays and being homeless, residents went to the township and sought information about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) buyout program, where the government will buy homes in flood zones at pre-flood value, raze them, and create green space.
But those buyouts take at least a year, if not longer.
According to the Inquirer, some residents have suggested the township engineer the nearby Schuylkill River to prevent future flooding. It would require a levee and a 30-foot concrete wall. The Township declared that unfeasible financially so those residents sit and wait and wait and wait.
But at least they knew they were on a flood plain, even if there hasn’t been this kind of flooding in nearly 50 years.
But what about people in this country who aren’t aware they live on a flood plain?
FEMA has maps in flood hazard areas to assist with the National Flood Insurance Program. However, with climate change wreaking havoc in many parts of the world, areas that were previously safe from this kind of flooding are now suddenly at risk.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined some of FEMA’s hazard maps and found that they didn’t reflect the best available climate science or include updated information on current flooding hazards. It has been operating on an out-of-date plan and it could take years to correct it.
According to the GAO, FEMA:
- Is responsible for producing and updating Flood Insurance Rate Maps and nonregulatory products to show areas of greatest flood hazards and help guide floodplain management actions under the National Flood Insurance Program. However, questions have been raised about whether its flood risk products provide a comprehensive picture of flood risk.
- Has flood risk products that do not reflect hazards such as heavy rainfall and the best available climate science. These products include maps—known as Flood Insurance Rate Maps—and nonregulatory flood risk products such as estimates of flood damage in an area.
- Does not periodically assess the usefulness of its nonregulatory flood risk products, which are intended to help communities increase their resilience to floods. While FEMA claims to have invested millions in this area, the agency has not assessed the usefulness of these products in increasing community resilience since 2016.
- Has mapping investments for fiscal years 2012 to 2020 that were greater where flood risks were higher but were lower for areas of higher socially vulnerable populations.
Because of climate change, this has created a situation where some homeowners who may have thought they weren’t living in an area of flood risk, now are, and FEMA hasn’t been able to tell them.
It’s created situations where homes are being lost, money is being held up, and families are being displaced for months.
As for the Wisniewskis, their homeowner’s insurance has covered part of the damage, but it’s not nearly enough. They hired a public adjuster with the hopes of getting more, yet they certainly expect significant out-of-pocket expenses.
They turned down federal aid because it ends up being a loan with interest, and they didn’t want to owe more than necessary after losing so much.
Now they’re just hoping to get back into their home in time for Harper to celebrate her first Christmas. But even that could be delayed because they are waiting on new flooring that is being held up by problems with the supply chain.
“But that’s a whole different story,” Anthony said.