The Finances of Flooding

The Finances of Flooding

Portraits of Recovery on Arlington Terrace.

Residents of Arlington Terrace and Fenwick Drive who were financially stable on the afternoon of June 25 found themselves homeless and facing thousands of dollars in repairs the morning of June 26, after floodwater filled their basements.

Although a map reveals the proximity of this neighborhood to Cameron Run, many of the houses were hundreds of feet from the water, separated by dense woods and a public park that made the creek an unobtrusive part of the landscape. FEMA maps indicated that many of the houses were not within its official 100-Year floodplain, which triggers a requirement to buy flood insurance for houses under mortgage. The duplexes of the neighborhood were built with basements, which makes them very expensive to insure. Two-thirds of the homeowners in the neighborhood opted not to pay for flood insurance, which could have cost them several thousand dollars per year.

With no help form the federal government forthcoming, evacuated families have been forced to do whatever is necessary to move back into their homes. For many residents without flood insurance, this has meant going into debt. This is how four families expect to cope with the abrupt need to replace walls, cars and the guts of their houses.

Marta Aramayo was going to retire from the Department of Defense after 26 years of working for the government. Her office in the Pentagon is moving to Indiana next year. Aramayo, who is diabetic and bears the scars of a pacemaker implant, was looking forward to living off the money she and her husband, Raoul, a retired photographer, had carefully saved.

That money has been spent.

After water filled the basements of the two houses they own on Arlington Terrace, the Aramayos had to spend all of their savings on the clean-up.

“Now I have to find a new job,” Marta Aramayo said. “I have to keep working.” She wept.

While Marta Aramayo must cope with an altered future, her husband must accept that he has lost a great part of his past. He had transformed his basement into a photography workshop with a dark room and four computers for transferring his negatives into digital images. “I put everything in the basement,” he said.

Raoul Aramayo arrived in D.C. from Bolivia in time to photograph the 1968 riots. He helped organize the first Hispanic parade in 1973.

A few faded, curling photographs have been salvaged from the Aramayos’ basement. One shows their three children at one of the early Hispanic parades. A black and white photo shows Raoul Aramayo’s father, standing with colleagues in the Bolivian Association, of which he was president.

The Aramayos bought their house in 1970 and acquired the attached side of the duplex for their daughter in 1986. They did not have flood insurance, but they did have sewer back-up coverage. They believe that for their house, and three others next-door, it was not floodwaters pouring through the windows that flooded their house, but backed-up sewers. Raoul Aramayo described running into the basement and seeing water churning up from his basement drain. He said the basement flooded completely in only a few minutes.

They are struggling with their insurance company, which refuses to acknowledge the possibility that a sewage or drain back-up may be at fault.

The Aramayos estimate they have spent about $7,000 for each house, plus $1,500 for each electrical box.

Raoul is still driving his car, which was flooded to the base of its doors. He said the insurance company considers it totaled, but he’s not convinced it can’t be repaired.

The Aramayos have no plans to try to finish their basement. “I’m just going to paint. That’s it,” said Raoul Aramayo. “I don’t know if this is gonna be a repeat.”

Six weeks ago, David and Meredith Heller had no credit card debt. Three weeks after the flood destroyed their basement, they owed $8,200.

“My wife and I kind of laugh now because we have one of those reward credit cards,” said David Heller. “By the time all’s said and done, we’ll have a nice trip out of this thing.”

Heller is the director of safety for a trucking association. Meredith care for the couple’s 6-month old son Jacob and 7-year old daughter Taylor.

They estimate it will cost about $60,000 to rebuild the basement and replace its essential elements like the furnace and electrical box plus the possessions they lost in the flood: washer and dryer, two cars, computer, camera, entertainment system, furniture and tools.

“I’m kind of a handy-man,” Heller said. “I could put the basement back together. I just don’t have the tools to do it now. They were all washed away.”

The Hellers stayed with Meredith’s father for over three weeks while they had the house cleaned. Trying to move back in as soon as possible and make the house safe for a baby, they said, meant they could not pinch pennies.

“The first thing you ask a contractor is not, ‘How much do you cost?’ It’s ‘When can you do the work?’” said Heller.

The Hellers bought their two-bedroom house in 2002. They did not buy flood insurance because they did not know they needed it. The house is separated from Cameron Run by Huntington Park, properties on the North side of Arlington Terrace, and by the street itself.

“When we bought the house I said, ‘Do we need flood insurance?’ They said, ‘Nope.’ I said, ‘Cool. Fantastic,’” said Heller.

Before the flood, they had been considering an addition to accommodate their growing family. They said they had no choice but to refinish the basement.

“We have the space. We need the space. We can’t just let it sit there,” Heller said.

The Hellers recently were approved for a Home Improvement loan from the Fairfax Department of Housing. The loan is usually limited to people earning 80 percent or less of the area median income, but the county raised that limit to 120 percent for flooded residents.

This means the Hellers are eligible for a loan of up $92,980 at four percent interest. The loan will cover only repairs to the house. It cannot be used to replace any damaged items.

So far, 31 residents of Huntington have applied for these loans, according to a Department of Housing spokesman.

“It’s a little bit of a saving grace,” said David Heller.

But Meredith Heller wondered how people in the neighborhood would cope without the Individual Assistance help from FEMA.

“Now it’s everybody putting their lives back together,” she said, “and when you don’t have any money, how do you do that?”

When newlyweds Geoff and Caitlin Livingston bought their house on Arlington Terrace in February, 2005, they were told by their insurance company that the house was not in a 100-year flood plain according to FEMA maps, so their mortgage did not require them to buy flood insurance. If they wanted it, it would cost almost $3,000 per year. They declined.

“The honeymoon’s over,” Geoff Livingston said one month after Cameron Run floods ruined the basement office from which he ran Livingston Communications, his communications and Public Relations Business. Caitlin Livingston works for Booz Allen.

The Livingstons estimate that repairing their basement will cost them about $37,000. $15,000 will go towards renovation and replacement of basic infrastructure including HVAC, electrical rewiring, plumbing, a furnace, air-conditioning and disinfection. They estimate it will take another $15,000 to finish the basement with wood slats, new stairs and drywall. Livinginston said it could take another $7,000 to furnish the basement.

“We’re going to make it a functional room again,” Livingston said. “There’s not a lot of space in those houses.”

The Livingstons lost both their cars in the flood, but comprehensive auto insurance will cover the balance on what they owe.

Livingston said they were able to put $20,000 towards repairing the damage by liquidating their personal savings, IRA’s and other assets. Family members helped with about $10,000. Livingston said they would have to put the rest, between $5,000 and $7,000, on credit cards.

“Believe it or not, we have one of the better houses,” Livingston said. “A lot of other people got it worse.”

He said “not one red cent” will come from his homeowner’s insurance policy. But he has not given up hope of reimbursement for the damage his house suffered. The Livingstons have already hired a lawyer. “It’s becoming very apparent there’s probably going to be a class-action lawsuit,” he said, though he could not be sure of the defendant until ongoing studies had revealed the flood’s cause.

More than three weeks after the flood, Kenneth and Bettie Warrick were still living in a motel. The Red Cross initially put them up, then the county took over. Bettie Warrick is in poor health, and she could not live in the house until the air-conditioner was operating.

The Warricks, next-door neighbors to the Hellers, had lived on Arlington Terrace since 1968. They had been paying for flood insurance since they moved in.

“Luckily,” said Bettie Warrick, who added that she had never seen the water level rise beyond their fence before.

Three weeks after the flood, they received a check for $8,000 based on an initial visit from their assessor.

The Warricks’ only income is their social security checks. Friends and family were trooping in every day to clean and strip out their basement and replace what they could in order to keep costs down. Their son took two weeks off work – losing pay - to help clean up the basement, which had been his bedroom. Their neighbor, Kevin Ahearn, had come over to install a new water heater.

“We’re gradually making it,” said Kenneth Warrick. “Hopefully, surely, but slowly … Everywhere you turn around it’s money, money, money. It don’t take long to go through $8,000.”