Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Buildings, Floods and Risk Tolerance

Our first house was on the Passaic river. We purchased it knowing it was likely we'd have water in the basement on occasion and that we'd need to have flood insurance. We were young and felt quite invulnerable.

In the 17 years we lived in that house, we had 2 floods where between 1 and 2 feet of water filled the basement. By the second flood, we kept nothing of value down there. Flood insurance costs over the period more than tripled from around $800/year to more than $2500/year. We made only one claim for $1600 after the first flood in all that time.

When buying our second house, we made sure we were not in a flood zone. The Sudbury river runs through the town, however, and cut off parts of the town for over a week in April 2010.

I told this history to explain why I was so amazed at the destruction and rebuilding happening on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where we spent our recent vacation.

We stayed in a lovely house with 4 other families. It was just across the road from the beach. From the top floor we could see the ocean out the front windows and the bay out the back.

The house we stayed in sat in a swamp near where there had been an ocean breakthrough in a recent storm.

The house 2 doors down to the right was tilted and condemned. The third house to the left had no ground left underneath it. The supports that held it up were in a swamp. Its pool sat unevenly and was filled with swampy water. Surprisingly, there was a FOR SALE sign in front of that house.

Notice the swampy pool and house standing in water.

Across the road on the beach, a family camped in their house with no water or electricity that had lost its first floor. Each day the owner worked to replace it. The stairs to the house were not complete. The inhabitants carried up their supplies on a ladder to the first stair platform.

Notice the ladders up to the stair landing.
When I took my morning walks I saw many damaged, abandoned houses. I also saw many that had been rebuilt even though water came up under them at high tide.

The orange and white sign on this house gave spa rules, but the hot tub was gone.

My husband found this video that showed the storm damage that had occurred in August 2011. The area we stayed last week is shown starting at 4 mins 50 seconds. The house that I show above without stairs is currently the last house on the this section of beach. In the video there are 2 more houses farther along that no longer exist. You can see one of them very well in its precarious position at 7 mins 30 seconds.

As I walked along the beach early each morning I pondered, "How do people buy here? Why do they rebuild when they've watched houses next to theirs fall into the surf?" I thought about the rising sea level and stronger storms expected as our climate changes. It made me so anxious.

Then I thought about how much my family enjoyed coming to these Outer Banks beaches, how the kids (and adults) loved playing in the warm surf. I thought about how much fun we have spending time here with a large group of friends. What if I were willing to take more risks? There are owners here who take the risk and get to live in this vacation paradise. They don't vacation here for a week. They get to walk the beach any day of the year. But they take great chances.

In my life, I often feel like I'm preparing for the worst. I'm insuring against a dangerous future rather than living well in the present. I doubt I could change so much that I could buy a flood prone beach house, but I'd like to take more chances, fret less, and have more fun. Seeing how people in precarious situations move forward is an example to challenge me.


Kaat at MamaStories said...

this leaves a lot to ponder, especially "In my life, I often feel like I'm preparing for the worst. I'm insuring against a dangerous future rather than living well in the present".

In the meantime, have you read Williams Carlos Williams' Asphodel, that Greenly Flower? (

The whole world
became my garden!
But the sea
which no one tends
is also a garden

Tiffany said...

Hi Andrea!!

Thank you for your recent comments!

I have been enjoying my summer so much! Sounds like you all had a great time away too!

Living in the moment without fear and being wise about our circumstances and safety is challenging isn't it?

Hope you are doing well!

Kaat at MamaStories said...

Wendell Berry: "Be joyful even though you have considered all the facts."

It's possible, I think, living well in the present while preparing for the worst. Not all the time, but who can be happy all the time?

And our preparations are to ensure our continued happiness later, so it's best to make those preps in a happy spirit, happily.

Others are already in that future, treading water. They can't prepare. They can't be happy. Ever.