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The Flood of 2017 December 31, 2017

Posted by stuffilikenet in Photography, Uncategorizable.
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First, a little background:

Lois Ann and I moved to Greenville because we found the people so polite and pleasant, and for the considerable scenic beauty Indian Valley affords. We chose to rent [landlord]’s house based on the view from the back door/porch (no kidding).  Because we spent so much time moving the belongings from our large San Francisco home, we had boxes everywhere in the rental home and especially lining the walls of the dining room. Since our dietary requirements differ so much from each other, Lois Ann and I rarely share a meal and therefore didn’t use the dining room often for actually eating.  Mostly we stored things there before moving them into the house.  Critically for our narrative, we stored boxes along the north and east walls of the dining room. These boxes were fifteen gallon plastic containers (of which we have more than two hundred) and are (critically to our narrative) waterproof and odor proof.

Well, we hadn’t noticed that the carpet under those boxes smelled strongly of cat urine. We didn’t discover this until we had lived in the house for several months.  We kept the doors and windows open to enjoy the spring and summer (and early fall) air, and consequently a breeze moved any odors out before the could become noticeable.

Then came Winter. Winters in Plumas County are very cold.  The winter of 2016-2017 was also snowy and wet by turns, requiring us to actually shut doors and windows. We devoted our inside time to unpacking some of the boxes in the dining room and finally uncovered the smell. The smell was quite strong, so we cleaned carpets with our household carpet cleaner and complained to our landlady verbally for a few weeks, then in writing requesting carpet cleaning be done. She took no action for a month after our written request, so we hired and paid a carpet cleaner to deep clean the carpet.  He came around and measured the moisture of the carpets with a gizmo he had, and found the worst spots and tried to clean them. This involved saturating the carpets with strong cleaners and then drying the saturated areas with gigantic fans.  This is in November 2016.  Drying with fans during this time involves leaving the windows open to allow the damp air to escape.  The average temperature in Plumas County in November is often near or below freezing. We suffered miserable cold for three days.

Sadly, the carpet cleaning had little effect on the odor of cat urine. The carpet cleaner suggested that the carpet, IMG_20161108_114905 pad and floorboards were soaked in cat urine over perhaps years, and that the flooring needed to be replace entirely. His moisture gizmo confirmed it, pretty much wherever our noses suggested there was cat urine.

Well, replacing her carpet, pad and floorboards was outside of our budget.  Our budget, courtesy of the California Civil Code’s landlord-tenant law, consisted of one month’s rent which we are allowed to withhold in order to make repairs, or remediate livability issues [insert quotes from California code here], like cat stink.  California renters are allowed to do this twice a year.  Instead, we bought plastic sheeting and carpet remnants cheaply to lay over the smelly carpet. It worked, although opinions about the aesthetics are mixed.
Now, a little more background: 

We had beetles in the house almost since we arrived.  We complained about these verbally at first also, then by email and finally paid an exterminator when we had given our landlady a written request to do so without results.  This came out of the same November rent that we withheld for the noisome carpet.  As these are both livability issues, we filed a complaint with the Plumas County Inspector’s office (we complained about the mold smell at the same time, and asked for an inspection) which, pursuant to [insert California Civil Code] gives us certain civil protections (cannot be evicted for six months, cannot be harassed, etc.) from landlord retaliation.

As you may imagine our landlady became enraged and, given her self-confessed title of "Cruella DeVil", began a campaign of harassment involving multiple demands to move (in writing!) delivered by an embarrassed Sherriff’s deputy (during a dinner party) or pasted on the doors of the house.  Since none of these had anything like the force of law, we ignored them completely.

And then the atmospheric river hit the fan. On February 9th the rising waters from some very serious snowmelt flooded our rental. It was pretty serious and most people in Plumas County were affected by the highway closures due to flooding or road collapse and the frequent and prolonged power outages.  We were convinced at midnight that the rising water had stopped IMG_20170209_212158484 and went to sleep, but along about 4AM a neighbor let us know we were underwater. 

IMG_20170210_045141809 View out the front door at about 5AM.

I wouldn’t have slept through it anyway: the propane tank turned over and made a nasty scraping noise totally unlike all the animals whose nocturnal activities usually wake me. I looked outside and saw water, water everywhere. 

Well, the water came up to the bottom of the house’s floorboards and flooded the family room between 18 and 21 inches IMG_20170213_130755765 and up to the floorboards everywhere else with filthy pasture water and snow melt. It was bitterly cold and filthy, and I began to move our goods to the car (on higher ground) to abandon ship.  I called our neighbors Scott and Barbara, who rowed out to our house in their canoe at 5AM with coffee IMG_20170210_060415076

Scott and Barbara coming to the rescue

and helped us turn the propane tank over enough to shut off the gas, then helped us move our goods and cats to their house (also on higher ground).  They made us very comfortableIMG_20170211_192433372_HDR in their travel trailer and made us spend the night (and the next), and treated us like good neighbors ought, buying us a crab dinner at the Chamber of Commerce fundraiser.

When the waters subsided enough to enter the house, everything that could float had.  Dan and Sarah and Sam and Cassie and Scott and Barbara spent all day Saturday helping us clean up and dry out the stuff that could be salvage (a great deal could not be salvaged). The two grade school girls Addison and Abigail from down the street collected all the plastic toys we lost and carefully lined them up in front of our house. Dan and Sarah gave us some dry wood to get by with, since all ours was either soaked or had floated away.  The HVAC system in the house had been underwater (cold, smelly water) for 48 hours and was pretty much ruined, so we really needed the wood (remember, this is February and snow was still expected—see below, about a week later) to simply not freeze. IMG_20170222_071236971 We did try to contact our landlord at this time about the flood destroying the heater, and the drywall and carpet.  She never did respond.  We also tried to contact her brother (part owner of the house). He did not respond; in fact he blocked our number after we left a message telling him we needed to remove the carpets in the flooded room and the drywall, as the smell was pretty much unbearable. IMG_20170210_064505165_BURST000_COVER

Unable to reach either of them, we began to remove the odious, reeking mass of carpet, and the soaked drywall and insulation February 13th. We tore out the soaked carpet, using a neighbor’s trailer to hold the noisome mess until the trailer was full, then carted it to the city dump. 

IMG_20170212_154443155_HDR Repeat as necessary (it was).

It turns out there is a procedure that remediation people use, which was carefully explained to us by the County code enforcement guy. You test for moisture with a moisture gauge (from your larger hardware stores) and only cut when you hit dry drywall and insulation.  You remove the drywall and the insulation (because the water wicks upward, maybe forever) a little bit above IMG_20170213_130732716 your lowest dry reading.  And you document your work, carefully labeling the diagram of the room to show no extra was removed.

We did all this of course, except using a moisture gauge; the highways out of town were either underwater or washed away, so we couldn’t get one…and the place smelled awful. We needed to act quickly, and we needed help for all this, despite our neighbors pitching in (thanks, Scott and Barbara, and Dan), so we hired a pair of locals to help us out, at the reasonable rate of $15/hour.  They worked pretty hard and we emptied the room of soaked drywall, insulation and carpet pretty quickly.  We then bleached the whole room with Clorox and water, including the open wall areas, and waited for the whole room to dry using only the fireplace and borrowed wood to heat it (still winter, remember?).IMG_20170227_105209160   It took two days and most of the borrowed wood (thanks, Dan and Sarah!).

In the meantime, we determined that the most effective flood-proof wall would be some sort of wainscot attached with screws.  We bought cheap white paneling at Home Depot and cut it to appropriate height and started screwing it in place. The result was passable, but progress was interrupted by lack of funds (we withheld rent for this, and went far over $1100) so we stopped.  At least the walls were enclosed; but no trim was put up so our landlady will have to fix it herself.

During the several days this took, the folks at AmeriGas sent out a guy to help us put the floated propane tank back on its pedestal.  The ground was still soaked and his big ole’ truck got stuck almost as soon as it left the pavement.  Our neighbor Cassie pulled him out with her truck, and another neighbor used his tractor IMG_20170211_143716573 to upright the tank (thanks, Caleb!).


Not everyone was a cooperative as our wonderful neighbors, though.  Particularly our landlady, who did not respond to telephone calls, e-mail messages or Facebook messages (from us. She did respond to our neighbor, so we know she was capable of receiving them). When she finally showed up a week after the flooding (when we had nearly completed remediation) she refused to speak to us except to tell us her attorney had advised her not to talk to us. Hmmm.

Later that evening I checked my e-mail and found a message from her attorney, one Charles Simonetti. It threatened legal action if we didn’t move in five days, since she had served us with a form telling us to move earlier, despite the Civil Code’s protection of us as rent withholders (a form of harassment specifically prohibited by the code).  We didn’t ignore Mr. Simonetti’s e-mail; we cheerfully had our attorney call him back and carefully explain the finer points of the relevant California Civil Code to him.  His final verbal negotiation with me was to demand that we move or he would file an Unlawful Detainer, the beginning phase of an eviction for cause.  I carefully did not laugh, but told him I would reply in writing (one of my favorite delay tactics) and did nothing for a few weeks.

IMG_20170301_104718108 In the meantime, our home was a deep freeze. There was still snow outside until early March, and really cold temps near freezing with no snow for quite some time afterwards.  We did not have quiet enjoyment of our rented home, nor heat nor even any promise of action by our landlady to provide the necessities of “the implied warranty of habitability” inherent in renting out a home. Copy of IMG_20170228_123359921_HDR_soaked__sagging_ductworkShe did, however, finally “inspect” the flood damage and assess repair needs on the 28th (two weeks and change after the flood)—she came and removed her personal property from the crawl space under the house…no repairs made or discussed with us at all. The alert reader will notice the soggy, sagging ductwork…it’s completely soaked.  See how much it’s sagging there?  The strap is holding several gallons of water in that duct…which groans piteously under its heavy burden, like a fat man on Thanksgiving night.

Then other true annoyances began; the landlady began harassing us in earnest. Firstly she demanded that we pay the rent withheld previously to make livability repairs (both forbidden by Civil Code). Then she “entered to make repairs” again, but actually did nothing at all towards repairing the ductwork for the heating system (March 14), when the lows were in the low forties.

So, we reiterated our dissatisfaction with her lack of response to our habitability needs (and legal requirements) along with our next month’s rent, and asked for heater repair (it’s still pretty cold at night in April). We got no response at all, but she did cash the April rent check. Meanwhile, our attempts to negotiate with her attorney kind of fizzled out, since we were interested in being compensated for lack of habitability repairs, lack of quiet enjoyment and landlord harassment and he didn’t seem to realize these were the issues at stake, rather than our “unpaid” (withheld) rent. Ultimately he bowed out entirely.1

The very same day the landlady served us with another harassing piece of paper telling us to cease and desist repairs to the house, saying we would be held responsible for any and all expenses, blah, blah, blah.  This was well after most repairs were made by us, and before she even began to consider repairing anything at all (for her tenants whose rent checks she was still cashing), like the heating system.  The lows for that night were still in the low forties.



1 About three weeks later I tried to contact him by phone and he replied by e-mail (April 24th) "Please contact [landlord] directly.  I am not handling this matter anymore at this time, until further notice.  Thanks." From this I cannot tell if he was fired, or if he came to his senses and quit. Maybe she didn’t pay him. Perhaps he does not wish to be a party to illegal harassment, as the State Bar takes a dim view of unlawful actions by its members.  And then there are the fines; each instance of harassment can be punishable by a fine of between $100 and $2000. By our count she’s had fourteen actionable incidents, although a court of law may choose to differ about some of them. Were we awarded fines for each at the maximum rate we would be well ahead of our rent expenses. I bet Simonetti can afford more fines than she can, but probably is smart enough not to want to; after all, he did pass the Bar exam.