The wretched water began pouring into the basement in Kelly Sheridan's Timonium house over the weekend and didn't stop.
Frantic, the 40-year-old fundraiser and her roommate pulled off all the paneling on the walls and slapped buckets of Drylok Fast Plug hydraulic cement into four different leaks. Then they stood there with their hands over the holes, praying the putty would harden.
The water won, rising menacingly until it covered their feet. Finally, at 5 a.m. yesterday, after six hours of fighting the flood, they went to bed, beaten and bewildered.
"It happened so fast," says Sheridan, who woke up two hours later to start again. She stayed home from work yesterday to wrestle with soaked paneling, wallpaper and carpeting - brand new - in the basement. "One minute, the laundry area was dry, the next it was just underwater. We had to drop everything. It was crazy."
All across Maryland and surrounding areas, the relentless rain tormented and taunted weary homeowners. Some fought tiny trickles and some battled gushing streams that insidiously invaded their homes and their peace of mind, through cracks in the wall, down blocked gutters, from window wells and even swelling up out of the ground itself.
To a homeowner, there are few things as frightening as unleashed waters - the Insurance Information Institute says water damage is third only to the equally biblical fire and storm when it comes to property owners' concerns. A drenching rain, contractors say, will expose hidden imperfections in a beloved home.
Dayle Bennett says she was jittery all weekend as the rain continued to fall on her Rosedale home. She slept with one ear listening to the steady shower outside after noticing a small drip in a front wall of her home recently.
Sadly, her fears were realized - the drip became a full-blown gusher in the front wall of her raised rancher yesterday. The 58-year-old retired schoolteacher immediately moved a bookcase, dining room furniture and other knickknacks from the area. But even as she used towels and a wet vacuum to soak up the water, the carpeting still got soggy.
Then, going into her basement, her heart filled with more dread: A pool of water had puddled underneath her new $5,000 heater and air conditioner, installed just a week ago.
"It's going to cost me about $5,000 to waterproof my house," says Bennett, who was calling around for estimates. "You're just at [the rainstorm's] mercy."
To say it was a busy day for the hundreds of basement waterproofers, roofers, plumbers and gutter-cleaning companies in the area would be like comparing the downpour to a slight sprinkle. The phones simply did not stop ringing.
Employees at White Marsh-based Basement Systems - The FloodBusters started the morning to find 30 messages each on 15 separate voicemails, left by desperate homeowners over the weekend. By the afternoon, at least 200 calls were logged.
Angie's List, an online listing and consumer ratings system of local service providers, saw a spike in the demand from Baltimore-area members urgently searching for all businesses associated with water damage. Home Depot and Lowe's saw a rush on wet and dry vacuums, dehumidifiers, utility pumps, generators and sump pumps.
And when the rain stops, says Kevin Balliet, assistant store manager at the Cockeysville Home Depot, "the carpet extractors and carpet blowers will be flying out of here."
Bryan Plumbing, Heating and Waterproofing in Baltimore - a nine-person operation run by Robin Bryan Culver - was inundated by 300 calls by 3:30 p.m.
In almost every case, callers wanted someone to show up not tomorrow, not in two hours, not soon, but "immediately," Culver said.
Sandi Taylor, the owner of Class A Cleaning & Restoration in Annapolis, began running at 8 p.m. Sunday from Columbia to Prince George's County to Baltimore County and didn't expect to stop until about 9 o'clock last night. Using all the resources available, Taylor went from home to home pulling out carpeting, ripping up padding, pumping out water, and helping residents dry out their basements with air movers and dehumidifiers.
"I'm a little sleepy," Taylor says during a rare break in the afternoon as she sat in stalled traffic. "But this is what we do. I think [homeowners] are just really happy to see me. They're kind of overwhelmed. They're worried. I always tell my employees that we're grief counselors. These people are going through the stages of grief and loss."
Matt Kwiatkowski says he is as much a therapist as he is a field manager at Charm City Waterproofing in Rosedale. When water damage can cost anywhere from $100 to $12,000 to repair, homeowners are "distraught, afraid and upset," says Kwiatkowski, an eighth-grade teacher. "They're right at that same emotional level. My teaching skills are perfect."
Throughout the area, towels and plungers and sheer will were marshaled into service.
Lucille McCarthy, an English professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, started fighting the rising water in her Homeland house when she noticed several inches pooling in the drain outside the back door leading to her basement. Just as it was about to flood into the carpeted basement, she seized a toilet plunger and went at it with gusto. There was a giant sucking sound and within seconds, the pooled water cleared.
But meanwhile, on the other side of her house, the first floor wasn't as fortunate. Where paneling meets the floor behind a living room sofa, she noticed a spreading leak. "I stick in big bath towels, and when they get soaked, I replace them, go wring them out, and start over again," McCarthy, 62, said of her Sunday night suffering. She worked through half a dozen towels.
Alas, the torture is not over. Today could be just as rainy, with flash flood warnings in effect through the evening, according to the National Weather Service. But beleaguered basement owners can rejoice: Friday might be partly sunny.
That's too far-off and too late as far as Pamela Grant is concerned.
"I checked Friday night, I checked Saturday night, Sunday, 2, 2:30 p.m., I checked," Grant says of her basement vigil in her home on Old Pimlico Road in Northwest Baltimore. All clear. On Sunday night, though, she didn't think to check.
"The heavens opened up," she says.
She woke up yesterday to find 4 feet of water in her basement. Throughout the day, the city Fire Department visited her house with a tube to divert the water into the street. The flood already destroyed her washing machine, dryer, refrigerator and other personal items. The water level receded by the afternoon, leaving it just a foot high. But Grant was still holding off checking on a closet in the basement that held some of her finer clothes, a few photographs of her children and books she hoped to give to her grandchildren.
Estimating the damage to range anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, Grant says, "I have to laugh in order to keep from crying."
Sun reporters Rob Hiaasen and Brent Jones contributed to this article.
Tips for homeowners
Robin Bryan Culver, a third-generation waterproofer, says no quick-fix advice will solve the problem of a flooded basement right away.
Culver, former president of the National Association of Waterproofing and Structural Repair Contractors, says ensuring proper drainage around the house by keeping gutters and downspouts clear and the land around the house sloped away from the foundation is normal home maintenance. Without it, sudden downpours can become a big crisis and "there's not much you can do beyond the towel technique," she says - mopping things up as quickly as possible.
Some other tips, compiled from Culver and thebiglifeguide.com:
Suction off as much water as possible with a "wet-dry" vacuum. You may have to spend the night doing this rather than sleeping. To empty the wet-dry, take it into the yard well away from the house.
If you have a stone or poured concrete foundation, try to stop active leaks with Drylok Fast Plug, a fast-expanding, fast-setting hydraulic cement. It's available at most hardware and home-repair stores. Keep a 16-ounce disposable cup on hand for mixing the powder, filling it halfway for each batch. (If the wall you're patching is wet, add less water than the directions call for.) Fast Plug won't work on a block foundation, which is too porous.
Install a sump pump and, eventually, interior drainage channels. A professional can dig channels around the inside walls of your basement so that water will drain into a sunken hole, where a special pump will dispose of it outside. This project, usually effective, can cost $5,000 or more, depending on the scope of work.
The next day, your problem may actually get worse because water in the ground "may seep up to floor level" and leak in, Culver says. In that case, set up a humidifier and fan, keep them running, and "keep up everything else you've been doing," she said.