Roanoke, Va., Family Stays Afloat After Summer Floods

By Matt Chittum, The Roanoke Times | January 6, 2014

Joel Kirby loaded his young stepson Seth into his truck in the rain and headed over to the mall.

“Despicable Me 2” was playing, and a movie on a damp summer night seemed like a good idea while his wife, Elisha, was resting up at their Roanoke, Virginia, home on Meadowbrook Road from a medical procedure.

That evening, July 3, was the last time Kirby, 34, would call that little Roanoke house their home. Before ex-villain Gru could save the day in the movie, Kirby’s cellphone was vibrating.

It was Elisha. The normally slender, passive Peters Creek had changed course, jumping its banks and running right down Meadowbrook Road. The house was surrounded, the basement filling up fast.

That was just the first of three times within a week that Kirby’s home and several others would be swamped. Nearly half a year later, Kirby and his family have not spent another night in their house. Neither have some others, though a few neighbors have moved back in.

Some may never come back. Roanoke officials have applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy several of the flood-prone homes on Meadowbrook so they can be demolished.

Kirby’s house doesn’t qualify for the buyout program. But no matter; he and his family have been content living with his wife’s parents.

“We’ve had so much time to be close to them, we weren’t really looking forward to moving back here,” he said.

That notion was far from his mind as he raced back home from the movie that night in July to rescue his wife. When he arrived, the water was a few inches deep at the intersection above his house. He left Seth in the truck and began slogging through the water to his house.

When he reached his front yard, it was well up on the thighs of his 6-foot-6 frame. Elisha Kirby was waiting.

“She’s at the door with this awestruck look on her face,” he said. He told her to grab an overnight bag so they could get out of there. Nearby, swift-water rescue workers were retrieving neighbors in rafts.

It took Kirby and a firefighter pulling together to force open the door of Elisha Kirby’s Honda CRV. With the passenger compartment filled with him, his wife, a neighbor, her baby, two dogs and flood water up to the seats and rising, Kirby cranked the engine and to everyone’s shock, got it started. He drove right out of the flood with water lapping at the hood.

June had been a soaking wet month in Roanoke. The day before, nearly 3 inches of rain had fallen, and that day more than an inch and a half. The next day, another inch and a half came down, flooding Meadowbrook Road again.

From his in-laws’ home in southwest Roanoke County, Kirby arranged for insurance adjusters to check out the house and the Honda on July 10. The car insurance man got his work done, but not the homeowner’s insurance adjuster. That day, the sky cracked open again, dumping nearly 4 inches of rain in an hour.

The National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Virginia, noted shortly afterward that such a deluge was between a 200-year and 500-year event.

And Meadowbrook Road flooded again.

Once things dried out and were cleaned up, Kirby, a chef for a food sales company, went to work on his house in his spare hours. The losses were major. The furnace, water heater and washer and dryer were total losses, and on top of all that, another $27,000 worth of personal possessions stored in the basement.

“Little league trophies, Christmas decorations, family pictures,” Kirby said. “Those are the things that break your heart. I can replace the washer and dryer.”

Because sewage backed up into the house before the flooding, Kirby said he was able to claim damage on his homeowners insurance, which has given him far more help recovering than his flood insurance.

He and his father-in-law, an electrician, have done some of the work themselves. They’re painting the upstairs, too, mainly to get it ready to sell.

What a buyer will have for a neighborhood remains to be seen. Roanoke City Engineer Phil Schirmer expects to hear from FEMA about the housing buyout grant. If that comes through, 13 homes, including several on Kirby’s block, could be demolished. There’s already an empty lot across the street where a house was razed under a similar grant a few years ago.

That matters to Kirby mainly in terms of how it affects the marketing of his house there.

For him and his family, the flood has steered them to a place they might not have gotten to on their own, or at least not so soon. He and Elisha and their boys, Seth and 14-year-old K.J., who wasn’t at home the night of the flooding, learned they love being near extended family and going to school where they live now.

As for Meadowbrook, “I don’t have a whole lot of faith that that FEMA grant is going to come through,” Kirby said. The neighborhood will stay largely the same, he expects.

“There was nothing wrong at all with living here,” he said, standing in his old driveway. On a Monday morning in December, with his house and a few others nearby still unoccupied, it was quiet, but then it always was peaceful, he said.

“This is an awesome neighborhood. It’s been a great place to live.”

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