Wendy and Brian Rydel's house is tilting.
An apparent foundation shift also has jammed the front door. Little boils around their cracking driveway are multiplying and burping up sandy liquid from below. Authorities are so concerned, they've banned traffic on the Council Bluffs street, which runs alongside the bloated Missouri River levee.
While many neighbors have fled basement-collapsed homes, the Rydels are pumping theirs dry and praying that the Catholic patron saint of desperate causes delivers them to better times. (Wendy tied a prayer book to a sump pump and scribbled: "St. Jude, let there be light.")
"What else am I supposed to do?" said the Bluffs native, admittedly at her wit's end in trying to save her home of 17 years. "Everything me and my husband have worked for is right here."
City officials on both sides of the river, meanwhile, are looking ahead to protect already-weary flood victims like the Rydels who could be vulnerable to fly-by-night fix-it crews swooping in to take advantage of the heap of jobs that will surface once floodwaters recede.
To be sure, there are plenty of reputable out-of-town building contractors and even unlicensed handymen who do good work. Sometimes they're the only way to get jobs done quickly when the local contractor workforce is swamped, said Steve Carmichael, Council Bluffs' chief housing official.
Still, Carmichael said, he's seen it often: "A slick guy comes to the door, offers a super deal, they get halfway into the project and the guy never shows back up."
Or the traveling firm finishes the job but is absent if a problem later emerges.
"I just can't think of any instances off the top of my head where an itinerant firm stayed put long enough to cover the warranty," said Jim Hegarty, president of the Better Business Bureau serving Nebraska and southwest Iowa.
Hegarty said he's seen local homeowners pay $8,000 to replace a roof that had to be completely redone by a local firm because the out-of-towners could not be found.
So as a "pre-emptive" strike, Carmichael is pushing for guidelines that would require visitors to the Bluffs to be licensed — a mandate already in effect for Council Bluffs-based contractors — even if the license comes from a different jurisdiction that uses nationally accepted testing procedures.
The visiting contractors also would have to prove they have $1 million in liability insurance and provide a $20,000 security bond.
Unlicensed violators face a fine and, upon repeated offenses, arrest.
Omaha currently is debating whether to implement a building contractor license requirement similar to those already in place in Council Bluffs and Bellevue. Chief building inspector Jay Davis began working on the proposal prior to recent flooding problems, but differing opinions between landlords and builders on the value and fairness of certain provisions have led to delays.
Property owners on the Omaha side of the river face much of the same type of restoration as their Bluffs counterparts, except perhaps fewer related to foundations, Davis said. There will be drywall and electrical wiring to replace, and mold to remove.
Though a license requirement doesn't weed out all problems, it provides a better way to track down companies if necessary. Today in Omaha, Davis said, it's "buyer, beware."
So far, neither state has reported a convergence of out-of-town opportunists, authorities said. But past experience after hailstorms, windstorms and other disasters tells them to expect that. Consequently, state attorney generals and the Better Business Bureau have issued public warnings and consumer tips.
"It's just a fact of life these guys are going to roll in," Carmichael said. "So do your homework."
Last summer alone, the Better Business Bureau turned down 130 out-of-town crews that applied for accreditation following hailstorms in central and western Nebraska, Hegarty said. The bureau won't sanction a company unless it has been established locally for a year.
Such denials, Hegarty said, have given rise to visitors seeking to pay small local companies "large amounts of cash" to use their name and local phone number to temporarily set up shop. Some traveling firms, Hegarty said, hire undocumented immigrants and stiff them on payday.
The "unprecedented" nature of the Midlands' prolonged flooding — which calls for specific expertise in structural damage, electricity, even septic systems — makes investigation of company track records even more critical, Hegarty said.
"This is quite frankly unprecedented for everybody, even us," Hegarty said.
Early estimates indicate there will be plenty of repair jobs.
In Nebraska, at least 500 homes and cabins have been flood-damaged in a dozen counties, said Cindy Newshan, deputy state disaster coordinating officer.
Iowa counted about 400 damaged homes in five counties in early July, said Lucinda Robertson of Iowa Homeland Security & Emergency Management. In Pottawattamie County alone, a more updated figure showed about 300 households so far reporting property damage, said Jeff Theulen, emergency management coordinator.
Many more properties likely are in need of repairs, said officials in both states. Not everyone with damage has reported it, nor are they required to do so. Once floodwaters recede and property owners can better assess damage, authorities anticipate increased aid demand.
"The number is a moving target," Theulen said. "We get more every day."
The Rydels, who live in one of the Bluffs' worst flood-impacted areas, near Playland Park, said that someday they'll heed the anti-scam artist tips. They've got to look for a foundation expert, replace drywall, deal with waterlogged carpeting, mildew and a widening crack between the curb and their driveway.
For now, though, they're still consumed with trying to minimize damage caused by the persistently high underground water table.
Wendy buys gallons upon gallons of bleach to scrub mold creeping up her walls. She uses algae repellent to keep slime from taking over her sidewalk, and frequently is outside sweeping away water.
She and Brian have moved most of their belongings to storage units so they can dart if the levee across the street breaches.
For others, repairs already have begun.
Jeff Coats just finished replacing the collapsed basement wall of his parents' Council Bluffs rental house near 29th Street and Avenue G.
Hiring a nonlicensed contractor can be cheaper, he agrees, but riskier. As an attorney and a general contractor, Coats said he has seen his share of shady deals and is pleased with the testing and license system Council Bluffs has had in place since 2002.
Contractors who play by the rules request building permits from City Hall, which triggers a check by city inspectors to ensure a quality job. "The best thing a homeowner can do," Coats said, "is ask to see the permit before the work gets started."
Others think they've yet to see the worst. Except for the two holes dug into his foundation for sump pumps, Denny Carlson of Council Bluffs said his home is mostly intact right now.
"But you pump long enough, something's going to happen," he said. "The question is, how you going to pay? People don't make that kind of money in this town."
His longer-term fear is that a winter freeze will come before the water table lowers, leading to additional expenses like busted pipes. "We ain't seen nothing yet," he said.
Neighbors Julie and Mike Starner have no interest in making repairs. They just hope authorities buy them out so they can start over elsewhere. They remodeled and doubled the size of their Bluffs home a few years ago, investing about $90,000. Now the basement is filled with 6 feet of water.
The Starners question whether the home will ever regain its value, given the flood history, and they fear it won't sell.
Julie said flood insurance was not required during the 12 years the family lived there. Even if they had it, she's not sure that "seepage" damage caused by the high water table would be covered.
She described the yard as a marsh pit. She fears that bacteria lingers inside the house, and that dampness will ruin the new cabinets and woodwork.
"Financially, this could ruin us," Julie said. "It's the thought of what all we have to do. There is so much."
About a month ago, the Starners and their three children left their home — as did neighbors, including the elderly couple across the street whose basement collapsed.
Brian Rydel has asked his wife of nearly 25 years whether it's time for them to go, too, but Wendy is adamant.
"Then what?" she asked, tears in her eyes. "I'm going to be starting over? This is my life. This is where we raised our two children. This is supposed to be our one safe place."
For now she'll put up with the bug swarms attracted to standing water, the odor that rises with the temperature, the friends who won't visit for fear the area is toxic, the expenses that are mounting.
Brian said the four-bedroom house at this juncture probably is worth salvaging.
"But who knows what's going to happen next," he said, looking out of his garage at the levee across the street. "It's bad — not knowing."
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