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26.10.10

A Texas Gully-Washer In Asia

I am frequently asked what the weather is like in Houston compared to Jakarta. I think perhaps there is a bit of wishful thinking that somehow it is closer to paradise than the relative monotony of life on the equator. Or perhaps folks think that I am having a difficult time adjusting to the tropical climate. Regardless the reason, they always seem surprised that Houston is much like Jakarta in many ways, not the least of which is the good old fashioned gully-washer.

Yesterday was a prime example. Along about 3 in the afternoon, the heavens opened up and there came a torrent of rain. There was literally sheets of rain that made dogs and cats look rather tame by comparison (or frogs and turtles, if you prefer). For the next three hours, there was little respite.

I was at the Ambassador Mall in Kuningan, while my girlfriend was literally across the boulevard in Setia Budi. She wanted to pick me up in the car so that I didn't have to pay for the cab to get home. Great idea, but as it turned out, it took her the better part of an hour to get across the street.

As I stood there, I watched as traffic ground down to a halt, and so it was for the rest of the evening. All across Jakarta, the city went into gridlock. Flooding struck in various parts of the city -- parts that usually flood on a regular basis.

After picking me up, my girlfriend and I sat in traffic for five hours to go about five kilometers...basically slower than the average person can walk. We finally gave up about one kilometer from the house and let the driver go home. We walked through the neighborhood until we came to the bridge over the toll road that serves the TransJakarta system. At this point, I had contacted my usual ojek and she had called her oldest son, and they met us on the other side of the bridge. Since my driver had grown up in the area, he knew the best route, which turned out to be not only dry, but almost completely free of traffic.

All seemed well as we pulled up to the front of the house. There was no overt signs of flooding in the neighborhood, which is one reason I had selected it. When I opened the gate, there was a bit of water on the patio, which was expected, but the area around the front door was dry. Relieved, I opened the door and stepped into an inch of water on the floor.

Though that might seem like a crisis, I learned in a very real and tangible way why Indonesian houses are built like they are. To a Texan, the houses seem very stark and bland. Everything is tile and concrete, with some rooms -- such as kitchen and bathrooms -- having tiled walls and floor drains. There's almost no difference between indoor and outdoor areas. Furthermore, Indonesians have a curious habit of putting everything up on low tables, so that the entire interior of the house sits about eight inches off the ground. There is also a profound lack of wall-to-wall carpeting, even in apartments. Just isn't done here. Now I know why...

During the rainy season (the last three months of one year and the first three of the next), it is likely as not to rain torrentially, usually for a couple of hours, but sometimes even days at a time. When looking for a new house, one of the first questions anyone asks is about local flooding. Obviously, areas of the city that don't flood are highly prized. One will usually ask older folks about past exceptional floods, as well. Areas that don't normally flood can still get whacked every ten or twenty years. Best to check the location of rivers in the area also.

As it turned out, five stressful hours in the traffic were followed by five equally stressful hours of bailing and mopping, BUT it could have been much worse, all things considered. With no carpet to rip up and no sheetrock to warp, the greatest concern was to bleach everything after it was dry to make sure things were sanitized. The front room was simply bailed onto the porch, and the bedroom was squeegied into the bathroom and the floor drain there. Nothing was lost or even damaged because it was all up off the floor, and the entire floor is tiled and the walls concrete.

The cause was two-fold: the sheer quantity of run-off from the roof caused a great amount of back-splatter onto the porch, which overwhelmed the drain and led to water seeping under the door and into the living room; the other problem was water backing up out of the floor drain in the bathroom and coming into the bedroom. So on Saturday, I will build up a dam of sorts at the gate to prevent the back-spatter, another at the front door and a third at the bathroom door. The addition of a gutter at the eave will carry run-off away safely. Finally, a rubber stopper for the floor drain when the bathroom is not in use.

The bring this around to the original point, Houston has had some spectacular floods. I have been witness to lakes appearing where an interstate highway used to be. I have had friends whose houses were flooded to the peak of the roof. I have also known many folks who have had as much water in their house as I did yesterday, and they lost a significant amount. They had to strip out carpeting, dry wall and clean and dry lumber to prevent mold and mildew. This sort of remediation has occured on mass scales as well as from things like burst water pipes in one home.

How much more sense it makes to have homes in flood-prone areas that are concrete and tile. It is completely non-sensical to insist on a certain aesthetic that is so out of harmony with the local environment. Furthermore, the concrete construction is far more environmentally friendly in that it doesn't kill off an entire forest to build a house and is cheaper to heat and cool, using the thermal properties of concrete to best advantage. A squeegie and a mop were all that were needed to do the same work as a team of contractors and thousands of dollars in insurance money. Oh, and just think of the savings on termite control.

Just something to think about if you are one of the four people left in America with enough money to build a house. Instead of fighting the environment and setting yourself up for enormous costs later down the road, why not change your aesthetic and look at alternative designs that would save money, improve health and lower energy costs?

Just a thought...

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