TRAVERSE CITY — Charlie Frye is haunted by vivid memories of his idyllic stretch of Boardman River rising to wash away the life he worked so hard to build.
Brown Bridge Dam breached a year ago today and sent millions of gallons of water downstream. The flood damaged dozens of residential properties, including Frye’s. He’s managed to rebuild his house, but the retired lineman, 93, likely won’t ever truly call it home again.
Frye worked for 50 years to create his American dream alongside the river. The water that for decades soothed him whipped into a raging torrent in a matter of minutes on Oct. 6, 2012. It washed away the streamside paradise he created with his own blood and sweat.
“It’s just a place to live,” Frye told his daughters Sharon Pierce and Jennifer Coy. “It will never be my home again. My home went out in two dumpsters.”
The flood and four months of struggles to rebuild the World War II veteran’s life are too painful for him to discuss, too traumatic for him to relive.Water rising
Frye left his house along River Road that day after someone called him about the dam breach and commanded he go to higher ground. He went to his daughter Jennifer Coy’s house a few miles away.
“You should see the river; it’s up so high and flooded,” he told her, adding that some of the emergency crews along the way told him to come back at about 5 p.m.
“He did,” Jennifer said. “He was bound and determined to go himself, but he couldn’t get into the driveway.”
His other daughter, Sharon, and her husband Tom Pierce tried to go to the house that day but emergency personnel at roadblocks wouldn’t let them through. They went at 10 p.m. that night with flashlights and looked inside the house.
What they saw would devastate Frye, they knew.
The next day the Pierces, Coys, nieces and nephews went to Frye’s house. He insisted on going along.
Mud caked everything and left three-foot-tall stains on the first-floor walls. Black flood waters soaked and ruined anything on the floor or stored in low drawers.
“I think that’s the closest I’ve ever come to seeing my dad cry,” Sharon said. “The house was just trashed.”
Decking he’d built along the river bank was warped up against the front door. Fencing he’d put up over the years and the railroad ties he used for landscaping were gone, washed away. The outbuilding where Frye spent his retirement crafting birdhouses and snowshoes alongside his wife, Nancy, while she painted and made pottery laid in ruins.
She died 10 years ago, but Frye had refused to disturb many of her things, Sharon said.
Luckily, the water flowed through his house but did not pool there, Sharon said.Cleanup began Oct. 8 with the help of Servpro, a water damage cleanup and restorations business, whose employees were on the scene more than two weeks.
For days, the family sifted through belongings. Frye was there every day helping. He found his wife’s wedding ring in a drawer.
“They make you throw so much away — books, shoes, clothing, sheets, and towels — because of bacteria in the water and sediment,” Sharon said.
The family tried to sneak things like water-soaked pictures and paintings to the dumpsters to keep from further upsetting Frye.
“It was heart-breaking when he saw all the pictures and photo albums kept in the bottom drawer of the entertainment center. I tried my best to dry them out at home and I saved a few. There were tons of photo albums because my stepmom was a camera fanatic.”
A representative from AMEC, the design and engineer firm that supervised the Brown Bridge Dam removal project came by on Oct. 7, 2012 to assure the family that AMEC was there for them and to tell them to save the bills for whatever they needed for the cleanup.
“So many people came by at first and then we never saw them again,” Sharon said. She kept notes.
A man came by four days after the flood to assess the damage and said he would contact her to go over damages with the family. She never heard from him again.
“The only person I remember ever going over damages with was a man named Josh who called on October 24 to see where things stood. He told me he needed a copy of all damaged items and an estimated value.”
Sharon complied and handed over pages of documentation.
Two months later she heard from an insurance adjuster in Kalamazoo associated with AMEC. He visited the house in July, nine months after the flood, to go over the property with the family. He reassured them they would be compensated. Sharon called him a month later and he told her he had her dad’s name in front of him and saidv he would call her with a settlement offer within a week.
The week came and went with no call.
“I called him at least 20-25 times and he did not return my calls,” she said. “The people who were flooded are just numbers to them. I think they should take these people’s lives into consideration and what they’re going through. If it were their dads, what would they do? It just shouldn’t take a year.”
No one who lives along the river had flood insurance and homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover that type of disaster, she said.
“I was mad from the minute this happened,” Sharon said. “By the third day I knew this wouldn’t be a cakewalk. It’s so wrong the way this has been handled.”
Frye had to shell out about $70,000 of his own money to rebuild his house. Today he hopes he gets some sort of reimbursement, she said.
It’s repayment Sharon isn’t sure will arrive.
“I want to believe this guy, but it’s hard when I keep getting put off,” she said.
Record-Eagle reporters made several calls asking for comment from AMEC representatives for this story. No request was returned by press time.
Frye went to some of the meetings for affected homeowners, but found no relief there.
One was so crowded with angry people that police were there. Frye was not interested in joining a lawsuit filed by river residents. He figured it would just cost more money, she said.
Frye stayed with Jennifer and Tom for about four months before he moved back into his “new” old house.
“It took a lot out of him,” she said. “But I tell you he was bound and determined this spring to work out in that yard, plant flowers and get everything looking good. He loves that.”
Never the same
When Sharon arrived late last week to check on her father, he was in a chair behind his house watching the river. The Boardman River, like an old friend, comforts him.
“The river is his life,” she said. “As healthy as dad is, I think if he is taken away from that river, he’ll die. To this day, he will just sit and watch that river. Nancy was just the same way.”
Now, Frye is torn between a house that barely resembles his home and the river he so loves.
“I love the river,” he told the Record-Eagle in an interview last year just three weeks before the flood. “It’s beautiful and always moving. It’s something in life you hate to leave.”