Still Home

Family undaunted by fire and flood

Robert Clark

“Home is where the heart is” is a common adage stitched on pillows and painted on plaques. However, Elizabeth and Scott Barber and their three children live that cliché expression. They lost their house to a fire only to experience the October 2015 flood 14 months later. Yet they remain focused on creating a beautiful, safe and comfortable environment for their family –– no matter how long the actual structure lasts.

“I don’t hold tight to material things anymore,” says Elizabeth. “We count our blessings that no one was hurt and realize God’s hand on our lives. Yes, I was sentimental over some things, like all the saved baby clothes that I sewed. But really, that’s a first-world problem.”

The Barbers moved into their Quail Lane home in 2012. The brick ranch, built more than 50 years ago, was not unlike others in the neighborhood. The couple purchased it from the original owner and began to oversee update projects. They remodeled the kitchen as well as the master bath and updated other touches. Two years later, on Aug. 17, 2014 –– a date Elizabeth says she will never forget –– the family was preparing backpacks and laying out school clothes in preparation for the next day’s school start at Brennen Elementary School. Their youngest of three was entering kindergarten. “I was looking forward to having them all at the same school,” she says. 

One of the home’s updates included converting a carport into a screened-in porch, which had a storage room where they housed an extra refrigerator. That afternoon, they heard: “Boom!”

“It sounded like an explosion,” says Elizabeth. “We looked and flames were coming out of the storage room.” 

She says that what happened next was, not surprisingly, utter chaos. Scott called 911, grabbed the garden hose and attempted to douse the fire. Elizabeth took the children and dog across the street and ran back to begin pulling portraits of the children off the wall; she also managed to grab the children’s school backpacks. However, the flames quickly spread to the attic and engulfed the house. The family stood across the street, in tears, and watched firemen extinguish the flames. 

It was determined that the fire was started by an overload on the surge protector. According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI), a fire can result if “the power strip serves high-voltage items that are not intended to be plugged into ancillary power sources, such as refrigerators, microwaves or space heaters.” The Barbers, like so many homeowners, were unaware of this information. 

But they were safe, and the family was immediately cared for by neighbors. Since Scott ran outside barefoot, he did not even have one pair of shoes. Within a few hours, he and the rest of the family had clothing items — and the children were given new, first-day-of-school outfits. 

The City of Columbia firemen, who Elizabeth says were “wonderful,” managed to salvage family silver pieces and jewelry. Although the brick structure of the house still stood, the interior was burned beyond repair. 

The few saved pieces were put into a Mobile Attic, and the family moved in temporarily with Elizabeth’s parents, Ivey and Dicky Bouknight, who also live in Columbia. They later rented a tiny home at the beginning of October 2014 and lived out of boxes with few luxuries. “We call it our minimal year,” says Elizabeth. 

The Barbers decided they wanted to stay on Quail Lane, so they began the process of redesigning and rebuilding their home. Since they had already undergone a recent kitchen renovation process, they decided — with a few alterations —  that they would stick to a similar layout as well as materials for their new home’s kitchen. The style of the home, such as the flow, would be different, however. They hired Columbia architect, Robin Brackett, to design a 3,150-sqaure-foot Lowcountry-style, two-story home with a spacious entryway and openness to a dining room, butler’s pantry, kitchen, keeping room and family room. Elizabeth, a seamstress, desired a separate space in which to sew; the room is a combined laundry, ironing and sewing room off the kitchen. The master is downstairs, while the three children’s rooms are upstairs as well as a “hangout” room at the open landing of the staircase that provides a gathering place for the children to play games and watch television. There is also a screened-in porch that overlooks the backyard. 

Before construction could begin, the burned home had to be carried off dump truck by dump truck. Then, 80 truck-loads of sand were brought in to establish a new foundation. Per the mandates of the area’s flood zone requirements (even though the original home did not meet these specifications), and at the urging of the builder, Bruce Walker of South Bridge Properties & Construction, Inc., the home’s foundation was built two feet above the base flood elevation. In fact, he insisted on a further elevation of three more brick rows in height, amounting to another 8 inches. That detail would ultimately save their home from a future destruction. 

In a year, the home was nearing completion. The Barber’s lease ended on their rental home, and they moved back in with Elizabeth’s parents as the finishing touches were being made to their Quail Lane home. That was October 2015. 

Early in the morning of Sunday, Oct. 4, the phone rang and woke up Scott. “Whenever there is an early morning call,” says Elizabeth, “it’s not good news.” Neighbors were calling to let the couple know their neighborhood was flooding. Gills Creek had surged water into the canal that runs to Lake Katherine; that canal was situated at the end of Portebello Road, right behind Quail Lane. Initially, they were unable to get to their home because of the rising flood waters. Residents were taking refuge on second floors and were rescued in fishing boats. “It was surreal,” says Elizabeth. 

The flood destroyed homes around them and filled their Mobile Attic, ruining some of the items saved from the fire. However, the water came within a fraction of an inch from the floorboards of their new home. The extra height insisted on by Bruce was the saving grace. 

“When our house was being built, it was so much taller than the other houses in the neighborhood,” says Elizabeth, “but now, after the flood, there are many houses that have been raised up.”

To dry up moisture collected under the house, fans had to run constantly for several days after the water receded. Bruce waited for appropriate readings on moisture levels before finishing the white oak hardwood floors. 

Another blessing was that Bruce thought to put all the duct work in the ceiling instead of under the house. Nothing about the house needed replacing or repairing after the flood. 

Ironically, the couple had ordered upholstery for their new home from Forest Lake Fabrics, which garnered much media attention because of the devastating effects of the flood on the business. The Barber’s upholstery was in the shop awaiting pick up, however it was ruined as Gills Creek roared through the back of the store. The flood took finished upholstery and bolts of fabric with it through the front door, across Forest Drive and through flooded woods. “And now look at their new store!” Elizabeth exclaims.

Once again, during and immediately after the flood, the Barbers felt comforted and supported by neighbors. “This whole neighborhood really bonded after the flood,” says Elizabeth. “We met neighbors we had not known before.” 

She adds that both the experience with the fire and the close call of the flood taught her family not only to hold loosely to possessions, but to also look around and reach out to others in need. 

The children, she has observed, seem remarkably unscathed — and they have been enjoying their new home since they moved in Nov. 13, 2015. There are some mementos from pre-fire/pre-flood. Two child-sized dining chairs, saved from the fire, were matched with a third, and they surround a table that Elizabeth’s father, a woodworker, made. Her father also fashioned a wooden countertop for the butler’s pantry. Art that hung in the old house was recreated by the three children, while the saved portraits of the children also have their places. Bricks from the old house were distressed and now decorate the fireplace facade. 

Since the couple had to replace almost all of the furnishings, they looked to local spots such as Meeting Street Interiors, Mack Home, Forest Lake Fabrics and various auction houses and antique stores for all their needs. A few items, such as an ornate settee, came from her grandfather when he passed away. Elizabeth’s mother helped her choose and decorate not only with furnishings, but also light fixtures — even using unique touches such as a porcelain painted knob she found at HomeGoods. Colors are white and light; a Sherwin Williams hue titled “Rainwash,” for example, was chosen for the master bedroom walls. To adorn the butler’s pantry, Elizabeth copied and enlarged some of her grandmother’s recipes and framed them. As a “homecoming” gift, local artist Heather Moore painted a landscape for the keeping room. A large, colorful piece, commissioned by another local artist, Christi Arnette, graces the main wall in the kitchen. 

Elizabeth says that she loves her home, and “barring no unforeseen circumstances,” she plans for it to be their forever home. Yet, she admits to not holding any aspect of the “stuff” too tightly. Yes, the family persevered through fire and flood, but they got closer because of it. Elizabeth says, “We count our blessings.”