Detroit east-side residents seek flood damage aid

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Two months after a rainstorm caused sewage to back up into the basement of her east-side home, Loretta Rodgers isn’t done cleaning up.

Outfitted in rubber gloves and knee-high boots, she spent three days scrubbing at the black coating of dirt covering the floor after the July 8 storm.

The 59-year-old Jefferson-Chalmers resident has since adopted a weekly regimen of disinfectant and air freshening spray to combat the lingering stench in her basement.

“It’s a sickening smell,” she said. “It’s suffocating to me.”

The homeowner is among more than 1,000 to file claims with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for property damages from sewage backups tied to the July rainstorms.

Widespread flooding that month, and again in August following more torrential downpours, has prompted city-led sanitation efforts, disaster relief requests and the threat of legal action. The rain events, officials said, are also speeding efforts to overhaul the city’s aging water system.

For Rodgers, the July backup damaged jewelry, clothing and fabric stored in the basement for her traveling boutique, she says. She lost even more in the August 2014 flood that hit Metro Detroit – a storm whose damage required millions in federal disaster aid.

“We’re in bad shape down here,” said Rodgers, who said she’s refrained from calling her insurance company out of fear her policy will be canceled or her rates will be hiked. “We really are trying to voice it.”

The July rains dumped nearly 3 inches near Detroit City Airport — the 8th highest one-day total on record — flooding parts of Wayne County and the Thumb region, according to the National Weather Service in White Lake Township.

On Aug. 16, Detroit City Airport recorded another 2.65 inches over a few hours, soaking Detroit, flooding half a dozen freeways and delivering similar rainfall totals to communities throughout Metro Detroit.

Grosse Pointe and St. Clair Shores are among other communities accepting claims in response to August basement flooding.

St. Clair Shores has received just over 200 claims and moved up a periodic inspection of its sanitary sewers. Officials in Grosse Pointe said a power outage during the August rain storms caused some city pumps to shut down. The city has since brought on an engineering firm to inspect its storm system.

In Detroit, widespread sewage backups mainly hit the city’s District 4, which borders Grosse Pointe and the Detroit River.

The east-side neighborhoods are in a floodplain and were affected by rain events in 2011 and 2014 as well, said water department Director Gary Brown.

The issues, he said, are compounded by runoff from nearby Interstate 94 and the flawed design of the city’s water system.

Brown said water officials are looking at short-term fixes while they work on permanent solutions to re-engineer the water flow.

“DWSD wants to be an institution involved in the community and we’re working very hard to make sure we solve this problem,” he said.

Among the temporary measures, DWSD hopes to finance sewage check valves for households unable to afford them. The devices prevent sewage backups and run between $2,000 and $4,000.

Following the July rainstorm, DWSD worked with the city to mobilize departments to respond to health and safety concerns. Officials set up a hotline for residents through August to request inspections and cleanings and encouraged customers to file damage claims.

Nearly 400 households contacted the water department for remediation assistance, said Linda Clark, a DWSD spokeswoman.

Of those, the department has scheduled cleanings for homeowners they have been able to reach. The process will cost the department about $1 million and should conclude by the end of September, she said.

Additionally, the water department’s legal team is reviewing more than 1,000 property claims filed in connection with the July flooding. Customers had until Aug. 22 to file claims from that storm. Those affected by heavy rains on Aug. 16 have until Sept. 30.

Under state law, customers have 45 days to file claims after discovering a basement backup or overflow.

Richard Sulaka II, corporation counsel for DWSD, said officials plan to bring on a third-party claims administrator by the end of the month.

The associated costs aren’t yet known, Sulaka said. Not all claims filed include a proposed amount, but some range from less than $1,000 to more than $85,000, he said.

“We’d like to have majority of these settled before the end of the year,” he said.

Brown said claims will initially be paid out of the DWSD budget, and officials will then work with the Great Lakes Water Authority to determine how the cost will be shared. The water authority was forged under the city’s bankruptcy and operates Detroit’s water system under a 40-year lease.

Meanwhile, a class action law firm in Detroit has aided more than 1,000 households in submitting claims and is exploring a lawsuit.

David Dubin, a partner at Liddle & Dubin, PC, said his office intends to file suit 45 days after all the claims are submitted to ensure residents get proper compensation and structural problems with the city’s system are fixed.

“There is something seriously wrong with the sewers in this area. It’s distressing,” said Dubin, whose firm has filed numerous past lawsuits against cities over flooding.

Besides headaches tied to cleanup, the sewage overflows sparked public health concerns.

Last month, the city’s health department informed residents in the affected neighborhoods of two reported cases of Hepatitis A and urged those who had contact with raw sewage to seek preventive treatment.

Both men infected with the disease had cleaned up basements in the southeast section of the city, but not necessarily in areas impacted by the July flooding, officials said.

Detroit’s City Council passed a resolution in July seeking a local state of emergency declaration in the flood area. The city began conducting home damage assessments later that month.

Officials later determined DWSD had sufficient funds to cover cleanup and restoration costs and did not take a request to the state, the administration said.

Councilman Andre Spivey, who represents District 4, convened community meetings and a resident committee to aid homeowners.

“This is disrupting people’s lives every time it rains,” Spivey said. “I’m hoping we can get to the bottom of any protocol, policy and structural issues so it won’t happen in the future.”

DWSD and the GLWA have commissioned studies to identify long-term solutions for the drainage challenges.

In a statement to The News, the water authority said it is “finalizing a detailed report that will examine the cause, effects and how to improve operational response regarding this event and future events of this nature.”

The authority’s board recently approved more than $12 million in directly related capital expenditures, officials said.

For Essie Brown, help can’t come soon enough.

The 80-year-old estimates she’s lost $50,000 in furniture and appliances in the finished basement of her Jefferson-Chalmers home. That’s on top of irreplaceable mementos, including old photographs of her long deceased newborn son.

“I’m so full of tears,” she said. “The baby’s dead. I have nothing now to remember him by.”

Brown said the water department sanitized her basement and she has filed a claim but is unsure if a resolution will be reached since she doesn’t have insurance.

“I had to let it go, couldn’t afford it no longer,” she said.