Detroit seeks to settle flood claims with residents

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city’s water department intends to reach settlements with residents seeking millions in damages over two summer storms that flooded their basements with sewer water.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown said 800 customers have filed $11 million in claims over damages from July and August rain storms.

“We will come to an agreement with our residents that’s fair and move forward,” Brown said. “I don’t know what the amount will end up being, but $11 million is the amount of all (the claims).”

Brown said the water department is moving forward on negotiating the claims it hopes are settled by January as it and the Great Lakes Water Authority, which operates the system, wrap up separate investigations into the cause of the sewage backups. The water department, however, won’t be settling claims with customers who have sued over the flood damage, he said.

“If a lawsuit gets filed and our customers are part of that lawsuit, then we can’t negotiate a settlement,” said Brown, adding residents can opt out of legal action, but “that’s something they’d have to make a personal decision on.”

“Our objective is to be fair and to get the claims filed and not have to spend money on litigation,” he said. “I’d rather the dollars go to residents who are victims of this flood.”

Already, Brown said he’s settled claims and signed checks for several property owners out of a group of 17 who don’t have furnaces or water heaters. The amounts paid weren’t available Monday.

“We know the people in that position and didn’t want to wait for an insurance adjuster to get on board,” he said. “We made the decision to settle those claims so they could get money to get heat and hot water. They were the priority.”

Water department staff canvassed Detroit neighborhoods this summer to encourage residents to file damage claims on time. Customers had until Aug. 22 to file claims from a July 8 storm, and until Sept. 30 from rains on Aug. 15-16. Under state law, customers have 45 days to file claims after discovering a basement backup or overflow.

Brown said claims will initially be paid out of the DWSD budget, and officials will then work with the Great Lakes system 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.

DWSD also worked with the city to address health and safety concerns from the rain storms. The department, Brown said, spent about $2 million on remediation assistance for several hundred households impacted by sewage backups.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit was filed last month in Wayne County Circuit Court asking the city and the GLWA be held liable and pay damages exceeding $25,000 to residents affected by the backups.

The Oct. 3 filing, with named plaintiff Gail Beasley, argues the city and water system operators were negligent and should have known about the system’s inadequacies.

The defendants, it contends, “failed to take reasonable steps in a reasonable amount of time to repair, correct or remedy the defect, which defect was a substantial proximate cause of the flooding and damage to plaintiffs property by sewage, pollutants, water, feces, dirt, debris, and noxious odors.”

Detroit and water authority officials on Monday declined to discuss the pending lawsuit.

“The GLWA has received the complaint and will be responding shortly,” the authority said in a released statement. “The GLWA does not typically comment on pending litigation. Because this is a pending litigation matter, we have no further comment at this time.”

The July rains dumped nearly 3 inches near Detroit City Airport — the eighth highest one-day total on record — flooding parts of Wayne County, according to figures from the National Weather Service. On Aug. 16, another 2.65 inches were recorded over a few hours, soaking Detroit, flooding a half dozen freeways and delivering similar rainfall totals to communities throughout Metro Detroit.

Officials from Detroit and the water authority have been examining short-term and permanent solutions for water flow. Brown said he hopes the water department will have a report to the Board of Water Commissioners at its meeting next week.

The water authority is also working to finalize its report examining the cause, effects and how to improve operational response for the July event and future rain events. It was unclear Monday when it will be completed.

GLWA has made a number of operational changes and identified upgrades and rehabilitation work to improve the system’s ability to handle intense rain events. The authority’s board recently approved more than $12 million in directly related capital expenditures.

Jefferson-Chalmers resident Jeffrey Herron filed a claim after backups from the July rain damaged clothing and appliances in his basement. But he said a backflow preventer spared him from the level of damage some neighbors endured.

Herron, who also is a party to the lawsuit, said he cares more about accountability than having his claim paid quickly.

“It is important. They may go ahead and fix the whole problem the city has right now as opposed to just putting a Band-Aid on it,” said Herron, 58. “I may not be around 20 years from now, or five years from now. I want it for my kids.”