GLWA denies customer claims over flooding from June 2021 storm

Metro Detroit's regional water authority is denying all damage claims it received from customers related to flooding last summer, officials said Tuesday.

A semi tractor maneuvers through a flooded Michigan Avenue at Scotten Street in Detroit on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

The Great Lakes Water Authority, or GLWA, said it is officially notifying all customers who submitted claims of the denial this week.

It made the announcement in a statement, citing an independent investigation into the cause of the flooding and state law. 

Last month, the authority released the results in a more than 800-page report, the findings of an investigation into flooding caused by historic rainfall in a June 25-26 storm last year.

The agency said it was denying claims because a public entity like the authority is liable for sewage backing up in a basement only if a defect in its sewage disposal system was the main cause and resulted in property damage or physical injury according to the state's Governmental Liability for Negligence Act, according to GLWA.

In the statement, Suzanne Coffey, the authority's CEO, said it is working to mitigate similar flooding in the future.

"We understand the difficult situations homeowners and businesses face when flooding occurs," she said. Coffey was named the authority's CEO last month. She had been serving as interim CEO since August 2021. The authority's previous CEO, Sue McCormick, resigned after weeks of fallout over the way it addressed the late June rain and flooding. 

"We are experiencing increased frequency and intensity of storms hitting our region," Coffey said. "This is why it’s critical to focus on building resiliency in the regional system.

The news from GLWA does not mean impacted residents won't see their claims paid out, said Paul Doherty, an attorney at the Ven Johnson Law in Detroit. From Doherty's perspective, GLWA's pronouncement amounts to more of a public relations effort than a final determination.

"It doesn't change anything,” said Doherty, whose home in Grosse Pointe Park flooded during the storm causing nearly $100,000 in property damage. 

“They can't just unilaterally say 'we're not paying claims' and that's the end of it.”

Ven Johnson Law is representing more than 600 clients in a class action lawsuit against local water and sewer authorities, including GLWA and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

“They're defendants in multiple lawsuits in Wayne County Circuit Court, and that's where these issues are going to be resolved,” Doherty said. “It's not going to be resolved by making this grand pronouncement and this grandstanding about denying claims.”

Detroit resident Cheryl English lives in the city’s East English Village and saw her basement flooded by the storms last June. The 60-year-old retiree said Tuesday was one of the worst days she’s had in a while.

“The word jaded doesn’t begin to describe how I feel,” she said in reaction to GLWA’s attempt to deny customers' claims. “This is just another example of public entity refusing to take responsibility for their stuff.”

"Self employed creative" Cheryl English shows her basement work space that once again is flooded, this time with 3 or 4 inches of water, only weeks after another heavy rainfall flooded the Detroit home, "The part that makes me angriest is no one is taking responsibility, they are blaming the home owners."  I've been down on my hands and knees cleaning this floor for three weeks, trying to get it clean.  It's just emotionally exhausting."   
Flooding due to heavy rain fall in Detroit, Michigan on July 16, 2021.

For English, GLWA’s stance that problems with its system were not the main cause of the flooding does not line up with her read of the report's findings, which acknowledge several pump stations were not working. 

“That's an interesting way of reading that,” she said. “From what I understand from a more detailed reading of the report, that's not what it says at all.” 

The engineering analysis and investigation into Metro Detroit's historic flooding last summer found that some surface-level flooding and basement backups were still "unavoidable" as the rainfall recorded during the June 25-26 storm was more intense than the system was designed to handle. 

However, the report also concluded that some of the flooding could have been reduced if the region's wastewater collection system had been properly working.

"An analysis of risk of basement backups did not show an appreciable reduction in risk if everything had worked as intended," according to the report. "Surface flooding would have been reduced but not eliminated.

Before the release of the final report from the Independent Investigators, GLWA said it began working to implement key infrastructure and process improvements to help address the stresses put on an infrastructure system not built for extreme levels of rain.

English isn’t part of any of the lawsuits and opted not to file any claims with GLWA. While she wasn’t seeking a monetary solution, she said she was expecting some effort by the water authority to take responsibility and prevent it from happening again.

“It's clear to me that our government and public institutions aren't interested in generating a greater degree of public faith in them,” she said.

English said she had hoped to see the proper authorities owning up to the situation, explaining what went wrong, and outlining a plan to fix it, but feels like that's the last thing GLWA's announcement this morning provided.

“This is the place where we're supposed to feel safest," English said. "This is the place where we're supposed to be able to do what we need to do at the end of the day and not have to worry about it am I going to be able to live in my house. And that's just not a place we have anymore."