Claims against the city flow inSuperior’s Liability Claims Committee, a panel of citizens that considers claims for legal damages against the city, is busier than usual after last month’s flooding.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
Superior’s Liability Claims Committee, a panel of citizens that considers claims for legal damages against the city, is busier than usual after last month’s flooding.
The five-member panel considered about 35 claims so far — with more expected in August — after flooding and sewer backups left people with thousands of dollars in damages. The storm of June 19-20 washed out roads, turned one city park into a swimming pool and turned basements into storm- and wastewater holding ponds.
“The claims volume for this committee is off the charts,” said City Attorney Frog Prell. He said the committee was sympathetic to people’s losses but the committee’s responsibility is to determine if damage was the result of negligence by city staff.
In some cases, residents survived the initial flooding only to have their basements fill with rain and wastewater after a sanitary sewer cover was removed at 15th Avenue East and Bardon Avenue.
More than one-third of the claims filed affected residents of 15th Avenue East and East 10th Street, downstream from the removed sewer cover.
“It’s likely or possible that the lion’s share of your claims will be denied,” Prell warned more than 60 people who turned out at the committee meeting last Thursday night. “It’s awkward to say and I’m sure it’s hard to hear, but that’s historically how claims of this nature have been treated.”
In 1999, about 55 claims against the city were filed after heavy rain caused basement flooding throughout the city; South Superior was the hardest hit area.
Those claims were denied because it was determined nature, not negligence on the part of city staff, caused the basement flooding.
While about a dozen of those affected by the 1999 storm pursued legal action against the city, then-Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Joseph McDonald determined the city wasn’t liable for the damage resulting from the July 25, 1999, storm that dumped more than five inches of rain in South Superior in about two hours.
“We’re talking about an act of negligence that did occur with a manhole cover that was removed; we all received flooding at the exact time in our neighborhood,” said Richard Flaherty of the 1500 block of East 10th Street, speaking on behalf of his neighbors. He said at 2:20 p.m., residents in the neighborhood were all fine, and sump pumps were keeping up. “At that time, there was a backhoe that removed a sanitary storm sewer cap. That water rushed in and all of our basements flooded at that time.”
Several residents of the neighborhood stepped forward to share similar stories.
The flooding that started the afternoon of June 20 didn’t stop until about 6:15 a.m. the morning of June 21.
Lori LaGesse of 15th Avenue East said her husband was up all night fighting the incoming water that destroyed the fully finished basement of their home. Despite his efforts, she said the basement, which sustained about $40,000 in damage and made it “depressing” to look at after the basement was gutted.
Damages in that neighborhood alone, while incomplete, are estimated between $435,200 and $475,200.
“There’s a difference between accepting legal responsibility for a claim, and acknowledging those claims and the other things behind those claims,” Prell said.
Prell said he anticipated it may take some time for the panel to investigate the claims to determine if the city is legally responsible for the damage.
“This really is the committee’s first engagement with any of these details,” Prell said.
And the panel listened quietly as residents stepped up one by one, and sometimes on behalf of themselves and their neighbors, to share the stories of the storm, flooded homes and the aftermath.
Todd Garner of Catlin Avenue pleaded with the committee to find him some relief after a manhole cover in his basement blew off and a mix of sewage and rain filled his basement with about 4½ feet of water. The storm left him with a damaged water heater and furnace, in addition to personal property lost.
Garner said two people living in his home have disabilities, and a month after the storm, they still have to go to the YMCA to take showers.
Lindsey Boustead and Frances Pentecost, who rent their home in the 2100 block of Cypress Avenue, said they woke in their basement bedroom to find wastewater rising around their bed. Since the storm, the married couple said, they have been sleeping in their living room and had their rent increase to allow their landlord to replace the water heater and furnace damaged as a result of city sewers backing.
The couple estimated damages at “well over $10,000” between their personal losses and the damage to the house.
While the couple no longer has a bedroom, and has had their rent increase, Boustead said they can’t afford to move either.
“We appreciate the fact that all of you are here and there are more who are coming forward,” said Mayor Bruce Hagen. “We appreciate your patience and share in your grief over what’s happened in this particular period of time. It’s my understanding that nothing like this has happened since 1909 with this severity.”
The city did ask residents countywide to report their damage to the city in an ongoing effort to bring aid to homeowners affected by the storm. Last week, the Small Business Administration toured homes in the city in an effort to determine whether it would provide businesses and homeowners low-interest loans to repair the damage. That report is still pending.
“We’re working right now with the state of Wisconsin and different agencies that may be of assistance,” Hagen said. He said initially local officials didn’t believe the area would qualify for federal aid, a determination the Federal Emergency Management Agency had teams of people in northern Wisconsin to try to assess the level of damage last week.
“That’s really the level where aid could be available to homeowners,” Hagen said.