Flood victims hoping for aid

Northeast city area damaged in June 2003

Residents blame faulty pipes

City officials deny fault, offer loans for repairs

July 25, 2004|By Lester J. Davis | Lester J. Davis,SUN STAFF

More than a year after a flash flood left five homes flooded and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage, the residents of a Northeast Baltimore block are still waiting to know whether Baltimore officials will take responsibility for what homeowners say were the city's faulty drainage pipes.

Henry Boulware, 79, who had to take out a second mortgage for repairs, hangs his head when talking about his "ruined basement and living room floor."

Pam Luallen becomes teary-eyed each time she goes to her basement to wash clothes.

And Hazel Johnson, 74, can't forget walking into her kitchen, and falling into a 12-foot-deep pool of water where a floor should have been. Last year on June 13, about 10 feet of water gathered in the area near East 35th Street and Hillen Road. Water rushed into homes, knocking front doors off hinges and shattering windows, according to neighborhood residents.

Water rolled "down the street like a little river, and before you knew it, the Fire Department was performing rescues out of boats," recalled Mary Jackson, who lives in the 1700 block of E. 35th St.

"Basically, what I'm trying to do is piece my house back together," said Luallen, who said she has spent about $22,000 on a replacement furnace, hot water heater, kitchen appliances and other furnishings.

Each of the homeowners had insurance policies, but none was covered for flood damage.

Kathleen Loughran, an associate commissioner with the Maryland Insurance Administration, said flood insurance policies are distinct from regular homeowner's insurance policies.

Flood insurance is part of a separate program administered by the federal government. Many homeowners confuse water and sewer backup coverage - such as when a pipe bursts inside a home or a septic tank overflows - for flood coverage, she said.

Most of the residents in the five Northeast Baltimore homes have lived there for decades.

All say that, over the years, a few inches of rainwater in their basements after a heavy storm have been familiar occurrences. But discovering basements filled with water from floor to ceiling - with an additional foot or two of water covering the first floor - was a shock.

The homeowners say they complained for years to Baltimore officials about what they believe is a less-than-adequate city drainage system, and they blame those pipes for the sudden backup.

City officials denied responsibility when the flood occurred, and they still do.

Mary Pat Clarke, a former City Council president who won last September's Democratic primary for the new 14th Council District, said she thinks the city could have done more for the residents.

`Partially responsible'

"I feel very strongly that there was either a clog or a dysfunctional storm drain that was partially responsible for how quickly and deeply the water formed," Clarke said.

Johnson said that about two weeks after the flood, city workers dug up the street and sidewalk in front of her house. She said they replaced underground pipes - and ever since, the neighborhood has not experienced any extreme flooding.

Robert H. Murrow, a Department of Public Works spokesman, said the city's work at 35th and Hillen was an improvement and not a fix to any problem.

"There were new curbs and gutters put in, and it's believed it helps better channel the water into the system," Murrow said. But "no piping work was done."

A year later, the city sent each homeowner a notice rejecting their property loss claims and denying any negligence by the city.

"Our view is that just like with Hurricane Isabel, just because there is horrendous weather and someone gets flooded doesn't mean the city is at fault," said Ralph S. Tyler, the city's solicitor.

Although the residents' claims - about $45,000 each - were denied, the city offered the homeowners a one-time $5,000 low-interest rate loan a couple of months ago.

Four of the five residents immediately rejected the offer; a fifth is considering whether to accept it. None has filed a lawsuit against the city.

The loan "was what you call too little, too late," Clarke said. Many residents had "already maxed out their credit just to survive through the winter," Clarke said.

"You need almost that much just to clean up," says Jackson, who recalled cleaning raw sewage and debris from her home.

`Everything was muddy'

"Everything was muddy and grimy," added Jackson, who said she works more than 20 hours of overtime each week as a Social Security benefits analyst to cover her losses.

Henry and Marie Boulware, both retired and in their late 70s, took out a second mortgage on their home to repair the electrical and heating systems.

They couldn't wait for the city to decide whether to honor their claim because "we didn't have any heat, and the wintertime was coming," Henry Boulware said.

Johnson, who runs a property management business, has slept in her Calvert Street office for the past year while repairs were made to her Hillen Road home.

No flooding since

Luallen said her neighborhood has experienced heavy bursts of rain since last year - but no severe flooding.

Every time it rains, "I have sat on my porch and watched the water, and nothing's happened," Luallen said. "It had to be something wrong with those pipes. I shouldn't have gotten 12 feet of rain in my house."

Johnson, who moved back into her house a couple of weeks ago, still has a 32-gallon trash can filled with dishes and mementos covered in dried mud to clean. She said that although the flood and lack of help from the city was a "catastrophe, I will not get depressed."

"I just thanked God. You can always get more merchandise," she said.

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