Sunday, January 18, 2004

City pays for mop-up

125 basements cleaned after rains

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Bill Long, general manager of Brock Restoration, cleans a sewage-soaked basement in Westwood Thursday.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
More than 100 families across Hamilton County have gotten help mopping muck and hauling ruined belongings from their basements after saturating rains two weeks ago - help they wouldn't have received if the rain had occurred just a week earlier.

The Metropolitan Sewer District is running up $275,000 in bills to clean 125 basements that flooded with sewage the weekend of Jan. 2-4, Deputy Director Bob Campbell said Friday.

The overall cost to ratepayers is likely to go much higher once sewer workers' overtime, consultants' fees and claims for damages are tallied.

The sewer district's $8.2 million customer service program, which began Jan. 1, means that for the first time crews are probing the cause of every basement backup and taking responsibility for about a quarter of them.

To be reimbursed for damage caused by sewage backups, owners should:

Call the Metropolitan Sewer District within 24 hours, but ideally as soon as flooding begins. The number is 352-4900.

Take photos of the flooding.

File a claim form, available at Web site.

Take steps the district recommends to prevent future damage.

"We're excited that there's finally a program in place," said Katie Danko, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, which pushed for the changes in federal court. "They seem to be responding fairly quickly in most cases."

The first test came with the steady rains that fell the first weekend in January. That brought 636 calls - six times as many as the district typically gets during heavy storms, Campbell said. Of those, 525 were complaints of sewage in the basement.

In more than three-quarters of the cases, crews concluded the backup was caused by a blockage in the pipe that connects the home with the sewer system. That makes it the homeowner's problem.

But in 125 cases, the problem was found to be in old sewer mains that filled with too much rainwater, forcing a combination of sewage and stormwater to back up through drains and toilets in low-lying basements. That's now the sewer district's problem.

"I went into this thinking I wasn't going to get any help," said Cathy Arnold, 46, of Westwood, because that was the case after her last sewage backup, about 10 months ago.

Arnold did have to wait several days after 8 inches of sewage infiltrated her basement on Jan. 4, but ultimately sewer workers investigated and offered to have her basement cleared of sewage and sewage-tainted belongings. Brock Restoration, a Price Hill company under contract with the district, removed a Dumpster-full of old exercise equipment, vacuums and other damaged items this week.

The sewer district is reviewing what went right and what went wrong during this first heavy rain. For instance, officials probably will arrange for outside companies to help investigate flooding complaints after major storms so homeowners don't have to wait so long, Campbell said.

After all, he said, this first rain wasn't even that bad by Tristate weather standards.

"This spring, when we start to see higher-intensity storms roll through, we anticipate seeing a larger volume of calls," Campbell said.

The district also is developing a list of tips on how homeowners can avoid backups, including:

• Having the pipe that connects their home to the system checked by a plumber every year or two, especially if there are trees in the yard.

• Running a lot of water when dumping cooking oil down the drain.

Half the 14 percent increase in property owners' sewer rates this year is going toward the basement cleanup program. The sewer district is also testing new equipment that could stop the backups.

That's where Mount Healthy resident Louis Heinbuch would like to see the emphasis placed. He's among the 125 homeowners who got his basement cleaned this month at the sewer district's expense.

"I think it's something that they should have been doing all the time, but a better use of the fees would be to fix the problems," the 55-year-old said.


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