NEWINGTON – At least 10 households are grappling with thousands of dollars in damages, and incalculable other losses, due to what the sewer authority is referring to as “an act of God.”
Christine Flynn, a homeowner on Brookdale Ave. who was one of those impacted, addressed the Town Council on behalf of herself and her neighbors this week.
“We are devastated, our basements are demolished, our personal effects are demolished,” Flynn said.
Her cleanup alone cost upward of $16,000 and that does not include rebuilding the finished basement she worked in every day.
Metropolitan District Commission CEO Scott Jellison claims the MDC is not responsible for overflows that devastated homes on Brookdale, Greenlawn and Taft Avenues following a Jan. 16, 2021 rainstorm.
“We’re empathetic to this issue; having sewer and stormwater mixture in your basement destroying your home is a terrible thing to deal with,” Jellison said, classifying the event as “an act of God.”
“Although we feel terrible for these homeowners,” Jellison went on to say, “we can’t be responsible for 10 feet of groundwater surcharging above our sewer pipe that was built to collect sewer not groundwater. We’re not in the business to try and skirt our responsibilities. We’re mandated to follow this as part of our emergency response program. However, we did not find a blockage.”
Flynn and her neighbors don’t believe their simultaneously-occurring backups were simply due to the 1.6 inches of rain that fell the day of the storm.
“For 10 people to all endure what we endured at the same levels, it’s just too much of a coincidence,” Flynn said. “There are residents who have lived here 40 to 60 years and nothing like this has ever happened.”
The MDC confirmed it led a project to remove a blockage of tree roots from a sewer line on nearby Hillcrest Ave. one week prior. However, according to Jellison, the sewer backups in question could not be attributed to this work.
“If we were negligent, if our contractor or ourselves damaged the pipe in building it or maintaining it then we would be responsible not only to make the property habitable but also replace any personal effects,” Jellison said.
An MDC ordinance requires customers to maintain their own service laterals, or the pipes that run from their home into the main sewer. If there is a blockage or material defect within the limits of their property it is their responsibility to repair. During very heavy rainfalls, the separated sanitary sewer system can become overwhelmed, forcing stormwater back up into basements.
A long term solution the MDC has proposed would be to partner with the town in constructing stormwater pipe to drain overflow into nearby brooks, which in this case, would be Piper Brook.
The agency has several programs available to customers to help them prevent such disasters, including backwater valve installation and payment plans for sewer lateral replacements. Very few utilize them in Newington, according to Jellison, who said he was particularly concerned for the elderly residents living in at-risk areas.
“We have elderly people living in these homes who cannot maintain this equipment,” he pointed out.”That’s unfortunate and we have to find a solution with our town and our residents to make it seamless for everyone to protect their home from the surcharges.”
State Rep. Gary Turco spoke with several of the families, now staying in hotels as their homes are uninhabitable.
“Many will have to pay for these repairs out of pocket,” Turco said. “It’s just terrible.”
Homeowner Jon Riopel and his family removed half a foot of raw sewage from their home as a result of the backup.
“They can’t really explain why it happened that day as opposed to other days,” Riopel said. “One of the most concerning things is that it could happen again.”
The ‘act of God’ clause on homeowners’ policies protects the insured in rare cases where the blame does not befall any single party. However, it is a luxury many cannot afford and will not have available to them in this case.
“It’s just a horrible, horrible situation,” Flynn said. “We are asking for MDC and/or the town to take responsibility and to really come to the aid of the residents here, to help with the financial devastation.”
Mayor Beth DelBuono said she would like the town and the MDC to come up with a solution.
“How are they the ones that have to deal with the punishment of paying for this when they didn’t have any input to the problem?” the mayor said. “That’s the hard pill to swallow here.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.