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City insurance won't pay for sewage flood damage

Posted: February 18, 2013 - 1:34pm

The city of Homer's insurance provider won't pay for damages to homes hit by a mid-January sewage flood. An insurance adjuster for the Alaska Municipal League told the city the event was "an act of God" -- a legal term for a natural disaster no one could have prevented. A third-party engineering report showed no negligence by the city, Public Works Director Carey Meyer said insurance adjusters told him.
Meyer said that doesn't mean the city can't cover damages through other funding. The city council could decide to make an appropriation to cover damages. "It's just the first shoe to drop in the whole process of what the insurance company can do and what the city can do," he said. "It's not the end of the process."
After a mid-January storm overwhelmed a sewer line on the north shore of Beluga Lake, three families bore the brunt of a flood of the stuff people expect to stay flushed down toilets.
On Jan. 13 and early Jan. 14, in a home on Iris Court and two homes on Aspen Lane, that stuff came back out. All three families rented their homes and were displaced, their beds and furniture trashed, clothing ruined and electronics soaked in a stinky brown brine.
"There was feces floating in the house," said Chip Duggan, a longtime Homer businessman who owns the Glacier Drive In, said of his home on Iris Court off Mattox Road.
"Water is one thing, but raw sewage is the stuff of late-night talk shows," said Dennis Haunschild, who lived in a home on Aspen Lane off Early Spring Street.
The Duggan and Haunschild families along with the Josh and Mei Mershon family on Aspen Lane received $3,500 each in emergency relief and assistance from the city to help with cleaning, moving, food, replacement of personal items and other costs. Homer City Manager Walt Wrede wrote a memo to the Homer City Council advising the council of the emergency procurement.
"The city regrets that your property was damaged by flooding from the city sewer system," Wrede wrote in a letter to the residents that was included in the Jan. 28 council packet. "This payment is not an admission by the city of any liability for the damage that you have incurred."
While helpful, that payment hasn't begun to cover damages, Duggan and Haunschild said.
Haunschild was particularly angry.
"The thing that's disgusted me the most is the city's response to it," he said.
Haunschild said Jeff Lucas, the Alaska Municipal League insurance adjuster, visited last week and told him the same thing Meyer heard, that the sewage flood was an act of God.
"'Everything bad that happens in the world isn't necessarily the city of Homer's fault,''' Haunschild said Lucas told him. "S--- being pumped violently into my house at three in the morning, I would think that would be the city's responsibility," Haunschild said.
Like many other Alaska municipalities, the city pays premiums to the Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association. That association also is paying for the defense of the city in a lawsuit filed by Cheryl Dietzmann alleging the city was responsible for injuries suffered by her son in a March 2006 shootout between the boy's father, Jason Anderson, and Homer Police and U.S. Marshals. Jason Anderson II was shot by his father, who then killed himself, the state medical examiner concluded. A jury trial in that case is now under way in Anchorage federal court.
Meyer said the sewage backed up in the line after frost pushed a manhole cone up from the sewer line. The cone provides access from the surface to the sewer line below. With the cone separated, water from flooding and heavy rain got into the line, overwhelming it. The city sewer treatment plant also had twice the normal amount of water coming into it that weekend, some of it from sump pumps and roof gutters illegally connected to the storm drain system, an ongoing problem in the city.
Those two natural events, the frost heaving and the January storm, are what the insurance adjuster called acts of God, and what the third-party engineering report said caused the sewage flooding.
Duggan was the first resident to have a sewage flood. He said he was out watching a televised football game on Sunday, Jan. 13, when his 18-year-old daughter called to say their house had been flooded.
"She opened the door to the house and the water and sewer ran up over her ankles," Duggan said.
Duggan said within 20 minutes about 10 friends from the American Legion Post 16 came to help.
"There's something about the American Legion," he said.
Friends would have come sooner, but they had to get XtraTufs, Duggan said. They helped him move out clothing and other essentials. He also cut a sewer pipe coming into the house to keep more sewage from entering. An iPhone video he recorded shows brackish water pouring out in gallons from the pipe. It blasted a 16-inch-wide by 3-foot deep hole in the ground, Duggan said.
Sewer water flooded the downstairs 3 inches deep in Duggan's house, completely trashing his daughter's room and possessions, including a laptop computer. Duggan threw out a lot of clothing and shoes, including a new pair of $80 boots for his daughter.
"I wouldn't let her wear them again," he said.
Duggan did salvage some clothing that he was able to wash and disinfect. He used a snow shovel to squeegee sewage water out of his house. It ruined a carpet he put down in the house to protect wood floors from Duggan's dog. That flooring is warped and buckling, he said.
At Haunschild's house, a modular home, the flood came at 3 a.m. Jan. 14. The sewage water flowed into forced-air heating vents. That kept sewage from flooding the house too deep, but it also meant that when the heating system came in, it pushed the smell into the house.
"It's a toxic waste site, basically," Haunschild said.
He said he got sick from moving out clothing and other possessions. His wife and two sons, ages 6 and 12, got out safely. Fortunately, the Haunschild family has found a short-term rental at a vacation home until May 31. Haunschild has been going back to recover belongings, but said he now wears a Tyvek suit and a respirator when he goes back inside.
The Duggans have been staying with friends and house sitting, but Duggan said he thinks he'll be able to move into a triplex soon.
The Homer News was unable to contact the Mershon family.
Kent Halpin, the owner of Haunschild's rental, said he is still in discussions with the city about a settlement for damages.
The mid-January storm also affected the city sewer treatment plant, causing about $50,000 in damages, Meyer said. The city has filed an insurance claim for those damages, too. Given how the insurance adjuster ruled on coverage for the three homes, Meyer said he wondered if the insurance company wouldn't make the same decision and deny the city's claim.
Wrede was unavailable for comment. He has been serving jury duty since last Thursday.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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