City mishap inundates three Alamosa homes with raw sewage

Photo by Priscilla Waggoner Three homes on Princess Ann Court were flooded on Oct. 24 with water and raw sewage gushing from the bathroom fixtures in the bottom floor of their houses. City crews were working on the sewer lines in their neighborhood.

Damage estimates in the tens of thousands

ALAMOSA — Homeowners living in three houses on a cul-de-sac in south Alamosa went before city council Wednesday night to plead with the city to take immediate action in rectifying a hazardous and disgusting situation when work on a sewer line caused water and raw sewage to flood their homes, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

The incident happened more than three weeks ago. The companies insuring all three homeowners’ properties have denied their claims, stating the city was at fault. According to city attorney Erich Schwiesow, due to a delay in the city’s insurance company sending — or even scheduling — an adjuster to go to the homes, the city has yet to admit liability, or provide a date when the owners can expect to see the situation be rectified.

There is also the possibility, Schwiesow says, that the city’s insurance company may deny the claim as it’s not the city’s responsibility. Although crews were working on the line, a problem happened on private property.

Meanwhile, the homeowners are residing in conditions that are hazardous to their health with potential long-term impact.

Frustrated with the response they were getting, the homeowners — Marlys Hersey, Jennifer Martinez, and Gretchen Bianca — appealed to city council during the public comment portion of Wednesday night’s meeting to take prompt and necessary action to restore their homes to a safe and livable condition.

Judging from council members’ responses, they were unaware of the situation and would have continued to be had the homeowners not addressed them in the three-minute segments allowed the public as part of the council agenda.

On the morning of Oct. 24, three homes located on Princess Ann Court in south Alamosa were flooded with water and raw sewage gushing from the bathroom fixtures in the bottom floor of their houses, flooding across floors and into hallways and other rooms. The amount of water and sewage ranged from two to six inches deep.

City crews were working on the sewer lines in their neighborhood and immediately stopped when Martinez ran over and told them what was happening.

When she returned home, she found water and sewage had inundated her bathroom, her bedroom, her laundry room and living room “causing thousands of dollars in damage” in all four rooms.

“If this happened to you, what would you do,” she asked the council.

Harry Reynolds, director of Public Works, quickly showed up on site to survey the situation and city crews removed the sewage-soaked carpet from the homes that same morning.

But when Hersey hired a professional cleaning crew out of Durango familiar with cleaning up after a house has been flooded with “Category 3 water,” otherwise known as “blackwater,” she learned the full scope of what she and the others were facing.

“We have learned from a third-party professional cleaning service we hired to sterilize and assess the damage (to the tune of $3,128) that in order to safely inhabit the lower levels of our homes again, all the surfaces contaminated by this raw sewage — category 3 water — must be removed,” Hersey told council. “This means that the lower two feet of our walls need to be removed, as well as all of our flooring. And the surfaces behind the walls and under the flooring need to be treated properly to prevent black mold — which is already growing.”

But that wasn’t all.

“Testing of the walls and flooring revealed that these materials contain asbestos,” she said, “meaning we can’t just do the work ourselves. A professional asbestos abatement company needs to do this work, under a special permit.”   

Bianca praised city crews for initially cleaning the impacted parts of her house and said everyone she had spoken to at the city “had been polite and made suggestions of other steps to take.”

“But, as a nurse for 40 years,” she told council, “I want you to understand that, in sewage, there are 100 billion parts of bacteria in a gram of sewage, not to mention salmonella, tuberculosis, other viruses and parasites. There’s mold growing in those walls and my neighbors are breathing that. That’s not good. We need to move forward as fast as possible because this is going to cause illness. I’m asking as nicely as I can. Move this along.”

After comments had concluded, Schwiesow said the city originally assumed they could go in and repair the damage themselves but, after Hersey shared additional information, it became clear the city’s insurance company had to be involved. The city is waiting for the insurance company to send an adjustor.

If the homeowners are concerned about the ongoing health problems before the insurance company acts, he added, “you can certainly take mitigation action on your own.”

City Manager Heather Sanchez said the city is also going to take steps to install the necessary equipment — including on private property — to make sure this doesn’t happen again. She also recognized the urgency of the situation.

Councilor Vigil asked what the city planned to do if the insurance company denied liability.

Schwiesow said, “At that point, we’re free to work with the property owners on our own and work out whatever we can do.”

Only three members of council made definitive statements, but they were strongly worded. Councilor Jan Vigil said, “We need to help these people. Right now.”

Councilor Charlie Griego agreed.

“We need to move on this fast. This could cause some serious health problems,” he said.

Councilor Michael Carson addressed the city attorney.

“We need to figure out a timeline. I deal with insurance adjusters all the time. You have to push them,” he said.

When asked to comment after the meeting, Martinez wrote, “I am deeply worried about the financial burdens that we are unable to bear and the impact on our health, given the severity of the health risks involved.”

Bianca stated, “I expect immediate fast action as weeks have passed and my health is in danger. The city did the damage, and they need to be responsible.”

Concerning Schwiesow’s suggestion that, if concerned about the health hazard, the homeowners take care of it themselves, Hersey described it as callous.

“If we each had $25,000 to $30,000 to throw at this problem, we would have already done so. When our claims were rejected, we all reasonably expected the city to do the right thing to pay for its mistake,” she said.

Martinez and Hersey both expressed appreciation for support from the three councilors with Martinez adding, “I sincerely hope that they can promptly assist us in resolving this matter."