Some 50 home and business owners have sued the city for damages after the sewer system failed twice last December at 17th and Folsom, Cayuga Avenue in Glen Park, and 15th and Wawona streets.
Year after year, residents near 17th and Folsom streets suffer several feet of flooding in their garages and basements. Just last year, a storm that knocked out power across the city and sent water bubbling up through pipes inside homes also left homes and businesses heavily damaged by waist-high flooding — twice in a row. Now, they’re anxiously anticipating a strong El Niño.
Mark W. Epstein, of Seiler Epstein Ziegler & Applegate LLP, has been representing tenants and businesses in flooding suits for years. A previous lawsuit he represented flood victims in resulted in a payout of about $5 million, to be divvied up among more than 40 affected homeowners with various levels of damage. But residents are still not seeing improvements they’ve been asking for for years. They’ve formed a group called Solutions Not Sandbags to pressure the city to fix its sewer system.
Residents have also filed numerous claims with the city for damage sustained during previous floods, many of which the say have been denied or not completed. Epstein said some of his clients have been able to get the PUC to start on repairs to drywalls in response to claims, but the work stopped — leaving residents with garages open to the elements for months. Epstein estimated that total damages from the suit might be in the high hundred thousands of dollars.
“It continues to sadden us that (1) the PR spin and victim-blaming seem to tower over suggestions for solutions, (2) no meeting date has been set to talk with the community and (3) elected officials are frequently out of town and unable to meet until September,” Donna Marie Ponferrada, a plaintiff in the case, wrote in an email.
Drainage problems from 14th to 18th streets between Folsom and Harrison streets date back to the mid-1800s. The area used to be a marsh; the city filled it around 1860 or 1870, but there have been problems there ever since.
The area has settled, and in some places it is considerably lower than the street. “If you’re standing in the outdoor patio in the back [of Stable Café], in 1870-80 you would have been 24 inches taller,” Greg Braswell told Mission Local in 2012, when he was the sewer information system manager for the Department of Public Works.
After last year’s two sewer failures, the Public Utilities Commission gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors to explain the repeated flooding at 17th and Folsom.
“At times it just feels like it’s getting worse instead of getting any better,” said supervisor David Campos at the meeting in March.
Emilio Cruz, assistant general manager of the Public Utilities Commission, said then that the city had already removed 1,830 tons of debris from the sewer system since 2013 and invested millions in improvements.
But the cost of actually preventing flooding at 17th and Folsom would be astronomical. Cruz said in his presentation that dealing with a five-year-storm (one of a magnitude seen only every five years, which brings down about 775 million gallons in 3 hours) would mean improving a collection and conveyance system in the southeast part of the city to the tune of $2 billion dollars, and adding a connector tunnel between 17th and Folsom and the larger system for an additional $250 million.
Even if the city shelled out $2.2 billion, such a project would take until 2020 to complete — and last December saw a 25-year-storm and a 100-year-storm, events that would overwhelm even such an expensive system.
Instead, the PUC has been working on solutions “upstream,” fixing problems higher up in the watershed, ideally to prevent as much water from flowing down to flood areas.
Epstein worries that the opposite will happen.
“What logically is happening and is going to continue to happen until they address the problem where it lies is that the city’s system is gonna get better and better at moving stormwater and sewage down to where my clients are,” he said.
What has worked for some, he said, is taking advantage of the city’s grant program for property owners — some businesses have been able to get compensated by the city for installing flood barriers and backflow preventers.
But for homeowners, that wasn’t the answer either.
“Most residents on the unit block of Cayuga are non-native English speakers and senior citizens. They have found the grant program to be cumbersome and frankly, disheartening because it infers the PUC will not fix the sewer,” Ponferrada wrote.
The city also recommends getting flood insurance. Private insurers, wrote plaintiff Blane Bachelor, often do not cover sewer failures, leaving even residents with often expensive flood insurance without recourse. The city’s program, which is offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), does cover sewer failures, and the PUC is trying to promote that insurance through local brokers, said Tyrone Jue, a spokesperson for the PUC. Premiums for that insurance start at $137 a year for homes and $647 a year for businesses.
The city is also seeing if a water collection system could be built into a site near 17th and Folsom. Plans for a cistern under an empty lot there were set aside when it was found such a system would not have much impact on flooding, but Jue said the PUC is still examining other options for a similar solution.
In the meantime, they’re trying to manage expectations.
“When we design buildings we design them to withstand a certain magnitude of earthquakes,” Jue said. “Mother nature doesn’t conform to building standards. And that’s where we have to manage those expectations. But at the same time don’t want to leave people high and dry.”
Jue said the PUC has not been served with the suit yet and so he could not comment on the suit directly.