Everett will pay to repair sewage-flooded houses

EVERETT — The ground-floor apartment in Chad Slayton’s Grand Avenue house has been stripped to its studs after being inundated with knee-high water.

Michelle Murphy and her family continue to clean up two weeks after a fetid torrent spewed into their Rucker Hill basement, ruining their furnace, appliances and more.

Dozens of other north Everett homeowners are still dealing with the stinky mess that backed up from basement drains and toilets.

Those are some of the gross-out horror stories Everett homeowners have recounted since city sewer systems failed during downpours on Aug. 29 and Sept. 6.

City leaders are vowing to cut checks for the repairs, as they look toward short- and long-term fixes. As of Thursday, Everett had received 45 damage claims, and was expecting more.

“Our intention is to make everybody whole,” Mayor Ray Stephanson said.

The recent damage owes to combined sewer and stormwater systems overflowing in older Everett neighborhoods.

While sewage and rainwater get channeled through separate pipes on the south end of the city, in north Everett it all goes to the same place.

The combined system was built from the 1890s until the early 1960s. With normal rainfall, the combined flow goes to the city treatment plant and then into Puget Sound. When wet weather maxes out the system, however, untreated water spills directly into Puget Sound.

What’s worse, it’s prone to flowing back into people’s homes.

After roughly an inch and a half of rain fell early on Sept. 6, 12 of Everett’s 13 combined sewer outfalls overflowed into the Snohomish River and Port Gardner. The overflows extended beach closures already in place from the previous week’s rains. The city fielded more than 170 service calls about urban flooding.

Affected homeowners have crowded recent City Council meetings. They want to know whether they’ll be reimbursed and whether infrastructure improvements can keep their property dry in the future. They’re worried about lowered property values and health impacts.

“We feel very badly that this happened and we’re going to do everything we can to make it right,” Stephanson told the audience during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Everett endured similar problems after a June 2010 deluge. The city processed more than 70 damage claims from that storm and paid out nearly $1 million.

At least a dozen of those homes flooded again during the recent storms. That’s causing some homeowners to wonder whether urban flooding has become a regular pattern in Everett.

“We don’t have any plans to refinish our basement anytime soon because we don’t know when this will happen again,” said Robin Stocking, who showed pictures of sewage flowing out of his toilet and coating his basement floor.

The mayor and the City Council promised to resolve all reasonable claims. Affected homeowners should file claims as soon as possible, even if they don’t have a damage estimate. Flooded property should be cleaned and disinfected by professionals.

City leaders also have committed to installing devices designed to automatically stop water from flowing into basements when heavy rain overwhelms the sewers. The city has promised to pay for the devices, known as backwater valves. In some cases, property owners may need to install one as a condition of a claim settlement.

Backwater valves aren’t a sure fix. Of the 99 homes where the city has installed them, five had calls for service during the recent storms, public works director Dave Davis said. The city is still assessing what went wrong.

“The backflow valve is not a panacea,” said Skell Goens, a retired real estate agent whose north Everett home has flooded repeatedly. “I have the backflow valve.”

Affected homeowners showered praise on the city staff they’ve dealt with face to face. Despite the positive vibes, they’re apprehensive about whether the city will follow through.

Goens said she waited two years for the city to cut her a check for flood damage in 2010.

That worries Chad Slayton. His house on Grand Avenue south of 41st Street got soaked after a manhole cover up the street was blown off by a 3-foot geyser of sewer water. The water flowed into the downstairs apartment rented by his sister-in-law, Erin Jewett. The apartment was ruined, leaving Jewett and her dog, Buster, couch-surfing.

Slayton figures he’s looking at repairs of $40,000 or more, not counting wrecked appliances or personal belongings.

“The night they were out there, they said everything would be covered, down to the food in the fridge,” he said.

He learned Thursday the city would expedite his claim.

City leaders know the combined sewer systems are a problem, but say overhauling them would be prohibitively expensive. Davis, the public works director, pegged the cost at roughly $600 million.

This fall, the City Council and the mayor’s office plan to study the problem in detail when they update Everett’s long-term plan for building new sewer projects.

Already in the works is a $10 million sewer upgrade scheduled to be built next year in north Everett. The Sewer System “M” project covers the area of Colby to Grand avenues and 10th Street to 17th Street. Once it’s done, the area will have separate sewer and stormwater pipes.

Other recent sewer projects appear to have failed the neighbors they were supposed to help.

Michelle Murphy said city employees assured her sewer upgrades in the Rucker Hill area would prevent the kind of flooding that drenched her basement twice in 2008. Workers later tore up her street and finished the project.

She’s dismayed after getting flooded during both of the recent storms.

“I want my property made whole, not just for today, but for the future,” she said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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