Caught Between Local Governments, Flooded Homeowners Struggle for Answers

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Dylan Lees for ELi

Some of the residents on Timberlane whose basements were flooded with sewage on Aug. 12. The adults pictured, from left to right: Maureen "Mo" Newton, Alex Ellis and Brent Wood. In the pink shirt is the daughter of the Quintuses, who also had a flooded basement.

When heavy rains soaked mid-Michigan on Aug. 12, homes along the 5,000 block of Timberlane Street — which falls on the border between East Lansing and Meridian Township — were not spared.

Raw sewage backed up into the basements of at least five homes in the area, spurring a neighborly clean-up effort among homeowners with whom ELi spoke. The group has used the hashtag #PoopFest2021 to encapsulate the ordeal.

And as these people — some East Lansing residents, others Meridian Township residents — continue to toil and do what they can to fix the current damage and prevent future flooding, they want to know: What are the East Lansing and Meridian Township governments doing to help people recover from this and to prevent it from happening again?

The answer, so far, is seemingly little.

Various Timberlane residents have been in touch with both municipalities, and they report mostly being sent in circles between the two and not getting concrete solutions. All the while, they still worry that they’re susceptible to this problem in the future.

Like several parts of East Lansing, the Aug. 12 flooding caused extensive damage in basements in houses along Timberlane.

ELi is aware of five homes along Timberlane that had raw sewage back up into the basements on Aug. 12, 2021, and talked with the five sets of homeowners about their experiences. 

For Anne and Brent Wood, Timberlane residents for 22 years, Aug. 12 marked the first time raw sewage had backed up into their basement. They’d had a minor flood several years ago with no sewage, and in response, they had put in a sump pump. 

That sump pump failed on Aug. 12 when the power went out, and stormwater and sewage quickly reached a foot-deep in their 1,100-square-foot basement. They spent a week clearing everything out of the basement and then sanitizing what could be saved. They relied on the help of friends and family since restoration companies already had waiting lists by 8:00 a.m. on Aug. 12, Anne said. It took two more days to sanitize the floors and cut away soggy drywall. 

Courtesy of Anne Wood

The Woods’ basement drain, still with residual sewage around it shortly after the backup subsided.

The total cost of the damage will hit around $10,000, by Anne Wood’s estimation. The Woods had a specific rider on their homeowners’ insurance for sewer backups, so they’ve gotten a $5,000 payout, which Anne says they intend to reinvest in more preventative measures that they’re taking: installation of a backflow valve, a water-powered backup sump pump, and a backup generator. But those new measures alone will cost somewhere in the ballpark of $17,000 to purchase and install.

“There were also special things ruined, including our childrens’ artwork, photos, and favorite costumes we were saving,” Anne wrote in an email.

Maureen “Mo” Newton is another longtime homeowner on Timberlane. Shortly after moving into her house in January of 1989, she experienced some minor flooding and took extensive measures at the time to prevent further problems. Since then, and prior to Aug. 12, those measures have broadly worked, she said. 

But like her neighbors next door, across the street, and further down the street, Newton had a basement teeming with raw sewage on Aug. 12.

Newton created an itemized list of her estimated expenses relating to the flood. It includes everything from ruined furniture to restoration services. The total cost comes to a shade more than $32,000. Insurance only paid out enough to cover the restoration service bill and some flooring contract work. 

Living on the east side of Timberlane Street, Newton filed a claim with Meridian Township. She was denied on the grounds that the sanitary sewer system on that street belongs to East Lansing and is run by the City. She has since filed a claim with the City of East Lansing and has yet to hear a response.

Along with Newton and the Woods, at least three other sets of homeowners in the area experienced a basement backup: Angela and Dave Wendelberger had nearly two feet of sewage in their basement. Andreas and Corey Quintus dealt with 15 inches of sewage. And Alex Ellis and Senta Goertler had a backup of their own.

Andrew Graham for ELi

Dave and Angela Wendelberger on the front porch of their Timberlane home. Nearly two feet of sewage flooded their basement on Aug. 12 and caused thousands of dollars of damage. And it destroyed the play space for their two sons, George and Henry.

Ellis and Goertler, who live on the west side of Timberlane Street — the part that falls in the City of East Lansing — had the least flooding of the five. But they still had to deal with sewage in their home.

As these neighbors began and continue to clean this mess — bleaching the things worth saving, hauling refuse away in the trailer that Ellis uses for his job as an arborist, helping each other out as they can — they have also turned to those responsible for the sewer and storm drains, wanting to know what happened.

As was the case in parts of East Lansing’s Glencairn neighborhood, the flooding on Timberlane was a new phenomenon for these homeowners, and they wonder about the adequacy of the sewer and storm drains around them. 

It’s become clear since Aug. 12 that the exceptional rains that day overwhelmed the local stormwater and sewage system. But, as experts warn of the impacts of climate change, the homeowners with flooding basements on Timberlane worry it could become a more frequent issue. 

The residents of Timberlane also wonder about the sewer infrastructure’s design. When further rains soaked East Lansing and caused more flooding on Sept. 13, a stream of water began flowing through the Quintus’ backyard from the direction of Blue Haven Court. Corey Quintus pondered if other drainage issues upstream are causing issues for them. 

To try and learn more about what has happened, this group of neighbors started by contacting their local governments. 

Goertler, who is an East Lansing resident, emailed Nicole McPherson, East Lansing’s interim Director of Public Works, and Ron LaCasse, the City’s Infrastructure Administrator, on behalf of herself and her neighbors. The City of East Lansing owns and operates the Water Resource Recovery Facility, which is the plant that ultimately receives and treats the products of sanitary sewers in Meridian, East Lansing, and Michigan State University. 

Goertler’s email, sent on Aug. 25, included a list of questions about the state of the infrastructure along Timberlane and what might be done to fix it. She also wanted to know what could be done to help homeowners prevent future flooding. Also, in the letter, Goertler noted that she and her neighbors were not seeking to blame any specific party; they want to figure out the problem and solve it, lest they keep having to deal with feces pooling in their homes.

“I am not seeking to blame an individual,” Goertler wrote, “but rather to find solutions to sustainably, effectively, and collaboratively mitigate the risk of future sewer back-up for all on Timberlane. Naturally, we would also appreciate some compassion from the city and any offer to share the cost of the damage caused as insurances are not at all or only partially covering costs. This should go for people living on both sides of the street as we are all on the East Lansing sewer regardless of where we pay property taxes.”

Goertler didn’t get a response to that email until nearly a week later. The answer came from Don Drumm, who works for the Ingham County Drain Commission, not the City of East Lansing. 

Drumm, the Maintenance Supervisor for the Drain Commission, wrote that “we did an inspection of the drain on Timberlane and found no high water marks in any of the manholes. But I also pulled some lids on the sanitary [sewer] and found that the water marks were almost at the top. I will have a crew remove debris off the storm drain lids this week.”

Separately, Newton, a Meridian Township resident, contacted the Township’s Director of Public Works, Derek Perry. She sent him a letter — with Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann and East Lansing Mayor Jessy Gregg copied on it — on Sept. 10. Her letter ran along similar lines of Goertler’s letter to East Lansing staff, albeit with a sharper edge to it.

Newton’s letter outlined the damage she faced and the cost of setting it right. It provided a basic history of her property in regard to flooding. It also explained how she’s heard promises and seen fingers pointed from the various municipalities over the years, but little improvement to the situation.

“Needless to say,” Newton wrote, “I am sick of the run around, and have exhausted my financial resources because of this issue. I have spent many thousands of dollars, and lost more valuable items than I can count — many of which were irreplaceable family heirlooms, original art and photographs. Over the years, I have had East Lansing, Meridian Township and Ingham County officials point lots of fingers at each other, and NO ONE has taken any responsibility for this problem. I hear lots of promises, but there is no follow through.”

Despite their persistence, these residents of Timberlane Street have gotten little short-term relief and no real long-term solution to this problem.

Newton’s claim with Meridian Township, where she is a resident, was denied. The reason was essentially that the specific pipe there belongs to East Lansing and therefore Meridian is not liable.

Perry, the township’s DPW Director, explained to ELi that this is because of a state law, Public Act 222 of 2001: “PA 222 has specific requirements that must be met in order to be eligible for a reimbursement for property damage or loss related to a sewer disposal system event,” he told ELi in an email. Because Meridian Township doesn’t own the specific infrastructure, they are not liable.

Dylan Lees for ELi

These houses, located just over the East Lansing border in Meridian Township, all had their basements flooded on Aug. 12. The sewer system for all of them is owned by the City of East Lansing.

Newton has since filed a claim with East Lansing, but isn’t holding out hope, especially after the meeting on Monday, Sept. 20. 

Newton helped organize that meeting, expecting staff from East Lansing and Meridian Township would come and discuss with residents what had happened and what could be done. In attendance, ultimately, were workers from both municipalities, Meridian Township’s Chief Engineer Younes Ishraidi, along with Perry, McPherson (Interim DPW Director for East Lansing), and East Lansing’s engineer LaCasse.

What these five households on Timberlane wanted then, and still want now, is some clear explanation of what happened, what they can do as property owners to solve this problem, and, importantly, what the various governments in charge of the drainage system are also doing to fix it.

That last wish would seemingly require one or more of the municipalities to agree that there is a fault or issue present beyond extraordinary rain leading to too much water for too small a pipe. 

Newton and Corey Quintus had hoped this meeting might be a step toward that. It was not.

According to Newton and Quintus, who were both present and took notes for portions of that Monday’s endeavor, Ishraidi confirmed that a 24-inch interceptor sewage line in the area had been “surcharged” — flowing to capacity and still not draining all the water necessary — around Aug. 12, and that can happen because of defects or illicit connections. ELi reached out to Ishraidi to confirm this and is awaiting a response.

It was also suggested that residents hook up sump pumps to the 36-inch sewer main that runs water out of the neighborhood, though it wasn’t made clear who would pay for that connection. McPherson and Perry confirmed that as a potential option.

Newton asked if the municipalities would consider petitioning the Drain Commissioners office for potential drain improvements, and was disappointed to be told no. She remembers that Perry said he’d rather do local infrastructure improvements to the pipes on Timberlane.

“For the Township to consider submitting a petition to the Drain Commissioner, we would require strong support from the majority of the residents, as they would have to pay for a large portion of the construction costs through special assessments,” Perry said in his email. “This can be financially significant to individual homeowners.”

Meanwhile, a catch basin for handling stormwater just to the north of these houses does not appear to be properly maintained. And that’s already supposed to be the job of the County Drain Commission.

Located to the side of a grass lane connecting Burcham Park to Timberlane Street, the grate at the top of this catch basin is approximately a foot above the ground with a black, corrugated plastic bypass. Just below the metal grate, where stormwater is supposed to flow in, mud and other debris have clogged the mouth of the catch basin. 

Dylan Lees for ELi

The clogged catch basin mouth just north of the homes that flooded along Timberlane Street.

Another catch basin, about 50 yards to the south, is not clogged at the opening, and water was still seen a few feet below days after the most recent rain.

When a County engineer arrived on Sept. 20, Newton said, he informed the East Lansing crew that that catch basin is the County’s to maintain. ELi reached out to both McPherson and Drumm to confirm this was the case. McPherson wrote in an email that “I assumed it was an East Lansing catch basin and storm sewer but in fact, it is the County’s system.”

After emailing two questions to Drumm, his boss Drain Commissioner Lindemann responded to us, writing that if ELi wanted to speak about flooding or drain issues, we should call him. 

ELi did call Lindemann, who said that the issues along Timberlane stemmed from the sanitary sewer — which belongs to East Lansing — not the County’s stormwater system. The complaints from residents were about sewage, he said, not stormwater. But he also confirmed the nearby clogged catch basin belongs to the County’s Drain Commission.

An Ingham County Drain crew had inspected the storm drains and catch basins in that area “several times” following the Aug. 12 flooding and it was in good working order, Lindemann said, adding “everything worked the way it was supposed to work.”

It still isn’t clear what help people on Timberlane Street are going to get. 

At the meeting on Sept. 20, following the initial back-and-forth over who owns and maintains what infrastructure, a long conversation ensued. This was after the East Lansing crew had already been out there for hours removing manhole covers. Newton got the sense various East Lansing and County staff didn’t want the residents there for this part, she said, so she headed inside. She was tired, anyway. More than an hour later, she said, she remembered seeing them outside, still talking.

The next day, an East Lansing crew was back on Timberlane. Residents recognized them as the same workers who had been there the day before. Newton tells ELi she asked what they were doing and they told her they were sending a camera down into the sewer to inspect it. The workers, after being relatively open the day before, were not interested in talking to residents that day, Newton and others remember. 

Newton, Corey Quintus and their neighbors were hopeful about the Sept. 20 meeting. They thought some headway could be made in regards to figuring out who can help improve the sewer and stormwater drainage, and establishing what might actually be done to fix it. 

Instead, they’re still unsure as they work to protect their homes, hoping it doesn’t rain heavily again.

“I was so exhausted by it all and discouraged,” Newton said of the Sept. 20 meeting. “You know, all that time and energy, and it just — it felt like we were just spinning wheels. And when I saw Corey a little bit later, she said, ‘They’re still out there talking,’ meaning those fellows that were from East Lansing and the ones from the County. And I said, ‘Well, have you said anything to them?’ And she said, ‘I get the feeling that somebody told them not to talk to us anymore.’ And I thought, you know what? She’s right.” 

“Because that’s the feeling I got too,” Newton said. “It was like they just wanted me to go away.”

Read an ELi report from 2016 about a group of homeowners who sued the City over sewage in their basements. That lawsuit has not yet been resolved.

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