Massive EL Rain Caused Sewer Backups Especially in Glencairn, Bailey, Shaw Estates

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Photo contributed to ELi by Douglas Olsen

Shaw Park in the Glencairn neighborhood of East Lansing flooded on the morning of Aug. 12, 2021.

Following the record-setting rain on the night of August 11-12, ELi surveyed readers about sewer back-ups to try to get a sense of where problems might have been grouped.

We’ve now received a total of 83 reader responses – including reports of storm water and raw sewage backing up into houses through basement drains. What the survey shows is a relatively high level of problems in the Glencairn, Bailey, and Shaw Estates neighborhoods.

Shaw Estates residents reported raw sewage coming into their basements.

In response to ELi’s survey, one person in the Shaw Estates subdivision, just north of the Glencairn Elementary School, reported that, despite “dual sump pumps” that “never stopped,” their “basement sewer backed up RAW sewage” flooding between 3-6 inches deep the 1,800-square-foot basement. “Lots of damage; still assessing.”

They said this was the second city-sewer backup in their house in two years, but the last time was much less substantial. “This is much worse.”

Another person who also lives in Shaw Estates wrote to ELi that on Aug. 12, they found their basement “flooded from sewer backup and feces everywhere, called DPW [Department of Public Works], we began cleaning, DPW came out within 3-4 hours and took photos of basement.”

The Glencairn problems appear heavily grouped around where the City has been undertaking sewer replacement.

Dozens of reports of problems came to ELi from the Glencairn neighborhood, and several readers in Glencairn posited that the sewer work there contributed to the problems.

Wrote one, “I, and several other affected neighbors, question the adequacy of preventative measures taken during this phase of the project to account for heavy rains entering the system while under replacement.”

“First time in many years,” said one Glencairn resident of their home flooding, “likely relevant to road construction.”

Another person in Glencairn reported a basement flooded with 12 inches of water, and another, “water in our entire basement today [Aug. 12] after the big rain last night.”

Nathan Andrus for ELi

A map showing responses to ELi’s survey about sewer backups.

Bailey has also seen its share of problems this summer.

A reader who lives on Gunson Street in the Bailey neighborhood reported that when the tornado warnings went off on June 26 this year, “sewer water back-up spouted from [the] basement floor drain and flooded basement,” but the recent Aug. 11-12 rain was worse: “Largely drained by morning but left behind dirt and sludge and a big mess.”

Another reader in Bailey, on Kedzie Street, also had problems with both the June and August storms: “During the heavy rain/tornado watch, water came rushing up through our basement shower drain and flooded the utility side of our basement.” Then, on Aug. 12, “Same thing. Water came rushing up through our basement shower drain twice, about an hour apart, and we spent well over two hours diverting (sweeping and pumping) all of that rain water over to our sump. Gallons and gallons and gallons of water flowing up and in at a very fast clip.”

There were numerous other reports of problems in Bailey.

Some obtained help from the Department of Public Works (DPW). Others did not.

During the torrential rains during the early morning hours of Aug. 12, a reader on north Sunset Lane in the Glencairn neighborhood called Deputy DPW Director Nicole McPherson “around 3:30 AM. She responded immediately and came out here because of the infrastructure project (sewer and water mains) adjacent to my home. She’s excellent. She got the project guys out here to make adjustments – which is not to say that the water I got [in my house] was the fault of the company.” This reader judged the system “overwhelmed. They had not done anything to my sewer connection yet. I hope the new sewer infrastructure will eliminate these problems.”

But others said they did not find DPW’s responses helpful this time or in the past. Some said that by the time they called DPW on Aug. 12, they were told they would need to wait for someone to come out, because so many people had called. Said one reader who lives on Ann Street in Bailey, on Aug. 12, “Water came back up into our large basement utility sink and a wet bar sink, overflowing both. This is the 3rd time in 25 years that this has happened. Every time after a significant rain. I called DPW and expect a call back.”

Some reported that special work done on their homes functioned as hoped in the face of the huge downpour.

A resident on Cahill Drive in Southeast Marble told ELi, “Our basement stayed dry due to our preventative infrastructure we installed and worked [on] with our neighbor. A few years back, my family installed a back-up sump pump and power battery in case of outages. Too, our house and our neighbor created a long running French drain system with holding tanks for intense water rain falls like last night. We both did this due to some very strong flooding about 2 years ago. Since these installs, we both stayed very dry; luckily.”

A resident in Oakwood on south Sunset Lane also reported that French drains combined with rain barrels (to capture and divert rain away from the house) functioned correctly, leading to very little water in that basement.

Residents in the older neighborhoods have also reported that installation of back-stop valves in their floor drains have, in some cases, made a big difference. (See a video about how these work.)

But one respondent asked why East Lansing property owners have to undertake these kinds of measures, saying “several residents of Shaw Estates have, in the past year, installed French drains on their properties (4 owners just this summer!). We completed our several months’ long project of French drain installation (200+feet long, hand dug!) a few weeks ago and thank goodness we got it done prior to this latest rain, as our basement would have been a million times worse! The fact that so many residents have had to install French drains begs the question: what is WRONG with the drainage/storm system in 48823? Can we put funds toward fixing it for our property taxpayers rather than making unwise/unethical choices…?”

Flooding is becoming a repeat experience for some East Lansing residents – and it can be tough to get help.

Some readers report sewer backup problems being fairly regular occurrences – “on average, at least once per year” after heavy rains according to a resident in Glencairn near the elementary school.

Another Glencairn resident wrote they experienced flooding on June 26 and Aug. 12 of this year, “plus about once every summer since I’ve owned the property” on Oxford Street.

A reader who lives along Grand River Avenue in the Glencairn/Chesterfield Hills area told ELi they believe that “This kind of flooding has been getting worse since the City started building more downtown. In 28 years the flooding has never been this bad. Something is going on.”

Many people reported serious challenges trying to hire cleaning contractors. One wrote that, with their basement flooded with sewage, “By noon, we had called 15 basement cleaning and disinfecting companies and were either told they were booked or left a message. We tried to clean it ourselves with a wet vac, dehumidifier, mops and towels, and filled our garbage and our neighbor’s garbage with rugs, and ruined items. However, our drains are still clogged with sludge and the sewage remains -now dried- under the linoleum, floor tiles and floor boards! Our paneling is wavy, and one door ruined. Our insurance company will cover up to $5000. This will not cover the damage. We are desperate for help with this mess!”

Many homeowners have expressed to ELi worry that their insurance policies will not cover the losses they have suffered, while some renters had no insurance.

The City has responded to ELi’s questions, and we are working to answer other reader questions.

According to the City’s Communications Coordinator Mikell Frey, “No injuries or fatalities were reported to the City” in relation to the Aug. 11-12 rain storm, and wellness checks were conducted on Aug. 12 in areas suffering the worst effects of the flooding.

The Water Resource Recovery Facility systems “were overloaded, but no operational issues were caused by the floods,” wrote Frey to ELi. Approximately 51 million gallons of water were treated on Aug. 12, although the system is rated to treat 18.75 million gallons per day.

“Approximately 61 million gallons of treated wastewater was discharged to the Red Cedar River from the City’s Retention Treatment Basin on Kalamazoo Street,” said Frey.

Meanwhile, lots of respondents asked a question similar to this reader’s: “Is this the shape of things to come? Hours of heavy thunderstorm activity – really unusual. What do climate modelers say?”

Our reporters will be following up with answers to that question along with investigation into where the City stands with separating storm and sanitary (toilet) sewers and what is known about the extent of the harms from the most recent big storm.

Our thanks go out to all the readers who helped us collect information about where problems showed up and where they didn’t.

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