Sewer Construction On Northlawn Avenue Didn’t Factor Into Localized Flooding, Says the City

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Flooding along Northlawn Avenue near Shaw Park in a photo contributed to ELi by Pat Firtl in 2021.

On the morning of Aug. 12, a number of East Lansing residents awoke to flooded basements following an overnight downpour that dumped 7.1 inches of rain on the City. 

ELi asked residents then to share how they had been impacted by the storm and subsequent flooding, which has informed our reporting on which areas had been hit the hardest.

Since that reporting, ELi has heard from several readers who wanted to know why one area in particular — Robert Shaw Park and adjacent homes, particularly to the north of the park —  had been hit so hard with flooding. 

A number of residents have said that they think the construction along Northlawn Avenue, which is in part to upgrade the sewer and stormwater system, was a factor in the severity of the flooding there. Some of those residents have also wondered whether the pumps that bypass the sections of pipe and sewer being serviced were fully functional, or functioning at all, during the storm.

“You’ve got the residents there that have been there 30 plus years and they’re like, ‘We’ve never seen flooding like this,’” said Pat Firtl, who lives on Oxford Road, just to the north of Shaw Park, and who woke up to a flooded basement that day. 

Firtl continued: “And then it was just, ‘OK, well there’s construction going on. The sewer’s ripped up.’ It just seems a little coincidental that it’s the kind of, the epicenter of that flood is right around the construction.” 

City Council member Lisa Babcock broached the same question at the Aug. 19 City Council meeting.

“There have been a lot of concerns voiced that it’s because of the way the work was being done.” Babcock said, “I have no way of evaluating that.” 

Contributed to ELi by Pat Firtl

Shaw Park in Glencairn was flooded during the extraordinary rain event.

In response to questions from Firtl and other East Lansing residents, ELi asked the City about the construction, pumps, and flooding in and around Shaw Park. We received answers from Acting Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson, via email.

The pumps, McPherson said, were operational and functioned as intended during the storm. The construction didn’t impact the degree of flooding there, either, she said. The existing sewers in the City were at capacity, including those downstream from the portion being worked on along Northlawn, McPherson explained.

“We understand that this flooding was caused by this rainfall event and was not caused by any failure of City utilities or any other City actions, including construction,” McPherson said.

From about 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 11 to 5:00 a.m. on Aug. 12, approximately 7.1 inches of rain fell on East Lansing, according to data from the National Weather Service. Based on NWS precipitation frequency data, the deluge that night had a 1% (or less) chance of happening — meaning it was a 100-year rain.

The water was clearly more than the City’s combined sewage-stormwater drainage system could handle. 

In a 2019 ELi interview with Kepler Doumarat-Sousa, Director of Public Works Scott House — who is currently away from the City on a military deployment — explained that “no sewer system is bulletproof, because it’s a finite amount of space.”

House explained that East Lansing’s combined system is designed for a 10-year rain — 2.5 inches in the same timespan as Aug. 11 and 12, for reference — and has become outdated. House explained that the goal of the system is to move water to the wastewater treatment plant, and if that is at capacity, there is a reservoir on Kalamazoo Street where runoff can be diverted and treated. If that reaches capacity, the water will start to back up elsewhere.

“When things really exceed the design capacity,” House said, “that’s when you have things coming out of areas you would not expect. Manholes and whatnot.”

For Firtl, the damage on Aug. 12 — about 15 inches of flooding in the basement, plus enough water outside to get into the cabin of the Honda Civic in the driveway and total the car — wasn’t as severe as what some of his neighbors experienced. 

Photo contributed to ELi by Pat Firtl.

Firtl’s backyard neighbors, who live on Northlawn Ave., had feet of sewage and stormwater in their basements, he said, and it flowed in directly from the lawn into the basement via a broken basement window as well as backing up from the sewer.

Shaw Park and the houses to the north are in a relatively low-lying area, but Firtl said the flooding on Aug. 12 was beyond what he and his neighbors had ever witnessed. There had been some minor backups a few years prior, Firtl said, but only a couple inches of water in his basement, and the situation was quickly resolved with a plumber. 

That all paled in comparison to the aftermath of the more recent August night.

Contributed to ELi by Pat Firtl

Water and sewage flooded into houses on Northlawn Ave., where the sewers are being reconstructed.

“The morning of [Aug. 12], I ran around about seven o’clock and started taking a bunch of pictures and it’s like, this, this is a lake. I mean it spread across quite a few properties. And I would think usually sewers catch up a lot more rapidly than what they did,” Firtl said.

What can you do to protect your home? 

While there is no foolproof solution to prevent damage from the City sewer system being overwhelmed, there are some measures that could help protect your basement from a minor backup or mitigate what could otherwise be more severe damage. (And as Babcock also noted at the Aug. 19 City Council meeting, with climate change factoring in, we’re likely to see more intense rains like that on the night of Aug. 12.)

One device that can help protect your home is a backwater valve. Essentially, it’s a one-way valve that allows the normal drainage out of houses to sewers, but closes when the flow is reversed. This is typically installed on the main “out” drain that connects a whole house to the sewer system, but smaller versions can be fitted to toilets or other fixtures. 

Another option to consider is a French drain. This is basically a pipe, perforated on top and dug partially into the ground, then covered with permeable material like gravel or rock. A french drain can then prevent water from pooling in yards or collecting around the foundation of the building, while diverting it elsewhere.

Some of the people impacted by this extraordinary flooding are learning the hard way the limits of their insurance policies. It’s never a bad idea to check to see if your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance policy covers flooding, including specifically flooding from the sewer system, if your home is at risk. While insurance can’t prevent damage, it can mitigate the expense and misery.

Editor’s note: ELi’s Andrew Graham (reporter of this story) spoke with Shaw Estates resident Dr. Rubén Martinez about his flood experience for the ELi East Lansing Insider podcast. You can hear the interview via this link or by clicking play here:

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