CINCINNATI -- Edgar Russell had to stop midway down his basement stairs and go no farther. He was looking at 3 to 4 feet of black, smelly water, an apparent mix of rain and sewage.
"It was astounding," Russell said. "I mean, I was overwhelmed. I couldn't believe it."
The contaminated water ruined nearly everything in the basement: Expensive equipment and family treasures Russell's mother, Willa, had protected for decades were destroyed.
"It just hurt," she said. "It's something you can't ever replace."
The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati apologized for the flooding, cleaned and disinfected the Russells' basement for free, and told them they'd be reimbursed for everything they'd lost, Edgar Russell said.
But later, MSD denied his claim. The sewer district blamed the flooding on internal plumbing issues; it said the basement floor drains were improperly connected to the public storm sewer instead of a sanitary sewer line.
The Russells appealed to a federal magistrate.
Last week, two-and-a-half years after their basement flooded, they got the final word: the magistrate ruled in favor of MSD.
As long as it took the Russells to work their way through the system, MSD faces a far larger challenge resolving complaints from devastating flash floods that struck Aug. 28. The combined sewer system was overwhelmed that day and prompted nearly 2,800 reports of sewer backups.
"We thought that we were in better shape than we were to handle a high volume of calls," Wastewater Collection Superintendent Mike Pittinger said. "I think we realized pretty quickly that we weren't in as good of shape as we had hoped."
Five months later, the sewer district still hasn't reviewed 50 percent of 1,092 claims for damages. Of 516 cases it's resolved, MSD has paid out $1,925,163 among 388 settlements and denied 29 claims. The sewer district is waiting to hear back from 128 people who haven't yet returned signed settlement agreements, something MSD says they must do to get a check.
"We never forget that this is an extremely traumatic experience that these people are going through, and we're going to do the best that we can to help them within the constraints that we're allowed to do," Pittinger said.
The August floods are the biggest challenge ever for MSD's Sewer Backup Response Program, a part of an agreement reached with the federal government in 2002. The agreement requires MSD to improve its system and respond promptly to sewer backups and resolve claims as soon as possible.
The sewer district insists its backup program is a huge success.
"We have almost 100 percent satisfaction on our sewer backup response," Pittinger said. "There are going to be times where we still can't do it or we can't do it enough."
As part of the agreement, the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati provides an ombudsman to review the program and report findings to a federal magistrate. Amanda Toole, who's served as ombudsman since December 2014, said MSD is doing a good job overall, but she shared many concerns that have plagued the program for years:
- Callers say they can't get through to a representative during critical times. The line tells customers it's not in service or gives a busy signal, Toole's report said.
- People don't know they can report sewer backups online, or they're hesitant to do so.
- Homeowners sometimes get conflicting information about whether a backup was caused by an overloaded main sewer or a problem on their own property.
- Some people, including business owners and renters, don't know about the Sewer Backup Response Program, and so they don't know they can file a claim asking MSD to cover their cleaning costs and losses.
"We don't disagree with the ombudsman on anything on there," Pittinger said. "I think we recognize the same needs, and we actually have a plan in place to actually make those improvements."
Pittinger said the Russells aren't the first people to be frustrated with some confusion over who's liable.
And despite MSD's findings and the court ruling, the Russells believe they were victimized by the flooding and the system created to address claims -- a system that is now being tested like never before.
"Just don't do me wrong and close the door on me," Russell said. "Offer me something. You haven't offered me anything."
What you can do:
Report sewer backups immediately. MSD says you must report sewer backups within 24 hours to be eligible for reimbursement:
Online: MSD's Sewer Backup website
Info about preventing backups: 513-352-4288
Legal Aid Society: 513-362-2801