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Two years after Northside flooding, 'we just want it to be over'

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 14, 2021

CINCINNATI — The sound of rain is calming for many. But not for Rosa Collins.

Instead, it conjures a horrible memory from two years ago when a rush of stormwater and sewage flooded her Northside home.

“I thought I was having a dream, because it was like I was living in a lake; you could see all of it out here. It flooded the whole yard,” she said. “(The) water started coming up and it was mud and human waste. I mean, human waste. You could smell it.”

The flood filled her basement and several feet of her first floor, where her brother, a disabled Vietnam veteran, slept.

“He was floating around the room,” she said.

He had to be rescued by the fire department, which floated him out of the house on his mattress. The event was traumatizing and gave him PTSD in his final year of life.

“After that, he would scream and wake me up, ‘We’ve got to get out of here, the house is flooding.’ And it wouldn’t even be raining,” Collins said.

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Damage to the Blanken home in the 2019 flood.

The flooding, which happened overnight June 15 to June 16, 2019, was caused by the failure of a Metropolitan Sewer District stormwater basin located in Northside.

According to MSD, a few factors led to the problem. First, there were two heavy rainstorms back-to-back. Second, a combined sewer overflow overhaul in the area was still under construction. The project, which was federally mandated by the EPA and Ohio EPA, consists of two stormwater basins: the Martha Basin and North Basin. The basins are intended to prevent combined sewer overflows from entering the West Fork Channel.

During that rain event, a berm on the North Basin failed, causing water to pour out of the basin onto Kirby Avenue. It then flowed down to Virginia Avenue and Martha Street, flooding homes on both streets as well as the Martha Basin.

“When something is under construction, we didn’t have the berms completely stabilized. We didn’t have vegetation, and all of those things help contribute to how fast the water is flowing into the basin and how well it can hold the water in there,” said Diana Christy, MSD's executive director.

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Homes along Virginia Avenue

A third-party investigation also found some design flaws in the project, particularly at the North Basin, according to Christy.

“It was essentially undersized for the amount of flow that was coming into that area,” she said. “With the size of the basin and the ability of the water to exit that basin, there were some design errors that we are still evaluating.”

The project is now complete and vegetation and erosion control are in place. Christy said that will prevent this type of flooding from ever happening again. Engineers also modified the project before its completion to allow the basins to drain more quickly and prevent them from filling so rapidly.

“I am confident where we are today is in a much better place than where we were two years ago,” Christy said.

But, that doesn’t bring much consolation to those affected.

Collins is still staring at the mess left behind.

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Northside residents clean up after the flood.

In order to clean up, “they ripped all of the baseboard off. They’re still off in every room downstairs. The floors, I had carpet in here. In the living room, it’s gone. The tile in the kitchen and in the bathroom, it’s gone,” she said. Making matters worse, raccoons have begun entering the home where walls had to be torn apart.

She said she doesn't have the money for all the repairs.

“I mean, the financial stress is bad," Collins said. "But, the emotional stress is just as bad. Maybe worse. I just don’t think that I should have to live like this. And I don’t have money to go anywhere else."

Down the block, Marni Blanken’s home sits padlocked and vacant.

“The house is so damaged, it has so much black mold, we aren’t allowed in the house,” she said.

Blanken and her husband had just purchased a new home and were preparing to put their Northside home up for sale when the flood happened.

“It went up to our first floor, maybe about a foot up to our first floor," she said. "It flooded our car, it flooded our driveway. We had a koi pond. All the fish we had were throughout the neighborhood. We had to go find our fish."

She and her husband spent days cleaning before MSD crews were approved by Hamilton County to offer cleaning services. However, she said, that cleaning was not done properly and the black mold returned.

“Because of the damage to the house, we lost the insurance on our first mortgage, so we almost defaulted on our first mortgage, almost went bankrupt,” she said. “We spent many nights crying. What are we going to do? We just want it to be over.”

According to MSD, roughly 25 claims were filed after the storm and nearly all have been settled.

“We’ve really worked hard to get this settled as quickly as possible,” Christy said.

In fact, both Blanken and Collins received a personal property settlement check in November, roughly a year and a half after the incident. Collins received $24,460.89; Blanken got $22,558.67.

Both said that’s only a small portion of making them whole.

For Collins, she’s still waiting on a settlement to address the cost of mold remediation and restoration. A quote from consulting company UN4CN estimated the cost at $147,150.75.

According to emails obtained through a public records request, MSD has offered to pay half of that: $73,575.38. The sewer district said it would consider paying more if Collins let a third-party vendor inspect the house. Her attorney and MSD’s attorney have not agreed on the terms of that inspection.

The cost estimate by UN4CN for mold remediation and restoration of Blanken’s home is $252,441.51. Again, MSD offered to pay half without the vendor inspection. Instead, MSD has agreed to purchase Blanken’s home for a cost of $169,000. That agreement was made in March; however, Blanken said she still hasn’t received the check.

“We are extremely angry that we had to go through this," Blanken said. "We are taxpayers; this is taxpayer money. We’re just asking for our rightful money back. They just have been so callous in dealing. They just don’t care that they’re ruining people’s lives."

Christy was unable to discuss the specifics of the claims because attorneys are involved. But she did explain that these claims are not being paid out by the city’s sewer backup program because the issue wasn’t a sewer backup problem. Instead, they’re being handled through a damage claim process, which has less stringent protocols in place.

Dave Altman, an attorney representing Blanken, Collins and others who have already settled with MSD, created a protocol for the Northside claims: the “Expedited Northside MSD Claim Protocol.” It was signed by an attorney for the city, county and Northside residents in October of 2019.

The protocol states that, “The City will use best efforts to provide a good faith written settlement offer within 14 days after receipt of the claim.”

Altman said the sewer district has never questioned any itemized lines in the remediation and restoration claims submitted on behalf of his clients.

“We had no reason to understand why (the Metropolitan Sewer District) did not pay what was requested,” he said.

When asked why claims are still not settled, Christy said, “It is our job to make sure we are being responsible with these public ratepayer dollars. And therefore we have to evaluate the claims and evaluate the documentation that is provided to this to make sure we’re paying for damages that were caused during the flooding event.”

She also said, “It’s not always about the dollar amount. It’s just about the subject matter and what happened. It does get complicated when attorneys are involved.”

Christy hopes the claims will be settled soon, without both sides having to go to court.

So does Rosa Collins.

“This is two years now," Collins said. "Two years. Think about it. Think about two years ago, what were you doing. Let them come and live like this. And let them see what it’s like, because it’s actually, it’s bull. It’s no fun.”