On a quiet Sunday afternoon in March, raw sewage bubbled up into basements in the 1800 block of White Oak Circle.
Two months later, two homeowners on the block say they face paying more than $20,000 each to clean up and repair their houses. Insurance may help one, but the other’s insurance company says the backup occurred in city sewer lines, which are not covered.
The city of Wichita blames the backup on a heavy accumulation of disposable wipes in the city’s sewer main – user error, essentially – and says repairs are the homeowners’ responsibility.
The homeowners say that the city has offered no proof of the leak’s cause.
A work order supplied by the city in response to an open records request from The Eagle indicated that “paper” and “heavy/sludge” caused the sewer stoppage. Sludge was not mentioned by city officials as a cause when they were interviewed by The Eagle, and neither homeowner said they were told sludge was a cause. After further questioning, city officials said sludge routinely accompanies a sewer blockage.
It’s a classic “he said/she said” tale and a costly reminder how fate can threaten a homeowner with financial ruin.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” said Bennie Calip, one of the homeowners. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Around noon on March 9, Rachel D’Angelo heard running water in her basement.
D’Angelo, unemployed and with a son who had just gotten out of the hospital, knew she was in trouble.
“I thought maybe a line had broken or something,” she said.
What she found was “water and stuff coming out of every available hole in the basement.”
It was coming fast, she said – so fast that by the time she got downstairs, the carpet in the basement “squished under my feet. Water spewed up from everywhere.”
Schronda Williams was watching the house four doors to the north for her parents, Bennie and Mary Calip, both 73 and retired, who were in Florida. She swung by the house and got a surprise.
“The smell, man, it just slapped you in the face,” she said.
Williams found the same kind of mess that confronted D’Angelo in her parents’ recently remodeled basement: sewage streaming in, destroying the family’s new carpet and bookcases, warping the walls.
D’Angelo called the city’s emergency line at 2:34 p.m., and she said crews came right out.
“A guy came to my door and told me, ‘I’m going to do something and I want you to watch and see if the water stops. If it does, come tell me right away,’ ” she said.
Within minutes, D’Angelo said, the sewage flow stopped and she went out to tell the crew. She said city employees handling the leakage were clear: If it’s the city’s fault, we’ll take care of it. She said a city worker assured her later that day that she would be reimbursed.
So D’Angelo and the Calip family called the same Wichita disaster restoration firm, NCRI.
The company came out and cleaned up the Calip home, an extensive operation that included peeling off damaged sheetrock, removing ruined carpet and disinfecting the basement. The bill totaled almost $5,000.
NCRI started the same operation at D’Angelo’s home. But when she got the first bill, for $2,800, she called a halt to the cleanup.
“I don’t have a job. My son just got out of the hospital. How am I even going to pay this one?” she asked.
Preliminary estimates put the cost of repairs at roughly $20,000 each on top of the cleanup, the homeowners said.
D’Angelo and the Calips were certain they had some form of insurance against the backups in the days immediately following March 9.
The Calips filed claims with their insurance company, Horace Mann, and with the city.
In a letter dated March 27, the insurance company denied the Calips’ claim, citing exclusions that mean the policy doesn’t cover sewage backups.
“Since this loss resulted from sewer back up and it occurred off of the insured premises, we must regretfully and formally exclude any and all coverage for your claim as reported,” wrote Michelle Braddy, senior claims counselor for the Irving, Texas-based company.
In a letter dated April 8, the city said it had no responsibility for the damage.
“The City is liable for sewer back-ups only when they result from City negligence,” wrote city Deputy Attorney Brian McLeod.
“Investigation of this back-up revealed that it was not caused by any defect in the sewer line. Rather, it was caused by someone discharging a mass of non-soluable paper towels which formed a blockage downstream from your property.”
D’Angelo said her insurance company, USAA, gave her a choice: Pay a $1,000 deductible and insurance would cover the rest, or fight City Hall.
Pete Meitzner, the council member for District 2, where the leakage occurred, referred the issue to public works director Alan King, and King said council members have been instructed not to intercede in such disputes.
The Calips and D’Angelo say they have three major issues with the city’s handling of the backup:
• The city cannot prove that disposable wipes caused the stoppage.
“There’s no way to photograph it. You’re going up a blind line with a hose,” King said.
But city records, supplied in response to The Eagle’s open records request, indicate a camera was run up the line after the blockage was cleared.
King said the city had the ability to film lines before they are unclogged. “I guess we could do that,” he said. “You’d see all kinds of nasty things, and we haven’t felt the need to do that.
“Maybe we need to talk to law and see if that’s a prudent thing to do. It slows down the process and makes a blockage somewhere else more likely, but you’re right. It’s our word against theirs,” he said.
• D’Angelo says a city worker told her the city would take responsibility for the blockage. D’Angelo was unable to identify the worker by name.
King said no city worker would make those comments.
“No one remembers making those comments,” he said. “We had a well-trained person out there that day who is not a junior rookie type of guy. They are trained to say there are problems in the city sewer main, and people construe that to mean that this is our problem.
“Our people never say things like the city is going to take responsibility. They have clear training and instructions not to do that, to tell people to contact law and make a claim.”
• The homeowners also say that discharging a large enough quantity of disposable wipes down a toilet to create such a blockage is implausible. The Calips and D’Angelo wonder whether they are victims of a crime – illegal dumping in the manhole where city crews cleaned out the blockage.
“The water department never files police reports on sewer stoppages,” city officials wrote in their response to the open records request.
Both families say they were told by a city official that the paper was wrapped around a garden hose. King identified deputy public works chief Joe Pajor as that official.
“That does sound really weird,” King said, adding that any hose involved would be the city’s clog-clearing equipment.
“We knew the problem was paper towels, and as we were pulling the hose back, the material had paper towels wrapped around it. ... There never was a garden hose. Talking to crews, it was obstructive waste. Disposable wipes, probably, and as they’re pounding it, several feet of the hose had the paper towels wrapped around it.”
The homeowners still are thinking about their next step.
“I don’t know what’s next,” said Joseph Bowen, the Calips’ son-in-law. “I would think some kind of legal action, because I think they (the city) know they were at fault. They just don’t want to pay for it. If my in-laws had had some type of blockage or backup problem, we would have called out a plumber. I find it interesting that they had no problem whatsoever until the city did whatever they did. ”
D’Angelo hasn’t taken any action yet, instead choosing to gather support from neighbors for her efforts to have the city pay for cleanup and repairs. She thinks other homes in the area must have been damaged on March 9. The city, however, said the March 9 report of problems at the two homes is the only one on the block in the past year.
“We pay extremely high sewage rates, and they just don’t come out in a timely manner and do what they do, and I’m expected to cover something that isn’t my fault,” D’Angelo said. “If a pipe broke and destroyed my basement, that’s on me. But my pipe didn’t break.”
The incident sends a bad message to Wichitans, Bowen said.
“This is how you treat senior citizens on a fixed income, people who’ve paid taxes their entire lives,” he said.