Source: http://www.omaha.com, April 22, 2016
By: Emily Nitcher
Bill Vance’s house slippers were wet.
It was the 74-year-old Bellevue man’s first indication, on Feb. 29, that something was wrong in the basement of his home on Hancock Street.
Next came the smell.
Two to three inches of murky brown water, including some human waste, had seeped into the basement of his home, soaking carpet, furniture, lamps and walls. Everything the brown sludge touched was destroyed.
And Vance wasn’t alone.
A few houses away, Gloria Mosser, wearing flip-flops, walked down her basement stairs and stepped into the brown liquid covering the floor. Mosser had been trying to sell the rental house, which was vacant, and the muck was there for days before she discovered it.
It has been nearly two months since a Bellevue contractor, Gearhart Plumbing, hit a water line near the intersection of Hancock and Main Streets. The contractor was working to fix a collapsed sewer line when the water line was hit. The result: Water from the ruptured line, dirt and sewage flowed into the basements of about 12 homes.
The brown liquid has been removed, but many of the homes have not been repaired — leaving homeowners looking for answers and compensation.
What has begun is a lot of finger-pointing among the entities involved: the city, the plumbing contractor and its insurance company, and the Metropolitan Utilities District.
This week the Bellevue city attorney issued a press release expressing disappointment that the contractor’s insurance company has refused to pay the homeowners’ claims. The city called on the insurance company to “step up … to help these victims.”
The city also detailed its own investigation into what went wrong, beginning with the Feb. 29 water line break.
Workers from Gearhart Plumbing were on the scene that day to repair an old sewer line that had collapsed. Instead, the workers hit a main water line, which was above the sewer line.
When the water line was hit, thousands of gallons of water was released, said Epiphany Ramos, wastewater operations manager for Bellevue. That water then mixed with dirt from around the line and raw sewage from the lines in some of the homes, she said.
Thomas Culhane, an attorney representing Gearhart Plumbing, said the water line was hit because not all of the lines were properly marked. Gearhart called a digger’s hotline to request the location of the lines — as is required by law — before the work began. Other utilities came out and marked the streets, according to the attorney.
Culhane said Josh Gearhart spoke with MUD before he began work and was told he had the all-clear.
“He is definitely sorry this happened,” Culhane said. “If the line had been properly marked by MUD, it wouldn’t have happened.”
MUD disagrees that it’s the source of the problem.
MUD spokeswoman Tracey Christensen said Thursday that the request received from the hotline said to “mark rear of property,” and MUD did that. She said such requests are filled out based on information provided by the caller.
According to the city, the requests were to locate lines in the backyards of several homes. There was no request for Main Street, where the water line is located, according to the city.
Gearhart’s insurance company, Columbia Insurance Group, has refused to pay homeowners’ claims, stating that MUD had an obligation to mark all lines in the vicinity, the city’s press release said. A representative of the insurance company did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Several homeowners said Gearhart paid to have the brown liquid in their homes cleaned up.
Patsy Haagensen said men from Gearhart also helped her carry things from her parents’ basement to protect them from the water. Culhane said Gearhart was just trying to help the people affected.
Bellevue City Attorney Patrick Sullivan said these situations aren’t all that unusual, and normally one of the parties involved takes responsibility.
“Within days, adjusters come in, insurance company pays it, and we’re down the road to the next project,” Sullivan said. “This is a battle between parties, and neither one will admit an error.”
He said city officials are sympathetic to the homeowners but have no immediate plans to pay for damage.
“My God, who wants to be under those conditions and have that particular type of damage?” Sullivan said. “Unfortunately, the law does not provide an easy remedy for the city to provide.”
Homeowners have attended two City Council meetings and expressed their frustration. Homeowners had another meeting with city officials last week, and many had hoped the city would step in and help pay for repairs.
At least a couple of homeowners received some compensation from their individual insurance companies, but most discovered that the damage was not covered by their policies.
Councilman Steve Carmichael, who represents the area, has met with several of the affected homeowners. He and other council members have said they wanted the city to help the residents, but the plan was stopped by the city’s legal team and administration.
“I’m furious about this deal,” Carmichael said. “The residents have sustained significant damage at no fault of their own.”
Vance said the message he took away from a meeting last week with city officials was to “get a lawyer.” He and several others affected by the sewer backup are planning to do just that.
And there is at least one similar case in Sarpy County.
Gretna homeowners fought the City of Gretna for five years after sewage flooded the basements of their homes. Five homeowners sued the city, and in April 2015, a Sarpy County jury awarded the homeowners a combined $67,643 in damages. The city has appealed that decision.
Sullivan, the Bellevue city attorney, said he would like to avoid a lawsuit, but he doesn’t see the issue being resolved any other way.
Vance and his wife, Donna, moved into their Bellevue home 11 years ago. In the brown muck, they lost furniture and lamps and also 47 puzzles held together with duct tape that had hung on the basement walls. Memories like that can’t be replaced, Bill Vance said.
The Vances, who have been married for 51 years, have remained in their home, despite the mess. They try to stay positive, but it gets harder each day. Donna Vance, 73, had three surgeries in two months and is still recovering from a hip replacement last year.
Their damage total sits at $11,000, but that doesn’t include an estimate for the ruined furniture or for the mold, which has gotten so bad that the drywall will have to be ripped out and replaced.
Bill Vance tallied up smaller expenses in a folder that holds the paperwork: $105 for cleaning supplies, $145 to fix the furnace, $200 for a dumpster.
He’s worried, too, about paying for his wife’s medications.
Vance is frustrated that no one wants to take responsibility.
“I always learned that if I did something wrong, you stand up for it,” he said in his now-empty basement. “And that way you can move on.”