Residents ask for help after city pipe break

Community Development and Planning Director Faye Stewart was hunting on Oct. 22 when he got a call. A 12-inch water pipe burst, sending 1.23 million gallons of water flooding into the neighborhood of S. 14th St. 

It took 115 minutes to turn off 10 valves and stop the flow of water. It took just under 12 hours to restore service. How long it will take to clean up? No one seems to know. Who will pay for the damage to houses in the area? The city isn't sure other than, it won't be local government. 

Stewart reported an update to the city council on Monday night, roughly 22 days after the incident. It's the same amount of time Barbara James Hunter has gone without heat. 

"My house is severly damaged," she told the council Monday night. "The water got to my duct work, it took out the lower section of my home where my mother-in-law was staying, my studio apartment in the backyard. There's six inches of soot under my house that needs to be removed and it is contaminated. So far, it's cost $14,500," she said. But according to Hunter, she's one of the lucky ones. "I've watched my neighbors who are elderly sit in water and soot and now they're in and out of the hospital." 

Katie Hayes also saw damage to her property and addressed the council on Monday, praising Stewart for his action on Oct. 22  but questioning the city's actions since that day. 

"Faye did the right thing," she said. "Since that day, Faye has done the right thing, fixing the entrance to our driveway so that we can use it and hand shoveling the debris. Since that day though, it's been a nightmare," Hayes told the council that her homeowners' insurance would not cover the damage. 

According to Cottage Grove City Manager Richard Meyers, neither will the city. 

Meyers told the council that the city is not liable for the damage if there was no negligence on the part of the city. And according to City/County Insurance Services (CIS) there was no negligence. 

"As a board you can say you want to pay for this," Meyers said. "But once you start down that road, there's no backing off of it. You will be setting precident." Meyers warned councilors that if they offered to pay for the damages on S. 14th St. they would opening themselves up to a legal can of worms and the city could end up on the hook for damages caused by other 'no-fault' accidents or disasters. 

According to Stewart, the time it took for the city to shut the water off is directly related to redundancies within the city's system. Meyers supported Stewart's assessment by noting that, "When you turn these valves you're turning them 32 times to get them to move an inch." He also informed the council that turning the water off for the entire city was not an option on Oct. 22. 

Six crew men and Stewart were able to get the system back online a little after 9 p.m. the same day. 

"CIS performed an investigation of the waterline break/repair and found the city not to be at fault or liable for the incident," Stewart wrote in a report to the council. "Since CIS is a pool owned by cities and counties, the Board of Trustees set a policy to compensate homeowners for reasonable expenses incurred to remove the water and dry out the flooded buildings provided the owner signs a release to conclude the claim." 

Hunter said it took 10 days of high powered fans and heaters to dry out her home while Hayes said the money offered by the city's insurance was "pittance" to what it cost to repair her home. "It was informative to hear how long it took to turn the water off but that doesn't mitigate my damages," she told the council. "Most of us don't have thousands of dollars in the bank to pay for this. Our only recourse is to take the city to court which is more money we don't have."

Councilor Jake Boone spent his time during council member comments to question Meyers and the city attorney on what the board could do to help homeowners affected by the incident. 

"This sucks," he said after Meyers informed him that the city could not obtain better insurance without tripling water bills and that any move by the board to cover the costs would be seen as precident for future incidents which could lead to the city's bankruptcy in the event of a natural disaster.

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