Ellen and Lowell Fisher have lived at 2100 Churchill off Scio Church Rd. for thirty-eight years and never seen anything like the flood of 2012.
“I’m watching the hail come down, really big hail,” Ellen remembers. “And then it started to rain, really hard rain.” Meteorologists say the same March 15 storm that created the Dexter tornado also dropped two inches of rain on Ann Arbor in three hours. That “twenty-five-year storm” quickly overwhelmed the neighborhood’s storm sewers and sent rainwater into its streets, yards, and basements.
“It crested the egress window,” Fisher says, her voice rising, “then it filled the egress space, and then it comes pouring in! The alarm went off on my sump pump–we have two that alternate–and we had water coming up through the sump pumps! I called Perimeter [the city contractor that installed the pump] as the water crested around the other egress window, and soon I had five to seven inches in my basement!”
Around the corner at 2240 Mershon, Dave and Katie Foster got seven feet. “We’ve lived there thirteen years and never had water in the basement before,” Dave Foster says. “It went into the egress’s window well, filled that, burst the window, and then filled up our basement.”
“At some point,” continues Fisher, “the drain in the basement started to work. But I had water in my house for hours.” On Churchill, she adds, the water was so deep that “one neighbor’s car floated by.”
Insurance covered only the cost of the cleanup. Fisher figures that repairing their basement, raising the wells around the egress windows, and steepening the grade between their house and the street cost them “close to $20,000.” Foster estimates his costs will be “well north of $15,000.” In addition to drywall and insulation, “our furnace, hot water heater, washer, and dryer were all submerged, and so was our refrigerator.”
Fisher says she “needed to do something.” Using a neighborhood email list, “I sent a letter to the mayor and copied the folks in the neighborhood.”
She didn’t hear back from mayor John Hieftje, so three weeks later she appeared before city council to plead her case. Fourth ward representative Margie Teall emailed Fisher the next day and copied Hieftje, plus her fellow Ward Four rep Marcia Higgins, city administrator Steve Powers, and interim public services administrator Craig Hupy. Two weeks later, Hupy sent Fisher a four-page letter describing exactly how the March 15 storm sent Malletts Creek into her basement.
Dave Foster appeared at the next council meeting. “I was pleased by their concern,” he says. “But when we submitted our claim to the city, they said the drains were up to specifications and the drainage system has no defects and no blockages, so they weren’t responsible.”
Fisher disagrees: “The storm water system is inadequate, and the footing drain disconnect program has added to the problem,” she says. “The city’s responsible for the sewers, and they should do something about it.” And she says that Jack Eaton, Teall’s challenger in the August primary, “seems concerned. He seems to think we shouldn’t have to put up with this.”
“Our storm water system is beyond its capacity,” says Eaton, a labor attorney, “and our infrastructure planning is not out ahead of the problem. Rather than address it they’ll tell you it’s too expensive to fix. But that’s not a good excuse.”
Assistant city attorney Abby Elias says otherwise. “The city does not have an obligation to capture and control all water that falls or flows during all rain storms and is not liable for water damage due to a rain storm,” she emails.
But what about the footing drains? For years, the city let developers pipe runoff from new homes and businesses into its “sanitary” sewers. In heavy rains, that water overwhelmed the system, causing sewage to back up into hundreds of basements around town. So since 2001, the city has paid Perimeter and other contractors to redirect the runoff from 2,000 homes and businesses into the storm sewers.
Lauren Mermelstein, who’s lived at 2099 Ascot for sixteen years so far without a flood, blames her neighbors’ problems on that switch: “Everybody has allowed the city to bully them into it, and everybody knows it turns a dry basement into a flooding basement,” she says. She’s resisted efforts to disconnect her own footing drains, but says the city is getting tough. “They send you a ninety-day notice saying they’ll fine you $100 a month if you don’t comply.”
Mermelstein wants to see a different solution: “Just widen the sewers!”
Craig Hupy wishes it were that simple. “People assume the storm sewers will pass every drop of rain,” he says, “but they’re designed to mimic nature and store the water in low spots.” The Malletts Creek system, he says, is typical of the rest of the city, and the entire Great Lakes region: “In fact, I’d say it’s darn near universal.”
Part of Fisher and Foster’s problem, Hupy says, is that “Churchill and Mershon were built in a historic creek valley.” And part is that, since 1980, stiffer building codes have required homeowners to construct large “egress windows if the basement is used as a dwelling, but that’s the easiest way for water to get in.”
According to Hupy, though, the footing drain disconnect program definitely isn’t part of the problem. “[If] we had not done it, we would have had multiple sanitary sewer backups in basements on those streets,” he says. “We’ve got data going back twelve years, and there was about 1 percent more water in the [storm sewer] system because of the sump pumps. I defy anyone to tell me what difference that made, and it saved the sanitary sewers from backing up.”
According to Hupy, a 1997 study concluded it would cost $97 million to build a storm water “backbone” capable of containing a one-in-ten-year flood. He figures doing that work now would cost $147 million. “And the last storm was a one-in-twenty-five-year possibility,” he says. “To maybe stop [that] flooding would cost at least double that.”
Even if the taxpayers were willing to pay so much, he adds, “the state would not allow it because that strong a flow would blow the critters and bugs right out of the creek. And all that water would just go downriver to whatever town is next–and they don’t want it any more than we do.
“The state would say to build rain gardens and storage facilities, which is what we’ve done,” says Hupy. “When we repaved Stadium a few years back, we installed larger pipes with cisterns, and the schools allowed us to use their front yard at Pioneer for storage facilities.”
But even after that work, Mershon and Covington flooded. Where does that leave the Fishers? In addition to the grading the couple paid for, the city has installed a third sump pump.
“They [Perimeter] put two sump pumps in with an alternating switch to even the wear,” Hupy explains. “The problem is that it’s set up to run only one pump no matter how high the flow. We installed [the new pump] so that when their system cannot handle the flow, the city pump would kick in and handle it.”
Three pumps and higher window wells may keep out the next one-in-twenty-five-year storm. But, Hupy warns, “Flooding is a natural occurrence. It’s Mother Nature’s way of dealing with rainstorms. We’ll never get away from it.”
Ellen Fisher understands that. But, she says, “I feel like I’m caught in a horrible nightmare. My house’s value has plummeted! There’s got to be a solution!”
Then she has a sudden inspiration: “The city should buy my house and turn it into a retention pond!”