Storm victims bring concerns to city hall

The frustration felt by residents over considerable damages to their homes from the June 24 rainstorm and the city’s response to their needs was the focus of the July 2 Maple Lake City Council meeting.

The council sped through the night’s agenda to provide residents with a forum to express their concerns over city sewer backups that resulted in an estimated amount of $371,825 in damages to city homes and businesses.

Mayor Mike Messina opened the session by noting that the city engineer has been consulted about the performance of the lift stations in the city’s sanitary sewer system. “I want everyone to know that we’re going to work with our engineering firm and come to a solution if possible,” he said, setting a time frame of August or September for presentation of data and information. But he also noted it would not be possible to build a sewer system big enough to protect residents from record-breaking storms.

Curt Nordlie’s home at 720 4th Street West suffered an estimated $40,000 in damages and he said his home had also been damaged from a sewer backup in 1991. “At that time, we thought something had been done to cure this problem and nothing has happened,” he said.

Nordlie shared his experience as a city worker in Iowa while in high school and college and said that community had emergency contingency plans that included a better alarm system and lift station emergency pumps in areas prone to excessive rain. He said he appreciated the efforts of city maintenance staff and the fire department helping him clear sewer water from his home during the storm, but said preventative action needs to be taken.  “As a citizen, I need to feel comfortable in my house,” he said. “We have to do something to cure this problem.”

Ruth Borell, a neighbor of the Nordlies, said she had eight inches of sewer water in her basement and said she couldn’t imagine how the Nordlies could go through this twice. “I will not go through this a second time,” she said. “I can’t go through this a second time.”

She said her husband, Tim, couldn’t join her at the council meeting because he was at home chlorinating their basement. “The mold is so bad, you can smell it,” she said. “And we’re expected to live there.”  She said Howard Lake and Waverly had obtained dumpsters for use by residents with damaged homes and suggested that Maple Lake take similar action.

Deb Griert of 621 Robert Avenue North has what is estimated to be the most heavily damaged home in the city at $50,000 in losses.  Through tears, she told the council of the over three feet in sewer water in her basement and of her family spending their nights on cots at a Red Cross shelter because her house is not livable.  “I asked for help from the city,” she said. “I was told there was nothing they could do because this was an act of God.”

Griert expressed fears that her home may be condemned, that her sons are sick and it is necessary to wear a mask just to go into her house. She said the best estimates are that it will take three to six months to repair the damages to her home and that the Red Cross is working to organize a clean-up crew.

Griert also pointed to the holding pond in the Jude Addition and asked the council if that water was contaminated by the sewer backup and if that water could seep into and contaminate the city water system.  Griert’s boyfriend, Chuck Bixler, noted the force of the sewer water as it flooded the home and also referred to the 1991 sewer backup. “Obviously Maple Lake didn’t care last time,” he said. “Are they going to care this time?”

Bruce Gliem of 641 Robert Avenue North said what made him angry was the city’s response to the plight of homeowners, which he described as “No concern, no compassion, you’re on your own.”

He said the holding pond was also an issue, expressing skepticism that it will meet the drainage needs of a growing area and that its water has not been contaminated. “The city is not acknowledging there is sewage in that pond, but there is,” he said.

Council member Mike O’Loughlin said that as new developments are constructed, more holding ponds will be created to serve them. He also said the sewer backup was a first for the city, citing the 1991 event as an equipment failure. But Nordlie countered that backup was also the result of a storm. “It was the exact same situation,” he said.

Alison Totz of 133 Co. Rd. 8 South noted the flooding on her property and said the city’s drainage system is not up to meeting the needs of the growing community.

“I think it’s important to hear all of this,” said city engineer Phil Gravel.   “Let’s try and analyze what happened and see if there are things that can be done.”    Council member John Northenscold said that the city is looking at $3 million in expansion and improvements to its waste water treatment facilities. “We’re trying to do things to keep up with growth,” he said. “It’s just that this was such a huge amount of water to handle.”

Messina listed area cities affected by the flooding and said that none of them is taking responsibility for flood damages, with the possible exception of Buffalo.  And he reminded the crowd that the city’s leadership is composed of volunteers who are serving their community. “The only reason I sit in this chair is because I’m a concerned citizen in this town,” he said. “If you elect me out in November, good for you. I’ll have a lot more sleepful nights.”

Messina said that the next big rain might be in the category of the 16-inch rainfall in Roseau earlier in June. “There may not be any guarantee that this won’t happen again,” he said. But he added that there may be some processes the city can put in place.

Catherine Nordlie asked if the city could be held responsible for the damages caused by the sewer system backup. City Attorney Nate Bissonette responded that he couldn’t comment on a specific case, but the city would have to be proved to be careless or negligent. Northenscold said the issue has been turned over to the city’s insurer and said it is too early to predict an outcome.    Council member Steve Mooney said he spent the night of June 24 helping his daughter with a sewer backup in her basement and apologized to residents for not having the answers that callers were seeking after the storm. “I’m sorry if I let somebody down by not getting back to them,” he said. “But I didn’t have any answers to get back to them.”

The council took action to make dumpsters available at the city maintenance building for use by storm damage victims. City Clerk Linda Hruby said the city will also be contacting residents who called the city with damage estimates about FEMA disaster relief assistance. When the phone number for that assistance is released by the county, it will also be posted on the Messenger website at maplelakemessenger.com and broadcast on KRWC Radio.

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