Health

Senior residents reeling from the emotional and financial costs of basement flooding

After a wetter spring than normal, residents have struggled to remove sewage and stormwater from their basements. The costs are growing as they throw money at plumbers and pumps hoping to quell the flooding.

"You just want to pack up and leave, but you can't run from everything," a senior resident chimed about basement flooding and sewage that's left her wanting to move out of Harvey altogether. She's one of several households on 148th Street who have experienced persistent issues since mid-March. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
"You just want to pack up and leave, but you can't run from everything," a senior resident chimed about basement flooding and sewage that's left her wanting to move out of Harvey altogether. She's one of several households on 148th Street who have experienced persistent issues since mid-March. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

She measured the murky water: two inches high. It would’ve been worse without the pump, she thought. Bags and bags of trash lined the back of the home. She adorns boots and a face mask to do laundry.

“I have little children—babies in my house,” said a Dixmoor native who relocated to Harvey in 2012 and did not want to be identified out of privacy concerns. Her basement was their playpen, but not anymore. “Everything in my basement has to go out, except for the washer, dryer, water heater, and the furnace,” around which the water had pooled.

On March 19, the day before spring officially started, she and other residents began experiencing basement flooding. They “started knocking on doors,” she said, banding together to find out more about each other’s flooding issues, which included sewage backing up into their homes.

Many of them seniors, residents hired plumbers, purchased meager pumps, used gaunt buckets to dump water out—anything to reduce the flooding as spring showers only added fuel to the fire.

At least six households on 148th St. between Main St. and Morgan Ave. have experienced basement flooding since late March. Frustrations have mounted as residents struggle to get answers from city officials while working to alleviate the issue.

Spring hasn’t been record-breaking, but March and April were wetter than usual. Rainstorms can force stormwater and sewage into sewer lines, especially older ones, creating blockages.

It rained nearly half the days in March in the Chicago area, totaling about 4 inches, according to data from the National Weather Service. March usually sees 2.45 inches. In April, there’s normally about 4 inches of rainfall. This year, there were over 5 total inches. That trend didn’t continue into May, when it rained less than it typically does.

A game of telephone

The Dixmoor expat called the water department at City Hall, which sent a laborer with a truck to her home. She wasn’t happy with the response. “He just stood at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t take a picture or anything.”

A representative from the water department told her grandson that a water main break in the city’s line caused basement flooding in the area.

A wooden plank marks the water line for one 148th Street resident, a Dixmoor expat who said miscommunication from Harvey officials has her wanting to move. As shown on April 8, 2022. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
A wooden plank marks the water line for one 148th Street resident, a Dixmoor expat who said miscommunication from Harvey officials has her wanting to move. As shown on April 8, 2022. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Trash bags contain old items that were no longer viable after water damage from sewage and flooding in her basement. As shown on April 8, 2022. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Trash bags contain old items that were no longer viable after water damage from sewage and flooding in her basement. As shown on April 8, 2022. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
A stone's throw away from the trash bags was a backyard underwater, as shown on April 8, 2022. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
A stone's throw away from the trash bags was a backyard underwater, as shown on April 8, 2022. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

“We did the due diligence to make sure this wasn’t a city issue,” said Alderman Randle-El (5th). In late March, Randle-El visited residents, along with employees from Tierra, an Indiana-based environmental waste cleanup company the city hired to assess the city’s main line which runs through the alleyway behind the homes.

That investigation didn’t yield any obstruction, Randle-El said, suggesting the blockage was in residents’ home lines (which connect to the city’s line)—and therefore not the city’s fault. The freshmen alderman added that city laborers didn’t inspect home lines because that would qualify as using public funds toward private property.

Communication was inconsistent, residents charged. The customer service center, located at City Hall, is where you would call to file a complaint. Representatives there told residents a water main break occurred. Laborers are dispatched from the water pumping station, where representatives said the issue was on residents’ home lines.

“I didn’t want any of the word of mouth stuff,” Randle-El said. He asked Mayor Clark to send letters detailing Tierra’s finding to affected residents. “Tierra jetted the sewer, manhole to manhole with no obstructions being noted,” a resident’s letter reads, provided to the HWH. “However, the technician did note to the Harvey representative on site that the very large tree in one of the backyards is going to be an issue and very possible to get into the resident’s sewer line,” the letter adds.

Connie Butler received one of them. Butler hired a certified plumber who found no blockage in her home lines. “So, I decided to go up there,” she said, recounting her trip to City Hall two weeks later. When she arrived, a representative in the water department gave Butler a letter.

But, Butler said she never received a phone call or email from the city about a letter. “It was waiting there for me.” And, other residents were only made aware of letters once they heard Butler possessed one.

Butler gave up on city assistance and is seeking another plumber.

Butler's basement during a rainstorm, as shown April 22, 2022. The water subsided, but Butler feared it would rise again as spring rainstorms continued. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Butler's basement during a rainstorm, as shown April 22, 2022. The water subsided, but Butler feared it would rise again as spring rainstorms continued. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Just as her neighbors, water pooled around Butler's furnace in her basement, as shown April 22, 2022. The furnace's image reflects off the murky waters below. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Just as her neighbors, water pooled around Butler's furnace in her basement, as shown April 22, 2022. The furnace's image reflects off the murky waters below. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

The rainy day fund

As concerns about climate change grow, working-class people find themselves tight on cash to deal with the damage. The median household income in Harvey is roughly $33,000 — nearly half that of the state median, according to 2020 census data. For some, spending $350 on a plumber can be the difference between riding your home of sewage or buying groceries.

“I would’ve never thought retirement would be like this,” remarked a 148th St. resident who did not want to be named out of privacy concerns. She and her husband were so afraid of the sewage, they stopped using their water altogether. Twice a week, she and her family did clothing at a nearby laundromat. “I shouldn’t have to do [that] because I have a washer and dryer downstairs.”

They asked Randle-El if the City Council could develop such a reimbursement program like those in Elgin and Des Plaines, but “legislation takes time,” he said. At one point, Randle-El offered to pool his own money with 148th St. residents to pay for a certified plumber to alleviate their financial woes.

A private company—paid for by the city—found tree roots had entered the couple’s home line, causing the blockage. The couple spent nearly $6,000 between plumbers and fixing pipes.

"I was choked," one retired resident of 148th Street said about sewage and stormwater in their basement. At one point, they feared it would reach their furnace. She and her husband paid $5,300 to remove tree roots from their home line, which caused water and sewage to backup in their basement after several March and April showers. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
"I was choked," one retired resident of 148th Street said about sewage and stormwater in their basement. At one point, they feared it would reach their furnace. She and her husband paid $5,300 to remove tree roots from their home line, which caused water and sewage to backup in their basement after several March and April showers. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

Other residents are still sold that the issue is on the city’s end—especially in light of the fact that last year officials requested federal funding to repair the sewer system. In March, the federal government allocated $3.5 million to the city to make repairs to water and sewer infrastructure.

Last month, the City Council approved a resolution to execute a contract with Airy’s, a Joliet-based sewer company with a Tinley Park location, to lead repairs.

In a statement to the HWH, Jason Baumann, the city’s Director of Communications, said Harvey’s water system is good while the sewer system is “on the mend.” Any concerns can be addressed in-person twice a week during Meet the Mayor, in both English and Spanish, Baumann said.

“This commitment to bettering our community, our infrastructure, and relationships between the residents and government have been the cornerstone of his administration.”

The map snafu and possible solutions

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which cleans sewage and reduces flooding in the area, also received $1.5 million in federal funding for a new flood resilience program in several suburbs, including Harvey. The district will assess the city’s pipes to determine the most vulnerable points and plant 100 trees to reduce overflow.

Suburbs like Harvey have nearly 100 year old systems that require greater maintenance, according to the district. According to the MWRD website, Harvey has both combined and separate sewer lines.

In a combined sewer system, the same set of underground pipes carry sewage and stormwater. In a separate sewer system, one set of pipes carry sewage while another carries stormwater.

It’s currently unclear what parts of Harvey have combined sewer or separate sewer lines. However, MWRD’s project will only focus on separate sewer lines, according to the district, and each suburb receiving assistance will be required to provide a copy of their sewer map.

To better understand the sewer system, some residents wanted to see copies of the city’s maps. Public Works Superintendent Richard Seput suggested one couple go to view them at the water department’s customer service center, but a representative told the couple they didn’t have any, at all.

The HWH filed a FOIA request with public works and was told maps could not be made public because “the specified records concern vulnerability assessments, security measures, or response policies or plans designed to identify, protect, or respond to potential attacks on a community's population or systems, facilities, or installations,” according to the official denial from the City Clerk’s Office.

Mayor Clark told Randle-El that maps of some parts of the city existed when Clark was a 3rd Ward alderman.

Seput alluded to Randle-El that Robinson Engineering, a company based in South Holland, was hired to produce maps for the city years ago when it acted as Harvey’s engineer but the prior administration may not have paid for them.

Jennifer Prez, Robinson’s Director of Engineering , confirmed prior work for the city but directed comments to Harvey officials.

Seput could not be reached for comment.

The mayor’s office did not confirm nor deny the existence of maps.

In light of the complaints, the mayor’s office has directed Antero Engineering to research possible grants to fund a program in Harvey that would assist residents with private plumbing costs, Randle-El said.

There’s also going to be a list of reputable contractors added to the city’s website, but there’s no current timeline on when either project will be completed.

“There’s no doubt that Harvey has a fragile infrastructure,” Randle-El said. “Just because you have water in your basement, [that] doesn’t mean it’s a city issue,” Randle-El said, adding residents’ complaints still means there’s rectifying to be done. “Let’s focus on finding the problem and find a solution.”

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