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City falls short on sewage backups

Doris and Charles Brightful stand in front of the northwest Baltimore home where a city sewer flooded their basement last year, the second time that sewage has flowed into their basement because of sewer overcapacity in their area.
Doris and Charles Brightful stand in front of the northwest Baltimore home where a city sewer flooded their basement last year, the second time that sewage has flowed into their basement because of sewer overcapacity in their area.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Kudos to City Council members Kristerfer Burnett and Edward Reisinger for putting a spotlight on the horrible problem of basement sewage backups (“Baltimore council members to ‘demand answers’ from DPW,” Nov. 11). We’ve had three sewage backups in the Thrift Shop at the Church of the Guardian Angel since mid-August after nearly 100 years of no such problems.

The first one was damaging and disheartening, the second two destructive and expensive. I should have just let the insurance company handle it, but couldn’t bear the sight and smell of that grey-brown bubbling mess sitting in our building, not with all the folks that come though one floor above for community and for aid, so I and another volunteer pumped out hundreds of gallons of raw sewage ourselves. The Thrift Shop will be closed for at least three weeks by the time the professional restoration crew gets done. Many donations given in love to support our Food Pantry had to be disposed of, and many hours of community and fellowship were lost, as were three weeks of revenue for our Food Pantry, which was already just barely keeping up with costs.

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Not only was this experience disgusting, it was also incredibly expensive. The city has recognized the financial burden these backups cause to homeowners and recently launched a reimbursement program to assist residents with the costs of cleaning up raw sewage in their homes. But the program isn’t working, and it doesn’t help nonprofits and other non-residential DPW customers. In the program’s first year, the city received 4,632 reports of sewage backups to 311, but only 74 households applied for the reimbursement program. Out of those 74 households, only 10 received reimbursement payments. These numbers make it clear that the program is not advertised well and that even when people know about the program and take the time to apply, the city is denying applications left and right.

The city must do more to support residents dealing with this crisis. A good start would be providing direct cleanup assistance to residents who experience a backup in their home. Raw sewage is a hazmat situation and should be treated as such. Suggesting people “do it yourself,” as DPW’s guide on sewage backups suggests, is absurd. I should know. I’ve taken three cracks at it and each time I needed to call in professionals to get it truly clean. And that’s on a concrete slab floor, not the packed dirt floor many rowhome basements have. And residents should not be forced to pay thousands of dollars in upfront costs and then wait to be reimbursed. Baltimoreans deserve better.

Craig Bettenhausen, Baltimore

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