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On Monroe Street, Neighbors Are Frustrated With City's Response To Flooding

 Flood-damaged waste lines the curbs of West Monroe Street in Bloomington.
Welch Family
Flood-damaged waste lines the curbs of West Monroe Street in Bloomington.

The neighbors who live on Monroe Street on Bloomington’s west side lost a lot of stuff in the late June flooding—their basement sanctuaries, entire bedrooms and bathrooms, family photos, and even inventory for a small home-based business.

They also lost their faith in their city government.

“I will blatantly outright say it: It is a case of classism,” said Coretta Jackson, who lives in the 900 block of West Monroe. Her basement filled with over 3 feet of water and sewage.

“The City of Bloomington has a real big problem with treating the west-side residents like subpar citizens,” said Jackson, a college-educated mother of three and small business owner who’s lived in Bloomington for 19 years. “I get that our tax base isn’t as big as the rest of the city, but we matter just as much as everybody else.”

WGLT met with Jackson and four of her Monroe Street neighbors this week to see and hear about the damage they suffered in the historic rainfall and its aftermath.

More so than the material things they lost, they expressed frustration with the City of Bloomington’s response to the disaster. Now, they want city leaders to take two specific steps to make things better: offer direct financial relief to those impacted by flooding, as proposed by council member Mollie Ward; and finally separate the combined sewer systems that many blame for the poop-filled floodwater.

 Mark Welch has lived on Monroe for 42 years with his wife, Rebecca. He spoke at this week's Bloomington City Council meeting.
Mark Welch has lived on Monroe for 42 years with his wife, Rebecca. He spoke at this week's Bloomington City Council meeting.

“Let’s address it. Let’s correct it. That’s what we need. We need some help,” said Mark Welch, who’s lived on Monroe for 42 years with his wife, Rebecca. “But we also need to know that if I put money into my basement or home again, I’m not just throwing it away for the next storms to come along when they’ll say, ‘Act of God. You’re on your own.’”

“Act of God” is a reference to the legal reason provided to Jackson, Welch and hundreds of other Bloomington residents who filed claims with the City of Bloomington’s insurer, PMA, and were denied. Almost all of those 500 claims were rejected, city officials said.

Homeowners like Jackson and Welch have few other places to turn for help, although some loan assistance is starting to flow from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Their homeowners’ insurance policies do not cover flood damage like this. Welch said it wasn’t a concern, because they do not live in a floodplain and their home had never flooded in their 42 years on Monroe.

The Welches finished basement—family room, office, and bedroom—is a goner. That means they’ve essentially lost half their livable space. Restoring their basement would cost from $20,000 to $30,000, Welch estimated.

“We haven’t had a problem (with flooding),” Mark Welch said. “Now, we have a problem.”

One of his neighbors is Susan Crawford. She got 3 feet of water in her basement. That’s where her primary bedroom was located, so she lost a lot. She had sewer and drain insurance, but that only covered one bill—drying out her basement.

Crawford is especially frustrated by the claim denial term, “Act of God.”

Bulk waste pickup

“It’s not from the rain. Rain is an ‘Act of God.’ It was from the sewer drain and from the commode,” Crawford said. “If I had a lightning strike at my house, and the fireman went to the hydrant and it doesn’t work, and my house burns down, are they going to say it’s an ‘Act of God’ because they can’t get the water? They can use the ‘Act of God’ for any kind of incident.”

The Monroe Street neighbors all suspect their combined storm and sanitary sewer discharge lines are to blame. The city has around 85 miles of combined sewers concentrated within its older neighborhoods. Separating all of them would be expensive, but these neighbors say it’s time.

The largest sewer-separation project now underway is the nine-phase Locust-Colton project in the neighborhood just south of Bloomington Country Club. Locust-Colton is one of those areas with a combined sewer overflow problem that attracts scrutiny from environmental regulators.

Ward, who represents the Monroe Street neighborhood, asked Public Works director Kevin Kothe at this week’s council meeting whether there was a plan to begin addressing combined sewers that do not have the overflow issue.

“There is no set schedule for separating the remaining combined sewers, or even necessarily how to address them,” Kothe replied. “Just eliminating combined sewers by separating them doesn’t necessarily fix all the flooding problems.”

City Manager Tim Gleason told WJBC this week “There is nothing wrong with our sewer system—at all.”

The Monroe Street neighbors say they’re equally frustrated by the city’s slow pickup of the bulk waste generated by the flooding. They say the west side was not prioritized in Bloomington’s special free after-flood collection schedule despite sustaining more significant damage than other parts of the city. They say the result was around three weeks of unsightly and dangerous sewage-covered junk piling up on the curb on Monroe Street.

“It smelled like a landfill the entire time,” said Jackson. “We’re not talking about small bags of garbage. We’re talking about piles of trash, soaked in sewage water, sitting on the curb in the summer heat, in additional rainfalls, for 21 days. I stand 5-foot-1, and there were piles taller than me.”

Jackson and Rebecca Welch said it took a lot of complaining to the city to get a response to their concerns about bulk pickup.

“Had there been a proper assessment of the neighborhood, had someone like Mayor (Mboka) Mwilambwe or ( Deputy City Manager) Billy Tyus or Tim Gleason or Kevin Kothe or somebody had come and assessed the situation, it would’ve been a no-brainer to say, ‘We need to switch (our pickup schedule),’” she added.

The Monroe Street neighbors all claimed that no one from the city or its insurer has come physically into their homes to survey the damage. They were visited by door-to-door damage assessment teams, but they too did not look inside the homes.

WGLT on Thursday asked Mayor Mwilambwe for his response to concerns from the Monroe Street neighbors.

“The response is for them to continue to be engaged, and continue to be part of the conversation, and for us to work together as a community to address those issues. I should also add that we’re—nothing is promised—poking just about everywhere to try and see how people can be helped. We’re talking to folks at IEMA, we’ve had the SBA on site … but the process is still ongoing. We’re talking to folks at the state level, our local legislators, just to see what else is available,” Mwilambwe said. “We’re taking one step at a time, knocking on this door and that door, to see what can be done.”

“Just eliminating combined sewers by separating them doesn’t necessarily fix all the flooding problems.”
Kevin Kothe, Bloomington Public Works director

To be sure, residents of the Eastgate neighborhood (generally west of Regency Drive between Washington Street and Oakland Avenue) have been similarly vocal about their concerns about the city’s under-the-street infrastructure and flooding from the late June storms.

For the Monroe Street neighbors, the water receded, but the anxiety is still there every time it rains. They worry it will just happen again and again.

Sylvia Ventura lives just down the block, at Monroe and Catherine streets. She’s been there 30 years and her home never flooded until June 25-26. She didn’t have a sump pump. She didn’t think she needed one.

Now, she’s worried about whether the water caused more serious structural damage.

“I’m just waiting for that foundation wall to just cave in,” said Ventura, pointing to photos of cracks in her home exterior. “I’m just waiting on that. That’s going to be horrible. That is really gonna be horrible.”

Ward has proposed the city come up with a plan to help residents whose basements were flooded with sewage. Ward has submitted her request for discussion at the city council's next Committee of the Whole, a non-voting meeting on Aug. 16.

Ward said she'd like to see the city establish financial help based on income levels and other factors, including insurance and eligibility for other assistance.

“At this point, it is the city’s responsibility to help its residents,” Jackson said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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