Updated: June 23, 2014 12:18PM
Erma Love guided me into the family room basement of her Gary home, shook her head out of frustration, and let out a long sigh.
“You see that?” asked Love, 71, pointing to obvious water damage along the baseboards.
“And that?” she asked, pointing to soiled furniture in a basement bedroom.
“And that?” she asked again, opening up a broken closet door. “Nobody wants to take responsibility for any of this mess.”
Love and her husband, Ernest, have lived on Louisiana Street, just off 5th Avenue, for more than four decades. They didn’t have sewage backup problems until last year, they told me.
In October, sewage backed up into their basement causing extensive water damage, lost furniture and hefty costs to rehab the family room and adjoining rooms.
“I paid $1,200 to get it done, plus another $400 to the Roto-Rooter man,” Love said.
A few of her neighbors also have suffered similar sewage backup problems since the fall.
“Every time it rains, we have to put on our worry faces,” Love said while dragging out items from her basement on yet another rainy day.
On the night of the latest rainstorm, Love was watching her favorite TV show, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” when a neighbor called.
“Have you checked your basement?” the neighbor asked.
Love knew immediately what to check for — another flooded basement, more water damage and several inches of dirty water backing up into her home again.
“You know I cursed, mmm-hmmmm,” she told me. “I came downstairs to mud and sludge and dirt. I said damn, I can’t believe this is happening again.”
Her hot water heater had to be turned off, for four days, and she lost a couch as well as other items, which now are piled in her back yard. An insurance agent surveyed the basement and estimated the water damage at $4,200.
“He told me to call the Gary Sanitary District, and I did. All they did was come out and do something in the alley, but not in my basement,” she said. “The city needs to get out here and do something.”
The city has visited Love’s property on several occasions, according to city officials.
“Mrs. Love has had this issue repeatedly and we always go out there to check into it and, out of courtesy, to clean out the main sewer line,” said Daniel Vicari, executive director of the Gary Sanitary District. “We deal with this issue a lot with homeowners because there are so many older homes in this city.”
Vicari said the issue typically hinges on these homeowners’ “private lateral lines” that run from the city’s main sewer line into their properties. These private lines — most of them several decades old — are decaying, faulty or flat-out broken.
The city didn’t install those private lines back in the day and it’s not responsible for their maintenance through the years or their chronic problems today, he said.
For the record, Vicari was empathetic of the homeowners’ plight, including Love’s recurring problems. He, too, lives in the city, he said, and understands the issue well.
But there simply are too many older homes with too many similar problems for the city to repair all of them. And this scenario is common for other cities with older infrastructure issues.
Anika Johnson, the city’s director of constituent services, said this issue routinely backs up into the mayor’s office with residents assuming it’s the responsibility of the Sanitary District.
“I am hoping to get some informational materials out to citizens that will explain their responsibility versus GSD in the near future,” Johnson told me. “Hopefully, this will clear things up.”
In the meantime, Love and her neighbors are passing out Notice of Claim forms from the city in an attempt to get reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses. The form asks for two estimates of damage, causing yet another hardship for Love and her husband, who’s 74 and disabled.
“I don’t have that kind of money. You know we’re on a fixed income,” she said in her back yard, staring at the pile of discarded furnishings.
“If I don’t get a dime from all this mess, the city needs to know,” she snapped. “The city needs to know.”
Listen to Erma Love in her own words. Watch the video at http://posttrib.suntimes.com/news/
Storm damage scammers
After the latest rainstorm, the city of Portage issued a statement warning residents about unethical “storm chaser” contractors. All region residents should take heed, especially those Gary homeowners who have repeated sewage backup problems.
“Widespread storm damage typically brings unlicensed ‘storm chaser’ contractors as well as contractors from neighboring communities who are not licensed by the city of Portage to perform roofing, framing, tree removal and other work in the city,” states a press release from Portage’s building department.
“These contractors may carry inadequate or no general liability or workers compensation insurance. For your own protection, verify that any contractor you consider to hire is licensed to work.”
Keep in mind these tips to avoid getting scammed.
Don’t pay any money to a contractor until you’re assured they are legitimate, licensed and bonded.
Permits and inspections will be required for most work done, with few exceptions.
To double-check whether a contractor is licensed or if you have questions about the scope of repairs necessary, call your city’s building department. In Portage, application forms can be obtained at City Hall, 6070 Central Ave. or online at www.ci.portage.in.us.