Families at three homes on Coral Reef Court have been displaced since April 4.
For city utility employees and contractors, the incident on Coral Reef Court April 4 was a technical problem: a portion of a gravity sewer main was plugged on the downstream side when the pumps switched on, an employee stated in an official memo, and that pressure pushed sewage into the lateral lines that led to the nearby houses.
Here’s what that looks like if you’re Martha Garito, a resident of 95 Coral Reef Court N.: You’re in your living room, and suddenly you hear a loud rushing sound coming from the bathroom. So you run toward it. There’s sewage spewing out of your toilet. Then it starts to fill the bathtub, and overflows, streaming across the floor.
"That first day was the most difficult, finding out within a 10-15-minute period of time that your whole house is filled with sewage, and that you have to go around and make decisions as to what gets thrown out within the next few days, what stays, what gets put in a pod or storage unit, and what you can physically take out of the house."
— TERRY McCLELLAND
“It was so fast that I just had to get out of there,” she said.
She ran to get her husband, and then to tell their neighbor across the street, Terry McClelland, at 92 Coral Reef Court N. She also notified the Sheriff’s Office.
McClelland, 78, had been working in his side yard as the city’s subcontractors finished up their work for the day. He’d seen them close up the manhole covers and start loading up their vehicles. Then his neighbor Martha came running over, telling him to check his house.
He opened the door to his house and saw sewage flowing across his living room floor, streaming across the tile and soaking the carpet and the furniture.
Another neighbor went running down the street toward the workers telling them to shut the pumps down.
Soon all of them, plus the couple who lived at 97 Coral Reef Court, were out in the street trying to figure out what to do.
“That first day was the most difficult, finding out within a 10-15-minute period of time that your whole house is filled with sewage,” McClelland said, “and that you have to go around and make decisions as to what gets thrown out within the next few days, what stays, what gets put in a pod or storage unit, and what you can physically take out of the house to go with you wherever you’re going to live. Then that’s the other thing — you have to find a place to live.”
A couple hours later, a city supervisory employee showed up.
The displaced residents asked him what they should do — where they should go for the night.
The man told McClelland and the Garitos (the couple at 97 Coral Reef Court have not responded to a request for an interview) that they could return to their homes, they said.
They were aghast at the suggestion.
“He kind of expected us to go right back in the house,” Martha Garito said. “I told him, ‘You know, that’s not healthy to go back in there. ... I told him, ‘I guarantee you if I call the Health Department, they’ll have the houses marked unoccupiable.”
Two other city workers, McClelland and the Garitos said, did stay and make sure that the residents were taken care: The insurance company for the city’s contractor, Miller Pipeline, ended up placing the families in a hotel that first night.
But after the first day, McClelland didn’t hear anything from the city for weeks, and when he did get a communication from the city, it came in the form of a letter from the city’s insurance carrier, the Florida League of Cities, he said.
“They basically said, ‘We are not at fault; it’s Miller Pipeline,’” the city’s contractor, McClelland said. “But ultimately, who owns the sewer system?”
Flotech, a subcontractor working for Indianapolis-Based Miller Pipeline — the company hired by the city to conduct $929,906 worth of sewer work — admitted fault in the incident. Miller’s insurance company has been organizing the repair of the displaced families’ homes, and paying for them to stay elsewhere while the work is completed.
But although it’s been more than three months since the subcontractor's error flooded their homes, the families on Coral Reef Court are still displaced.
“You know, you try to make the best of it, and you try to have a good attitude. But it really is difficult. Just little things that you don’t even anticipate. … When you’re someplace else and you need something, it’s just like, ‘Oh, don’t have that, it’s not available.’ I want to get back home. I want them to be fair and put our house back the way it was.”
— MARTHA GARITO
“The hard part about the whole ordeal is we had no idea how long this was going take,” Martha Garito said. The insurance company put her and her husband and McClelland at a Days Inn. “They booked a room for one night, and then they went ahead and they booked for another night, and then they did it for the weekend — so it was a few days at a time until finally, we started realizing this is not going to be a short little ordeal.”
McClelland and the Garitos have each had to move multiple times — McClelland three, and the Garitos seven.
The Garitos have been staying at the Surf Club, and McClelland is at a rental in the Hammock. The insurance company has been placing them in vacation rentals, because there hasn’t been much else available that doesn’t require a long lease.
“A big part of the problem there is that we’ll be someplace, and by the time the insurance gives us the OK to rent for another month, it will be rented from under us,” Martha Garito said.
In one instance, McClelland had just a few days’ notice and ended up moving everything in his car. It took seven or eight trips.
He’s tried to keep a positive attitude. He doesn’t like to complain. But he also had a quadruple bypass last year. And, he said, “This is not the best thing recommended for rehabilitation.”
“The rough part is, it’s not like when you travel when you prepare what you’re going take,” Martha Garito said. “A lot of regular things that you would normally use had to be either thrown out or packed away.”
For instance, Garito has a nerve issue that can cause pain in her back, neck and arms. At home, she has strategies to minimize pain. But bouncing around hotels and rentals, that’s often not possible.
Twice, she’s had to go to the urgent care center. She’d also developed a new allergy problem. “First time in my life, I’ve had to go see an allergist, and I’m on like three different medications and an inhaler,” she said. “It’s just difficult, being somewhere other than your home.”
The upheaval has also meant that she’s had to forgo opportunities, like a trip to Yellowstone she’d planned with a friend who’s a wildlife photographer.
“I have health issues, so I value trying to do things before things get worse and I’m not able to,” she said, “and I had to cancel out. And that hurt. … It’s the not knowing and trying to be here and be available.”
After the incident, McClelland said, SERVPRO employees showed up and began stripping the interior of the home — ripping out the drywall up to a height of two feet, cutting out the tile. Anything that had touched the floor had to go: carpets, baseboards, cabinets.
He’s tried to keep watch over that process, but it’s been something of a headache.
He showed the electrical line employees had cut through as they sliced the drywall.
Then there was the time the employees tried to remove the toilet in the master bathroom — after they’d been using it for days, and it was full — and broke the bowl, spilling the contents on the floor.
Sometimes he’d arrived at the house and found that employees had left doors or windows unlocked or open while he still had belongings inside.
But they did get the smell out: It’s undetectable.
Garito said that happened in her house very quickly.
“I was thankful they got the odor out of there the first day, because it was really — it was just horrendous,” she said.
The estimates she’s seen for the total repair cost for her house are about $75,000. McClelland’s seen a range from $80,000 to $91,000.
Both said that communication from the insurance company and contractors has become less frequent over time. No one has given them an estimation for when it will all be over. Meanwhile, Garito said, her house has been sitting vacant for about a month.
The families feel they have little leverage to speed things up.
“I think it would have been nice if the city had followed up on us, and basically lit a fire under the insurance people,” she said.
Garito recalls that she got a phone call from the city — “a lawyer called representing the city, and basically wanting to say that they were not responsible,” she said — and then a letter similar to the one McClelland received.
“I would have appreciated if they (the city) would have followed through a little more, and become a liaison, basically, to help guide the process.”
He noted that there are other costs that haven’t been accounted for: For instance, he had to throw out the food in his fridge.
He’s had to drive much more than he used to — looking at potential rentals, replacing things that had to be discarded — so his gasoline use has increased.
And he fears the incident may affect the future value of the home.
He’d long been a cheerleader for the city, he said, and was saddened that it had given him and the other displaced residents so little support.
“All of us are seniors; none of us need this kind of grief in our life,” he said.
“You know, you try to make the best of it, and you try to have a good attitude,” Martha Garito said. “But it really is difficult. Just little things that you don’t even anticipate. … When you’re someplace else and you need something, it’s just like, ‘Oh, don’t have that, it’s not available.’ I want to get back home. I want them to be fair and put our house back the way it was.”
From the city’s perspective, what happened on Coral Reef Court was an anomaly.
“We have not heard of this happening before,” city spokesman Jason Giraulo said. “Anytime we’ve had a sewer backup it’s usually been tied to a storm event. ... Homes that are having this line coating done will hear gurgling in their homes, but it shouldn’t cause anything like this to happen. It really is just a freak accident.”
"Having experienced a smidgen of what they experienced, I have total empathy for them, and I want to get this thing corrected as soon as possible."
— JACK HOWELL, Palm Coast city councilman
Giraulo said the city’s risk management director, Tim Wilsey, has started meeting with the homeowners.
McClelland found his meeting with Wilsey useful, but hoped for more follow-up.
Part of the problem may have been timing, and the fact that higher level city officials didn’t know about the problem: The city’s new city manager, Matt Morton, began work with the city April 8, four days after the sewage flooding incident.
He wasn’t aware of the incident, and the fact that several families have been displaced for months because of it, until a reporter mentioned it to him July 9.
The families weren’t complaining publicly.
They also had not approached the newspaper after the incident asking for a story: Reporters learned about it when McClelland began showing up at the newspaper office to pick up a copy of the paper even though he lived in the paper’s distribution area, prompting questions about why he wasn’t receiving it, and McClelland to explain why he wasn’t at home.
City Councilman Jack Howell, whose district includes Coral Reef Court, said he would look into the issue to help make sure the residents are taken care of.
“That needs to be corrected right away,” Howell said. “We need to figure out what’s going on and expedite it, whatever it takes.”
He had a sewage backup at his own home last year — not as severe; it was confined to the bathroom.
“I was going crazy,” Howell said. “The city finally came out, and they took care of it. ... Having experienced a smidgen of what they experienced, I have total empathy for them, and I want to get this thing corrected as soon as possible.
“It’s not right for our residents to have to suffer for something that the city initiated. I’ll stay on top of this. ... That’s uncalled for.”