An Early December Storm Returns Need to Find Permanent Solution
At 3:00 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2014, my husband and I, along with few dozen of our Mission Terrace neighbors, awoke to the sight and smell of filthy sewer water rushing into our homes.
Terrified, we scrambled to shut off the electricity and move anything that wasn’t contaminated by raw sewage to higher ground. A manhole cover at Cayuga Avenue and Rosseau Street blew off, spewing sewage five feet into the air.
Our neighbor Donnie Bennett took video of the spewing geyser and river of sewage, which looks, as he described it, “like footage from Hurricane Katrina.”
The water subsided the next day, but the damage was done. Contaminated ground floors of homes and personal property, including expensive items like washers, dryers and cars, and sentimental items like photographs were ruined. City-contracted workers, wearing hazardous materials suits, demolished ground floor spaces to the studs to prevent mold from spreading.
This type of flooding has happened in the neighborhood before, but little did my neighbors or I know it would happen again just eight days later. During storms on Dec. 11, the sewer once again backed up, filling our homes and floating vehicles down the street.
After the storms, Mayor Ed Lee and San Francisco Public Utility Commission officials came to our neighborhood and said the city would address possible solutions and promised quick processing of claims.
But nearly a year later, the city has done almost nothing. Many of the claims we’ve filed have been denied, forcing us to pay out of pocket to replace or repair expensive items like washing machines and water heaters. Meanwhile, public documents on the SFPUC website show the city is no closer to implementing any short- or long-term solutions—even with a record El Niño promising a very wet winter.
As a result of the city’s inaction, in August 2015 more than 50 residents, my husband and I included, filed suit against our city. We are represented by Mark W. Epstein, of Seiler Epstein Ziegler & Applegate LLP, who represented about 40 plaintiffs in a 2004 lawsuit over the same issue and won, establishing precedence.
Since moving into our home—which, like all houses in this area, is not in any city designated flood plain and sits about 100 feet above sea level—we’ve been shocked to learn that our neighborhood and several others across San Francisco have taken the brunt of the city’s longstanding negligence of its inadequate sewer system, putting residents’ health, welfare and financial well-being at great risk.
“As a native San Franciscan for 85 years, I feel disgusted and disenfranchised, to say the least,” our neighbor Raoul Cobar, who lives with his wife, Susan Garduno, in the Mission Terrace house she has called home for more than 40 years, told me. “This city, my city, has left us hanging, with no recourse except to sue. They would never let something like this keep happening to Pacific Heights or the Marina.”
To raise awareness of the city’s inadequate sewer system, we have formed an organization called Solutions Not Sandbags. I urge concerned residents to visit our website for information.
Meanwhile, city officials have been encouraging us to purchase FEMA-backed flood insurance and apply for city-funded grants for flood-preventive home improvements, such as backflow preventer valves.
However, as of this writing, neither I nor Donna Marie Ponferrada, a Solutions Not Sandbags spokesperson, are aware of any Mission Terrace residents who have received grant money despite having applied. The flood insurance quote I received? A premium of more than $5,000 per year. I was also told FEMA insurance does not cover flooding due to sewer backup.
A little digging into SFPUC documents reveals a compelling picture of the city’s shocking and longstanding negligence and refusal to implement solutions to an obvious engineering problem.
One SFPUC technical memorandum states that while the “overwhelmed” sewer system creates a “significant nuisance and public health risk” that “directly affects the quality of life of the citizens of San Francisco,” the city is not legally obligated to fix it.
In short, the city explicitly wrote language for itself saying that it’s OK to keep inundating homes with raw sewage and exposing residents to a known public health risk, an alarming discovery we have brought to the attention of appropriate water regulatory agencies, the EPA and the state attorney general.
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener has been sympathetic. “It’s not OK for a neighborhood to be repeatedly flooded, with people’s homes wrecked, during storm events,” he said via e-mail. “Regardless of whether the city is legally liable for this damage, the city needs to partner with the neighborhood to find real and sustainable solutions.”
In the meantime, at Little City Gardens, San Francisco’s last remaining commercial garden, located just off Cayuga Avenue, another problem is brewing. Currently, the farm takes up about an acre of open space, which has historically absorbed large amounts of rainwater and eased some burden on the local sewer system.
But that could change soon, as the land has been purchased by the Golden Bridges School, which has proposed paving over the open space and erecting four buildings that would bring more than 200 students and staff to the area. If you’re interested in keeping the farm as open space, please visit savethefarmsf.com.
Residents like Nancy Huff suggest the SFPUC purchase the land from Golden Bridges and use it to install cisterns to capture excess water during storms, a strategy SFPUC has considered in the past. “Maybe if they do that and stopped widening the pipes in neighborhoods above ours, they could put a stop to this recurring nightmare,” Huff said.
And, rest assured, wading through thousands of strangers’ fecal matter in your home is nothing short of a nightmare. So is watching your young child contract asthma likely because of the toxic fumes in your home, as is the case for one of our neighbors. Or feeling like the very city you grew up in and have loved all your life is treating you, quite literally, like crap.
That a city as wealthy and innovative as San Francisco has for decades neglected a public service as basic as its sewer system at the expense of working-class and immigrant neighborhoods is unconscionable. It’s high time for Mayor Ed Lee and SFPUC officials to fulfill their legal and moral obligations as leaders of the city and fix it—now.