man in front of stairs
Detroit resident Ronnie Oliver stands in the basement of his home in East English Village. Oliver said it filled with four inches of water after heavy rains in June 2021. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valurian Waller)

Ronnie Oliver applied months ago for a city program to help protect his basement from backing up during heavy rainfall and has yet to learn whether his application has been received. 

The East English Village resident and former water department employee said calls to verify his status are met with instructions to wait for an email or a phone call. He said those haven’t come and he’s growing frustrated. 

Detroit’s Basement Backup Protection Program got underway in May with the goal of providing residents in 11 flood-prone neighborhoods up to $6,000 apiece in flood prevention measures. 

Ronnie Oliver’s basement where his wife stores all of her items to make and design clothes.

So far, 2,242 homeowners have applied. Of those, just four homes have been inspected and have either had sump pumps or backwater valves installed. Another 221 homes are in the process of scheduling installation with a plumber, according to Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department. 

For Oliver, who endured three to four inches of water across his basement floor during historic rains last June, the help can’t come soon enough. 

“I’m retired and that money hit me quite hard to shell out to replace the washer and the hot water tank,” he said. 

The basement backup program, funded by federal COVID-19 relief money, was created in response to the severe floods that left 32,000 Detroit basements full of water and sewage.

Homeowners can apply if they live in any of the neighborhoods selected by the city known for recurrent flooding. Those include: Aviation Sub, Barton-McFarland, Chadsey Condon, Garden View, Warrendale, Cornerstone Village, East English Village, Jefferson Chalmers, Morningside, Moross-Morang, and Victoria Park. 

Once homeowners are approved, a contractor conducts a home inspection to identify the flood prevention needs. Fixes might include disconnecting downspouts or installing backwater valves or sump pumps. Each house is eligible for up to $6,000 in prevention measures. Homeowners are responsible for 10% of the costs. 

In Phase 1 of the program, which began rolling out in May, approved residents in the Aviation Sub and Victoria Park neighborhoods began receiving inspections. The city has approved 441 applications for this phase and about 20 others were denied. Bryan Peckinpaugh, public affairs director for DWSD, said homes denied were turned down either because they were not in the Aviation Sub or Victoria Park or due to collapsed sewer lines or other sewer failures that need to be fixed by the homeowner before they re-apply.

All Phase 1 applicants have received responses, Peckinpaugh said. None of the applications for Phase 2 have been reviewed yet. That process, he said, will begin once Phase 1 is complete. 

The water department plans to hire two dedicated administrative staffers for the basement backup program to coordinate between homeowners and plumbers to speed up the process, Peckinpaugh told BridgeDetroit. 

Jerry Urquhart, 76, is among the first homeowners to have work completed under the program. 

He’s lived in the Aviation Sub for more than four decades. Last year, during the heavy June rains, at least two feet of water flooded his basement. He lost couches, a TV, some computers, the furnace, and a washing machine, costing him around $6,500, he said. 

Ronnie Oliver provides a cellphone image from earlier this year of a pipe that plumbers fixed in Oliver’s basement, along with snaking the drain, and repairing a collapsed drain. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valurian Waller)

After applying, Urquhart quickly learned that he was accepted into the program and a contractor came out to look at his basement. Urquhart said he paid a 10% deposit of the total costs of the repairs – around $450. 

“I felt that would be a good investment, being that this has been happening to me for some time now,” he told BridgeDetroit, noting the contractor installed a backwater valve, a device that prevents sewage from flowing into the basement when it’s backed up. 

The extreme weather caused thousands of homes in the city and across Metro Detroit to flood and was declared a federal emergency by President Joe Biden, opening the door for financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The agency received nearly 68,000 claims from Detroit residents. 

From FEMA, Urquhart received $400. He also said he’s filed a claim with the Great Lakes Water Authority, but hasn’t heard back. In the meantime, he hopes Detroit’s basement backup program will provide some relief. 

“It’s a worthwhile try. I’m simply hoping that it works, and that it doesn’t backup again,” Urquhart said. “That’s all I can hope for, and that way I can redo my basement, because right now I’m not sure. I’m very skeptical about putting the furniture and stuff back down there right now.”

Also in the East English Village neighborhood is resident Cheryl English, who said she had 12 inches of water in her basement during the June 2021 flooding events. She was lucky to not have lost much, she told BridgeDetroit, adding she’s only had flooding in her home two times in the 27 years she’s lived there. 

The reason she applied for the basement protection program is, in large part, due to her frustration with the city. 

“We were lied to by the city about who was at fault,” said English, who argues that the blame was put on homeowners with damaged sewer connections. English also has not heard yet whether she qualifies.

In some other Detroit neighborhoods, residents also were impacted by last year’s floods but aren’t eligible to apply.

“I have had massive flooding for years, and my house is/was in the 8-inch area of central Detroit, yet is not included in the special assistance program,” CC Courth, a southwest resident told BridgeDetroit. 

“I looked into a FEMA claim, but discovered that taking into consideration my insurance deductible, it was not worth the effort,” she said. 

When Courth moved into her home on Hubbard Street in 2007, she had no idea her house could flood. At first, it didn’t. But in the years since, she’s dealt with flooding every year. Last year it flooded badly, twice. She estimates she spent $2,000 to have her heating and cooling repaired twice due to flood damage.

As a taxpayer of 50 years, she told BridgeDetroit, she would like it if even the consultation that’s part of the Basement Backup Protection Program was available to every city resident. 

After trying a number of solutions, including disconnecting her downspouts and extending her gutters, and spending a lot of money, she wants advice on what the best fix would be to avoid further wasting money. Sometimes it seems like fixes and suggestions have made the flooding worse, she said. 

“There was some point at which I think it was backing up slightly a little tiny bit, but not really a huge problem,” she said. “But you want it dry, right, right? They (plumbers) suggested I had it reamed out to the alley. So I had that done. And right after that, it got a lot worse.”

In her experience, plumbers are often more focused on the immediate task of getting the basement dry, she said, and not the long-term goal of preventing future flooding. 

“I remember being down here in my high boots, and it was sloshing into my high rubber boots,” she said. “That’s the worst I remember.” 

For residents in areas where the program isn’t being offered, Peckinpaugh said the city hopes federal funding in the future could allow them to offer the program in more neighborhoods. 

“We first must get through the pilot phase to have the data to support future funding requests,” he said. 

In the meantime, he added, “We have published a Basement Backup & Flooding Handbook to provide insights and tips for all residents. It is our hope that this program is successful and we can get additional federal funding to add more neighborhoods.” 

Besides his efforts to get funding help from FEMA and the city’s basement protection program, Oliver is part of a class action lawsuit that began in response to last year’s flooding. 

In the meantime, he said he’s purchased homeowners insurance and was able to repair his collapsed drain. He also purchased a transfer pump on Amazon, the kind typically used in a swimming pool. The pump cost $110 and offers a temporary solution to the flooding, while he waits to hear back from the city about his application. 

With the lawsuit and programs designed to help still developing, Detroiters affected by the extreme flooding are “not getting the response we need,” Oliver said.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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1 Comment

  1. Great stories of some of the people impacted by the flooding of last year. I hope it will open up more needed information from the city detailing more about when and where the Mayor’s Back Up Basement Program will start.

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