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Carol Saunders was doing laundry in her Michigan Park home on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3, when it happened. She heard a gushing sound, and the water came right into her basement. A nearby water main had broken and flooded the drainage hole outside her basement door.
“The water was rushing in,” she says. “It was flowing in good.”
A frantic Saunders ran outside looking for help and saw a D.C. Water and Sewer Authority crew a few houses up the road. She waved the men down and told them what happened. They didn’t believe her at first, but eventually she convinced one worker to investigate. It turned out that about 20 other homes near the break had flooded with about two inches of water. And as soon as the WASA guy saw her basement, she says, he urged her to get out of it—the water was possibly contaminated.
When her husband, Robert Saunders, got home, he immediately called their insurance company, State Farm, which promptly sent a crew out to assess the damage and begin the cleanup. When they arrived, a WASA official told them to leave because the utility had things under control. And because the agency declared the water to be sewage, anything slightly wet was removed from the Saunders’ basement and placed in the backyard.
“The sofa wasn’t wet,” Robert Saunders says, but WASA’s contractors moved it anyway. He put his foot down, though, when the crew attempted to move his large plasma television on top of an entertainment center.“They wanted to take that, too!” he says, even though it had sustained no damage.
WASA officials and their contractors assured Saunders that everything would be OK, that the utility would reimburse the homeowners for any damage done or possessions lost. Saunders says that Laura Jimenez of Fireclean, one of the companies WASA hired to handle the cleanup, pulled him aside. “She said, ‘Trust me,’ ” Saunders says. She went on to tell him she’d seen this happen many times and even told of a similar incident in Georgetown, he says, where WASA had “replaced all of those white folks’ things.”
Barbara King, who lives a couple of doors down from Saunders on the 4900 block of Sargent Road NE, didn’t wait for WASA’s contractors to arrive; she retrieved some of the clothes she stored in the basement and took them to the dry cleaner dripping wet. Her daughter Karen had already begun sweeping the water out of the basement when WASA officials arrived and took over.
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“I never felt like the water was contaminated,” she says. “It was clear water.”
Turns out, she was right. On that following Monday, WASA returned to Sargent Road and informed residents that the water was “domestic”—not sewer water. But by then, King says, thieves had come and gone through the piles in her back yard. And then it rained.
Saunders, King, and the other neighbors stopped hearing from WASA about the fate of their stuff a while back. After a truck came and hauled everyone’s property from their yards, Saunders contacted the water company and a representative informed him that the people who promised the Sargent Road residents they’d be reimbursed—Jimenez, the Fireclean rep, for one—weren’t authorized to make those kinds of promises. After that, Saunders says, Jimenez stopped returning his calls—as well as a reporter’s calls for comment on this story.
Saunders has since filed a lawsuit against WASA for roughly $11,000—the amount he says the water company owes him for the furniture and other items that were taken when contractors rushed in and emptied his basement.
Michelle Petty, another one of Saunders’ neighbors, got a letter in the mail last month from the PMA Insurance Group, the third-party company handling the Sargent Road case for WASA. In the letter, PMA informed Petty that while the company would pay for what the broken water main had done to her basement floors and walls, it would not reimburse her for furniture and other items, as had been promised.
“I was devastated,” Petty says.
Her basement furniture and carpet were all brand-new, she says, claiming WASA’s contractors took her sectional couch, folding chairs, a book collection, and several other items.
According to WASA spokesperson Michele Quander-Collins, WASA doesn’t consider itself liable.
“We did pay as a goodwill gesture…for professional cleaning services, which included in some cases the removal of drywall,” Quander-Collins says. But as for the lost furniture and household items, the Sargent Road residents will have no such luck.
“The claims submitted for personal property loss ranged from $900 to $15,000 per claim. But the investigation indicated that WASA was not legally liable.…In that particular situation we’re not assuming any responsibility for the personal effects that were damaged,” Quander-Collins says. “And as usual in circumstances like this, we would hope that the homeowner would contact their insurance company.”
The Saunders say that’s just what they did. But Quander-Collins says she has no way of verifying the Saunders’ claims that WASA turned State Farm’s cleaning crew away.
Petty says that if she’d known WASA’s policy, she definitely wouldn’t have stood by while its cleaning crew carted away her furniture. “I had no clue that all of that stuff was gonna go,” she says. “They stole from me as far as I’m concerned.”