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Wave Of Flood Lawsuits May Hit Metro Detroit Next

By Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 22--For 45 years, Thomas Jackson's bungalow in Dearborn has never flooded.

But last week -- like thousands of others across metro Detroit -- Jackson's basement backed up with 14 inches of water, forcing him to toss a king-sized bed, tear out the carpeting, and part with priceless old photos of his children and grandchildren.

"There's something that went wrong, something the city did not do," said Jackson, 70, a retired fire fighter who did not have insurance coverage for the backup. "We're not getting any help or answers from the city."

It's a feeling echoed by angry homeowners from Warren to Southgate who are now turning to attorneys for help in filling out municipal claim forms and to consider possible legal action. It's a routine that often takes place after flooding in metro Detroit as attorneys seek to hold cities and counties responsible. But this time around, the numbers seeking help are much higher given the massive flooding, said local attorneys.

"People need to be well informed in order to protect their rights and to hold government accountable," said Jackson's Dearborn attorney, Tarek Baydoun.

Thousands of homes and businesses in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties were flooded after an average of 4.57 inches of rain fell in metro DetroitAug. 11.

Baydoun's law firm, the Meridian Law Group, has processed about 100 forms so far from homeowners and held a town hall last week in Dearborn Heights, with hundreds of homeowners, to provide information and answer questions.

Macuga, Liddle & Dubin, a law firm in metro Detroit known for handling flood claims in the region, has already received complaints from 700 homeowners who have contacted them. The firm handles about 95% of flood claims in Michigan, said attorney David Dubin.

Dubin's law firm has filed numerous lawsuits over the years against cities including Dearborn Heights, Hamtramck, and Grosse Pointe Farms. In 2000, it got a $12.7-million settlement on behalf of eight citiesin Wayne County after basements flooded. And it filed a lawsuit earlier this year for basement flooding last year in Dearborn.

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The use of attorneys has concerned some city officials, who note that you don't need an attorney to fill out a flood claim, which is true. But attorneys say it helps to have a legal expert fill out the forms accurately and submit them to the right government agency. Residents have 45 days to fill out a form after the flood.

Dubin, Baydoun, and other attorneys say it's too early to say whether they will file lawsuits and are currently in the process of gathering information.

In their defense, city officials in metro Detroit have been saying that last week's flooding was the result of heavy rains that were once-in-a-lifetime event. Aug. 11 brought the heaviest downpour since 1925, according to the National Weather Service.

"This was an extraordinary storm," Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly Jr. said at a City Council meeting Aug. 12. "When in the history ... have all the freeways closed ... that's never happened in anyone's memory. This was an extraordinary event."

Dearborn was hit especially hard, getting 6 inches in just a few hours, which along with Southfield, is the highest of any city in metro Detroit, according to the Weather Service.

O'Reilly and City Council members faced upset homeowners who voiced their concern about the city's aging sewer systems and a federally-mandated Combined Sewer Overflow project, where storm and sewer lines are separated, that some say is causing problems.

Jeff Powell, of Dearborn, said his home on Ross has been flooded twice in the past year after work was done nearby on the Combined Sewer Overflow project.

In March, Macuga, Liddle & Dubin filed a lawsuit against the City of Dearborn over a flood in July 2013, saying the city had failed to correct defects in its sewage disposal system.

In one of the terse exchanges at a council meeting, Ann Marie Michala grilled the mayor:

"Did you get any water in your basement?" she said.

"Yes, I did," he replied.

O'Reilly said he sympathizes with the residents of Dearborn, where 40% of properies faced flooding. But, he said, the city won't know what happened and who's to blame until all information is collected. He's asking residents to contact the city and fill out forms so they can gather information and where the flooding happened and gauge the extent of the damage.

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"I know it's an emotional time, but we have to know what happened based on the data," O'Reilly said.

Dubin said that city officials often blame Mother Nature to avoid taking responsibility.

"If officials say, 'Hey, it's just an act of God,' it's doing a disservice to your residents and allowing the government to go on with business as usual, without doing a critical review," Dubin said.

"From 1998, 2000, and today, the cities keep on pointing the finger at Mother Nature," he said. "What's really going on is that they're trying to get people not to file their claims."

"The problem is that it lulls the population into a false sense of security," Dubin added. Residents think, "If that happens every 200 years ... I can go back and build my basement without getting hit in another 200 years, which isn't fair to the residents."

Dubin said in Dearborn, Southgate, and Royal Oak, there appear to be abnormal flooding patterns, where certain areas within the cities were heavily hit, but not others.

Michala of Dearborn echoed that view, saying at the council meeting: "Why are neighbors across the street not flooding, and we are?"

The mayor said "everything has to be evaluated on the data," but added that "the system couldn't handle" such an unusually high amount of rain in such a short period.

But that's not a good enough excuse for Jackson and others.

The lifelong Dearborn resident said he's never experienced flooding before in his home. But this time, he said, every home on his block was flooded, from the area around Ford Road and Schaefer and Greenfield roads.

Jackson said the solution is to "replace everyone at City Hall to get something done" or take some legal action.

"We help out all these other countries," he said. "How about helping out our own citizens?"

Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 or nwarikoo@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/nwarikoo

___

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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