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Stinking Mess

City crews working on sewage lines in an alley flood resident's basement

Edward Ericson Jr.
Julius Sneed shows off the damage in his basement.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/24/2010

Julius Sneed was worried when he first spoke to City Paper on March 12. For four months, he had been trying to get the city to fix a car-sized hole in the alley just outside his home on the 2700 block of East Madison Street. The hole was allowing rain water--and maybe some sewage--to leak in through his basement wall.

Two days later, amid heavy rains, the water in Sneed's basement was 8 inches deep. His water heater quit, and his possessions were damaged. A city work crew was on the scene on March 16, when City Paper visited.

"They make a good show of it," Sneed says. "This has been going on since November."

Sneed warns a visitor of the smell before showing the basement. It's musty, with just a hint of sewage. He points to a spot behind the ruined water heater where, he says, water has leaked in since city public works employees dug out and replaced a sewer line in November. The furnace still works, though he's not sure how badly it may have been damaged. The flood wrecked some cassette tapes he made decades ago featuring Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons and speeches. It was just stuff taped off the radio, Sneed says, but "I've kept that over the years."

Sneed gets out a clipboard where he has kept records of the mini-disaster. On the top page are phone numbers and names of city workers he says he's spoken to or called. He has called City Hall, including his City Councilman Warren Branch (D-13th District). He has made repeated calls, he says, to the city's Law Department, from which he hopes to get a compensation form so the city can eventually pay for the damage to his home. "I always get an answering machine," he told City Paper on March 15. (Two days later, he received word that the form is in the mail).

Outside, in the alley, a crew of more than half a dozen city workers are digging out a manhole some 40 feet beyond the gravel-filled trench they dug months ago. Sneed says they had steel plates on that for a time, then gravel "crush run." He points to the hollow beneath a neighbor's backyard slab: "That's nothing but a sinkhole," he observes.

In early March, a city truck got stuck in the alley when the gravel gave way, Sneed says. That ended up making a pit there with a gravel lip to dam the water and funnel it down into his basement.

This sort of thing doesn't happen very often, says Baltimore City Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher. The main problem has to do with the design of the pipe system, he says. There is a small sewer main connected to a larger one, but the smaller one is connected low on the larger pipe--with no drop-off. "The larger line can get filled up and overwhelms the smaller line," he says.

Kocher says other complaints about this particular project came in from neighbors, but he doesn't have specific details. One of Sneed's neighbors says her basement flooded as a result of the work, too, and she showed a reporter the damage. "It's a mess, it's terrible," says Bessie Samuel, who has lived next door to Sneed for the past 13 years without flooding. Her basement features two sump pumps in separate pits, both of which stopped working because of the strain of constant pumping, she says.

Kocher acknowledges that the alley work was not perfect, but he says it's about complete. "I think it could have been handled better, more quickly," he says.

Amid the din of a jackhammer outside, Sneed meets Darren Henson, who asks him to move his truck so they can unload more equipment. "Please don't be mad at me," Henson says. "It's my first day on the job. I promise that when I leave here today, you'll have your alley back."

Henson is true to his word, but Sneed doesn't care so much about the alley. He's more concerned with his home's foundation, which he thinks was disturbed by the dig.

"I'm thinking about getting B-Dry [basement waterproofing company] to look at mine," he says. "They're coming here next week, 'cause I don't trust these guys out there."

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