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Half a million dollars for flood-soaked West Philly homes isn't enough,locals say

City has paid some $500k to residents near 52nd and Wyalusing Ave. hit by 2015 flood.
Robert Johnson, 70, discusses damages from a June 2015 flood to his home on Wyalusing Avenue. (Sam Newhouse)

Robert Johnson, 70, looks out over the strip of Wyalusing Avenue in West Philly that passes before his porch with disappointment.

It has been more than two years since the morning of June 14, 2015, when a 130-year-old, 36-inch-diameter water main near 52nd and Wyalusing burst and flooded the area around the intersection with several feet of water.

But Johnson says he's still living with the consequences of that day.

"As it stands right now, I don't have use of my plumbing facilities, my kitchen shed shifted, the doorway has deteriorated, the basement steps are very dangerous, there's mold in the basement," Johnson said outside his West Philly house.

"Psychologically, it's taken a toll," added Johnson, who bought his home on Wyalusing Avenue just months before the flood — the third to occur in the area in the last three decades. "The day of the flood, the mayor [in 2015, Michael Nutter] stood here personally and said, 'We're going to do everything we can to make you whole.' And that hasn't happened."

Residents and property-owners affected by the flood from the water main breaking open for about four hours early on a Sunday morning went on to file about 100 claims for damages against the city.

But under a law called the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, the city’s liability in accidents like this flood is limited to $500,000.

For Johnson, that's bad news. When he filed a claim just before the June deadline for suits related to this incident — which he says was delayed due to problems with his first attorney — he got a response that the city had already hit its cap for funds.

"The city of Philadelphia has exhausted the cap on damages for the water main break incident," reads a letter from the city to Johnson's attorney, viewed by Metro.

Johnson acknowledged that he accepted about $4,000 right after the flood from the city, and has been offered another $6,000 to complete his claim. But he says that won't cover the damages to his home.

City officials confirmed they paid out $500,000 to settle some 200 claims related to the flood, with the median payment being around $1,660.

"The claims were resolved by settling them, paying a sum of money for the property damaged, abating mold alleged to be the product of the event or denying claims when there was not sufficient evidence to support the claim," a mayor's office spokesman said in an email. "In several cases, claimants did not accept the city’s settlement offer."

Other neighbors said after three floods, in 1994, 2004 and 2015, they're expecting another any time.

"There was 8-to-10 feet of water outside the homes, so imagine how much was inside the homes," said Fallon Postell, 35, a massage therapist and lifelong resident of the block. "We're talking about water — one of the most damaging forces on earth."

The Water Department responded that they are closely monitoring the mains in this area: "As with repairs to all transmission mains, the repairs to the main in 52nd Street involved more than just the failed section of pipe," a spokesman said via email. "The department inspects on either side of the failure and replaced additional sections.  This is an effort to ensure that the pipe is resilient and does not again fail at this location."

Postell said she didn't get any compensation for damages because her home was still being transferred into her name from her late grandmother's, and some back taxes were owed. But she said she hopes to be more prepared for a flood in the future.  

"While it's a terrible thing that happened, it's a learning experience," Postell said. "We're taking it day by day, fixing our homes, just making the process our own for the next time, because we all know there will be a next time."