West Village residents say flooding has been a recurring issue in their neighborhood and that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) backlog on maintenance is forcing them to take matters into their own hands — and pockets. 

Amber Cecil, 38, moved into her home in 2018 on the east side of Detroit near Belle Isle on Parker Street, and says her home flooded for the first time in June 2021, during historic flooding in the area, and has flooded at least six times since.

“Anytime it rains — even the slightest bit — it backs up on the street, and if it rains more than that, it starts flooding onto the curb where the grass is, over the sidewalk and into our yard,” Cecil said.

DWSD is responsible for cleaning and inspecting more than 90,000 catch basins, also called  storm drains, throughout the city; however, ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the department has been short-staffed and unable to drain as many catch basins as before.

“Our catch basin inspection and cleaning program is down by more than 70%,” said Bryan Peckinpaugh, public affairs director at DWSD.  

In 2019, they cleaned 9,479 basins, but in 2021, they cleaned only 2,467 basins. 

The department had eight crews assigned to catch basin inspections and cleanings before the pandemic, but now only has three crews since the collection rate is down, as an unintended consequence of the water shut off moratorium, Peckinpaugh said.

A crew from the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department inspected and cleaned the catch basins on Parker Street in April. A DWSD officials said it would happen again this summer.

Each crew has two field service technicians and one team leader, and the department is more than 50 people short across the field services area.

During their June 15 meeting, the Board of Water Commissioners voted to authorize DWSD Director Gary Brown to enter into a $3 million contract with Lakeshore Global Corp. for three years. This agreement will help DWSD catch up to the backlog of basin clearing that they’ve experienced in the last two years. The contract between Lakeshore Global Corp. and DWSD is still being drafted and will need to be signed by all parties before work can commence, Peckinpaugh said.   

Cecil has filed several complaints in the Improve Detroit app about the catch basin at St. Paul and Parker streets not properly draining. There are records going back at least five years in the app of complaints by other residents about the drain.

DWSD reviews the complaints and crews complete basin cleaning every day, but Peckinpaugh said they prioritize matters causing health and safety issues. 

In Cecil’s case, she said street flooding is seeping into her basement, which is a health concern since rainwater can cause mold. It happened as recently as May 27, when Cecil rushed to clean her basement. Although the flooding wasn’t as bad as last summer’s, she paid a neighbor to help her get rid of a few damaged items, vacuum out the water, mop the floors with bleach and set up dehumidifiers to air out her basement in fear of any mold. 

Most areas experienced over a half inch of rainfall that day, which is considered a moderate amount of rain for a 24-hour period, according to the National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac office.

The last time a crew cleaned the catch basin on Parker Street was on April 28. Another clearing was scheduled for the end of June, but the crew was not able to get to the location last month, Peckinpaugh said. He said the next clearing is to be completed sometime this summer, but did not provide an exact date.

Last year, Cecil was granted about $1,500 in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to deal with flood damage from Detroit’s historic flooding, but she said it wasn’t nearly enough to cover her costs. She was living alone and paid more than $6,000 last June to deal with damaged goods from the flooding, including $4,000 for mold remediation. She worries about losing more money in the event of another big flood. 

Devin Sefton, 35, and Anna Schneider, 37, moved from Southwest Detroit to their current home on the corner of Parker Street near St. Paul Street, in early June 2021. A few weeks later, they had 4 feet of water flooding their basement. 

Since then, their basement has routinely flooded every time the street floods. Sefton said the city’s efforts to clean catch basins in the neighborhood were not successful in permanently stopping the flooding in the neighborhood, and they were not granted any FEMA funds to help.

Devin Sefton, 35, and Anna Schneider, 37, moved from Southwest Detroit to their current home on the corner of Parker Street near St. Paul Street, in early June 2021. A few weeks later, they had 4 feet of water flooding their basement. Photo credit: Courtesy of Devin Sefton

So, on Feb. 22, they installed a French drain system, which cost more than $12,000, in their basement to keep it dry after flooding days before.

“To me, the city is a black hole of bureaucracy,” said Sefton, who has requested tree trimmings and other city services in the past to no avail. “I’ve never had luck getting them to do stuff so I just don’t trust them to handle it, so that’s why we handled it ourselves.”

Residents also cited worries about flooding and overtaxing aging street drains and sewer lines in opposition to a new development. More than 800 residents signed a petition Cecil created against the construction of Coe 2, an upcoming apartment complex, at Van Dyke Avenue and Coe Street, right behind Cecil’s home. 

Clifford Brown, the Coe 2 developer, addressed residents’ concerns at a June community meeting where Outlier Media was in attendance, and said there will be a permanent water retention system built under the development’s parking lot to keep rainwater from flooding catch basins. Brown said construction for the development is aiming to begin on Nov. 1.

DWSD has not performed water and infrastructure assessments in this neighborhood within the last five years, Peckinpaugh said. 

“The city’s water and sewer systems were designed to serve two million people and we believe it can support the capacity necessary for this residential development,” Peckinpaugh wrote via email.

Due to recent community input, Peckinpaugh said DWSD is considering including West Village in their Capital Improvement Program — which helps upgrade water and sewer systems throughout certain neighborhoods — to determine whether upgrades are necessary.

DWSD repeatedly recommends that neighbors keep the catch basins clear of leaves and other objects that can block the water from properly draining. However, Sefton and Cecil say they took photos of the catch basin being completely clear of debris and still not draining well.

“It’s not debris on the street side,” Cecil said. “We can see if something’s blocking it, and nothing is blocking it. I’m so worried and just really nervous. We really need some help out here.”

Reach MALAK SILMI, the Report for America Corps Member for Outlier Media, at malak@outliermedia.org or 734-985-0377.