Cleanup continues on the 53 homes that suffered damage from a water main break Tuesday in Eau Claire. However, the city’s insurance company has denied liability.
The water main that broke was installed in 1934, and the break was caused by an act of nature, City Manager Dale Peters said. If the city had been at fault, insurance would cover it, he said.
“It’s not surprising the insurance company would deny liability,” Peters said. “The insurance company is saying the city is not at fault. In this case, it was frost. It’s unfortunate. It’s not the homeowners’ fault; it’s not the city’s fault.”
However, city officials say they are doing whatever they can to aid in the cleanup and assist the affected homeowners. Six dumpsters have been at the area along 11th Street and Fountain Street, and they have been emptied daily.
“We’ve had 35 employees that have been working 12 to 14 hours a day,” Peters said. “We will continue to supply staff resources until they aren’t needed anymore.”
The city announced it has put together a financial assistance program that will pay for water and sand extraction, general cleanup, sanitation, as well as furnace and water heater inspections and repairs. Also, the city will provide up to $1,000 of cash value per household for damaged personal property.
Peters isn’t sure how much the city will ultimately spend on the cleanup.
“Certainly, there’s been tens of thousands of dollars in labor expended,” he said.
Peters said the city has retained a claims adjustment firm to work with the homeowners.
“Homeowners are reminded they can purchase (insurance) for sewer backups, which is important if you have finished basements, or you keep a lot of personal property in the basement.”
Karen Olson had 3 feet of water in her basement. She raved about the work of the city staff.
“Eau Claire couldn’t have responded any more proactively,” Olson said. “I feel like my city put their arms around me. They know how bad it was.”
Olson had a new water heater installed Thursday night, and a furnace was replaced Friday afternoon. She has been surrounded by city workers for the past three days who ripped out damaged material and hauled it away.
“The guys who helped haul this stuff out, I can’t say enough good things about them,” she said. “The cleanup was phenomenal — those guys have worked their butts off.”
Olson, a writer, lost countless valuable papers and other items.
“It was heartbreaking to lose pictures and homemade items, but in the end, they are just things,” she said.
While Olson praises the city’s response, she was disappointed in the decision to help with repairs, but not replacement, of items like furnaces or washing machines. She said she and many others on her block found out their insurance carriers weren’t paying for the damaged machines.
“Most of us are standing here with nothing,” she said. “It’s been overwhelming. People are stressed out — they are a deer in headlights. They are shocked.”
Jeffrey Pippenger, Eau Claire community services director, said city staff have been in 49 of the 53 homes, with the remaining four waiting to hear from insurance adjusters before allowing city workers in.
“Not all of them will have as great of a need for assistance as some,” Pippenger said. “We had a varying degree of those with unfinished basements and finished basements.”
Pippenger said the dumpsters have been emptied every day and will stay in place as long as needed.
“The cleaning companies are out there now — it’s their job to get (basements) clean and disinfected,” he said. “We’re also making sure people have heat. If a furnace needs repairs, we’ll make sure they have heat.”
Pippenger said city workers have canvassed the neighborhood and explained the city’s financial assistance program, including the cash value for replacing lost personal items.
“The majority were very positive,” he said. “Some are still distraught.”
Pippenger said no home suffered so much damage that he would consider it uninhabitable or could be condemned.
The break occurred around 1 a.m. Tuesday on Eau Claire’s west side, affecting three blocks of houses between Ninth and 11th streets from Cedar Street north to Gilbert Street. The main that broke was under consideration for replacement and was slated to be discussed by the City Council this month.