Baldwin residents plan to sue Nassau, Hempstead over Sandy damage

Richard Barone, left, and his neighbor Mike Beharovic, Richard Barone, left, and his neighbor Mike Beharovic, right, try to avoid the smell of sewage inside of Barone's Barnes Avenue home in Baldwin. A layer of toilet paper combined with raw sewage and salt water from the tidal surge during superstorm Sandy flooded their homes and coated the neighborhood. (Nov. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Dozens of Baldwin residents whose houses in the Barnes Avenue area were flooded by raw sewage after superstorm Sandy hit plan to sue Nassau County and Hempstead Town.

Notice-of-claim letters sent to the municipalities starting Friday said residents will seek restitution for damages to their homes and items within, cost of cleanup and personal injuries from exposure to sewage.

They will also seek damages incurred from the loss of home values "resulting from negligence in the design, maintenance, and upkeep of the sewage system," said the notices, which are required before a formal lawsuit is filed.

The intent is to force Nassau and Hempstead to make repairs and pay for damages, said Kent Yalowitz, an attorney at Arnold & Porter Llp in Manhattan, which represents more than 50 residents pro bono.

"Our guys are stuck," Yalowitz said of his clients. "They're homeowners. They've got their lives tied up in these houses."

Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said he had not received any notices for claim relating to the Barnes Avenue group and could not comment on specifics of the filing. He said that generally the county is not responsible for acts of God, which includes flooding.

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As of Tuesday, Hempstead said it had received 19 notices of claim.

"We believe they are without merit since the town does not operate, maintain or have anything to do with the sanitary sewage system," Hempstead spokesman Mike Deery said. "That would be Nassau County."

More than two weeks after the Oct. 29 storm, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano visited the neighborhood, where toilet paper was still stuck in yards and the stench hung thick in the air.

He declared a state of emergency and promised to have industrial hygienists assess homes and contractors clean up and decontaminate.

Replacing and repairing

So far, 85 homes have been assessed and 67 of them have undergone decontamination and cleanup for an estimated $3 million, county Department of Public Works spokesman Mike Martino said in a statement.

The road, where a pipe from Bay Park Sewage Treatment plant ruptured, breaking the roadway and sending sewage into homes and streets, has been repaved and the pipe replaced.

Piles of soggy wallboard, furniture and other debris ripped from homes have been carted away. Contractors and homeowners are replacing appliances, floors, walls and more.

But many residents fled the area after the storm.

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"A lot of the neighborhood is abandoned," Barnes Avenue resident Jeffrey Press said.

Some families have said they may never return. Others are repairing their homes with hopes of selling. At least one for sale sign appeared this weekend.

A few are stuck, with houses worth less than what they paid even before bills mounted to fix the damage. Meanwhile, others are taking the repairs in stride.

"I wouldn't have the head to do this again," said Richard Barone, 59. "I didn't know how hard it was to put it back together. . . . We just want to fix it, go on with our lives."

New walls, electrical wiring and windows have been installed, but another six to eight weeks of work remains on flooring, the kitchen, a bathroom and other infrastructure. "The sewer saved us," Barone said, explaining the county wouldn't have done the cleanup if the flooding had not come from a sewer breach. "[The county] gutted the houses for you."

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He's thankful the county helped with the cleanup. But not all are happy.

Walls at the Cape Cod-style house of Jeffrey and Erica Press were removed. But the furnace was left behind and the bathroom left intact, despite sewage getting into both areas.

Erica Press said the work did not represent "full remediation and abatement" of hazardous materials. "We have an independent consultant who said, 'No way can you go in this house,' " she said.

Assessing the damage

The scope of work promised has not changed, said Marino, who added Mangano "has mandated that the work continue until every home that was affected . . . has been assessed."

Assessment includes determining how far water rose in a house, where it flowed and what was touched so that initial stabilization work could be done, said Brendan G. Broderick, owner of the Hauppauge company JC Broderick & Associates Inc., which is doing the work.

That includes removing porous items that could not be cleaned, and sanitizing others, as well as using infrared cameras and moisture readers.

From there, Broderick's group advised a contracting company on the work needed, according to nationally accepted standards for floodwater contamination, which includes exposure to raw sewage, he said.

Some homes were flooded by just a few inches, others up to 5 feet, he said. Several homeowners have done work themselves.

Jonathan Diaz couldn't wait for the county. The storm sent 36 inches of sewage and water into the home at Barnes Avenue and 2nd Place that he shares with his wife and two children, including an infant son.

Diaz, 39, said friends told him to remove wallboards and get rid of mold.

With his family in Honduras to escape the damaged home, he spent Christmas and New Year's alone, pricing repairs, working around the house and calling his insurance company. His efforts were made more difficult by delays in insurance payments and the closing of the Island Park pizzeria where he worked.

"If something happens again, I leave this house," he said. "I will not do it again."

Selling isn't something he wants to consider. The last assessment of the property valued it at $90,000 less than what he bought it for seven years ago. Plus, he said, "Nobody is going to buy this house. They know it's a flood zone."

Residents say problems with sewage and stormwater go back at least 10 years.

"If they did it [installed the sewer pipes] right the first time, this never would have happened," Barone said.

A study to find out what caused the pipe breach is under way, Martino said.

Democratic Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) and Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick) last month requested a hearing to examine the flooding of Bay Park, plans to repair environmental damage, and the status of maintenance and upgrades at county treatment plants. The hearing also will examine the county's actions to protect residents whose homes were flooded with sewage.

Presiding Officer Norma L. Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said in a statement that a hearing will be scheduled after Congress approves Sandy-related funding and officials learn how much the county will receive for the Bay Park plant.

Mangano requested $898 million in federal assistance to redesign and rebuild the East Rockaway facility.

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