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Man vs. nature vs. Department of Transportation

Homeowner seeks relief from flooding

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When Thomas Carella heard his sump pump running continuously last week for the first time since he moved into his home, he pulled on his hip waders and checked it out.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Snowmelt had overwhelmed his sump pump, inundated his home's crawlspace and put much of his yard under knee-high water. And it was rising.

"Luckily, my sump pump never shorted out, otherwise I'd be S-O-L," Carella said, who has lived in the Mendenhall Valley on Sunset Drive for two years.

To keep the home's living space from flooding, he rented another pump and ran firefighting-sized hoses to a ditch across the cul-de-sac. He ran the pump on and off for four days, draining what he estimated to be tens of thousands of gallons of water out of his yard until the flooding subsided.

"We were moving some water," he said.

His rental receipts from Don Abel Building Supplies show he spent nearly $100 a day on the pump and hoses.

While her husband fought nature, Julie Carella worked the phones, trying to get relief from city and state workers. She reached city workers first, who visited the site and, according to the couple, identified the problem as a clogged drainage ditch abutting their property along Egan Drive, which is under state maintenance.

Of course, flooding and drainage ditch problems in Juneau aren't unique to the Carellas, but the combination of some 90 inches of accumulated snow, rapid melting and rain made for a "very unusual event" that overwhelmed many drainage systems, said Greg Patz, the state Department of Transportation's chief of maintenance and operations for Southeast. His department has received many similar calls and has been systematically working through them.

City Superintendent of Streets Mike Scott, reached Tuesday, couldn't confirm the Carella's account of his workers' assessment of the problem, but said that area is prone to drainage issues and confirmed the neighborhood feeds into state drainage systems.

State workers eventually came to the site, but also concluded the situation was out of their hands.

"My evaluation, the snow that was on the side of our road (Egan Drive) ... the snow was not impeding the water flow," Patz said. "Even if we went to the tremendous expense to remove the snow, that wouldn't have solved the problem."

Patz said the part of Egan Drive that abuts the Carellas northern property line, while sloped, does not officially have a drainage ditch and that water from their property is actually supposed to drain through a private swale into official state ditches to the south of their property.

Thomas Carella insisted that the low point of his property is to the north and that water normally drains along Egan Drive. The Carellas and the department couldn't resolve that difference, and the family interpreted it as the state saying, "That's your problem." Carella said he considered renting a backhoe and clearing the highway's shoulder himself, but didn't want eat the cost or to accidentally hit utility lines.

Saturday, Julie Carella wrote government officials from the Juneau Assembly on up to the White House in a plea for help.

Tuesday, Patz said he had not heard from any of the officials Carella wrote, but he does intend to follow up with the family to clarify the department's position and offer a long-term solution that involves improving their drainage into the state's official ditches.

Thomas Carella said he wants a long-term solution, but needs to worry about the short-term flooding first.

"I won the battle, as far as nature's side. My biggest worry, my wife's - we're not even halfway through winter," he said. "It's going to be a battle all winter long."

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