After a on Portland Avenue in Scotch Plains and Fanwood Tuesday morning, New Jersey American Water has been hard at work to restore the street to some form of normality.
While crews worked late into the night Tuesday evening to replace a ruptured pipe and shattered road, residents affected directly by the main break struggle to find peace after the devastating event.
“I said, ‘I’m either going to sit down and cry or I’m going to get drunk,’” said Barbara Barone of 2081 Portland Avenue, Scotch Plains.
Barone said she awoke early Tuesday morning, around 3:00 a.m., to what initially sounded to her like rain. She soon discovered, however, a geyser-like outpouring of water from a portion of Portland Avenue in front of her home.
“I looked out my bedroom window and I went, ‘Holy Sh--!’” Barone said.
After the initial shock of the early morning event wore off and Barone returned home after evacuation, she faced yet another distressing hurdle.
According to Barone, Allstate Insurance, with whom she has had a homeowners policy for 53 years, said they will not pay for the damage caused by the main break. In addition, Barone said she spoke to NJAW representatives that morning, who also said they would not pay for the damage, asides from sending a crew to pump water from her basement.
“So what in the hell at 80-years-old am I supposed to do?” Barone asked. “I live by myself, so I have to get a lawyer,” she said.
Barone, who has had to take out a reverse mortgage on her home, is now left wondering how she will pay for the damage caused to her home. In addition to damage caused to her home, she worries about damage to her washer, dryer, other appliances, and many items she kept in storage.
Barone said she feels “absolutely left in the dark.”
According to Barone, Allstate said she was not covered because she did not have flood insurance.
“These insurance companies get me,” she said. “You pay them for 53 years, and then when a problem comes that’s not even your fault, they want to pay nothing.”
However, Peter Eschbach, director of communications and external affairs at New Jersey American Water, said the damage caused by the water main break should not be covered by flood insurance since it is an act of God.
He said typically in a situation like Tuesday morning’s incident, homeowners insurance companies should foot the bill.
“The typical response for main breaks is it’s an insurance carrier issue,” he said.
However, Eschbach said in these particular circumstances, NJAW’s insurance carrier, Traveller’s Insurance, will speak to residents whose homeowners insurance will not cover the damage. He said, however, this does not guarantee a resolution.
Tulay Sencar of 2087 Portland Avenue was frustrated to initially hear from the NJAW claims examiner that the company is not liable for the damage.
She was even more frustrated that the examiner wanted to take pictures in her home of the damage.
“If it’s not your problem, why are you taking pictures of everything–why’d you send your whole crew to come in here and clean up?” Sencar asked.
“It’s like an admission if you ask me,” she continued.
Sencar, who lives next door to Barone, said her basement flooded with more than five feet of muddy water.
She said her son Bertram Peters was sleeping in the basement when the unfinished side began to flood. He awoke in time to evacuate thanks to one of Sencar’s other sons, Matthew Perper, who discovered the break around 3:30 a.m. and woke his family.
“I’m very glad it didn’t go up any higher,” Perper said.
According to Sencar, everything in storage in her basement, include mementos and baby photos, were destroyed. In addition, Sencar said there were a number of electronics, household goods, and food destroyed by the water. She estimates $100,000 worth of damage.
Sencar said she is taking NJAW up on their offer to put her family up in the Westfield Inn for the time being.
In addition to residential damage, Scotch Plains also saw damage to one of its churches and schools. The basement-level gymnasium at St. Bartholomew Academy flooded with more than two feet of water, destroying the tile floors. The floor was discovered to be floating on top of the water surface just after the basement flooded.
While distressed by the incident, St. Bartholomew Church parishioner and Academy alumnus Matt Marino said the situation could have been far worse.
“Thankfully school is not in session, so whatever repairs they have to make, it may take some time, but at least they don’t have to worry about the hustle and bustle of the kids,” Marino said.
He said he was happy, but not surprised, to see community officials come together during this time of distress for many.
Sharing this sentiment is Scotch Plains Councilman Kevin Glover.
“It was a community effort,” he said. “Our department of public works arrived early on the scene with pumpers to remove the water, as well as our volunteer fire department was here, as well we had some terrific supervision from our police department, all working in concert to put public safety first.”
In addition, Glover said he was happy to help five residents by retrieving contracts from possibly fraudulent firms.
“I was pleased to be here, having overheard one of these conversations going on, to be able to unwind it for the citizens,” Glover said.
Glover said several firms came through the area asking residents to sign documents that would allow them to clean affected residents’ homes. He said several residents unwittingly signed these documents, thinking the workers might represent official firms from the township or contracted with NJAW.
“The wonderful thing is that the community really–the neighbors–rallied around their neighbors, offering whatever support they could do, offering their homes, consoling them, lending a physical presence where necessary. So it’s something I’m very proud of,” Glover said.
“It speaks to the folks when they come out for no other reason than to want to help,” he continued.
One resident offered his home to Barone when she was evacuated early Tuesday morning. Bob Hoyer of 10 Watchung View Place in Fanwood, who also lives across from the water main break, but whose home was not affected by the gushing water, housed Barone until around 10 a.m., when she was able to return to her home.
Glover said his heart goes out to the residents affected by the main break, especially Barone who has already faced financial hardship.
“Unlike the street that can be remedied, what’s happening in her home, her personal losses, the inconvenience–this won’t go away in 72 hours,” Glover said. “And then the heartache for this wonderful citizen of our community for 53 years–who’s going to pay for that?”
Hoyer surmises that it is NJAW’s responsibility to pay for the damage.
“I’d assume the water company owns the pipe, the pipe broke, therefore I assume they’re going to be responsible for paying the contractors and reseeding our lawn down here and whatever, but only time will tell,” Hoyer said.
“But it’s amazing to watch. You’ve got all this big equipment here, you’ve got a couple of guys down in the hole with shovels that are uncovering what the problem is,” he said. “It’s really amazing how it all ends up with some sweat, strong backs, and a couple shovels.”
According to Eschbach, Portland Avenue should be restored by Thursday morning, assuming everything goes according to plan. The crews are replacing the concrete pipes with ductal iron.
Eschbach said that during the 1970s, concrete was a common material used for pipes. Today, pipe materials have evolved, and ductal iron has become one of the standards, he said.
Glover said the main break on Tuesday is evidence that an investment in the town’s infrastructure is necessary. He said lots of people talk about it, but it has to get done.
In spite of the fact that there are annual inspections, as well as about $40 million spent annually on underground pipes according to Eshbach, things grow old and deteriorate for a variety of reasons, Glover said.
“The damage that comes out of this is just work that’s not productive. I’d rather have people working, rebuilding an infrastructure rather than responding to these kinds of disasters,” he said.