Officials: South Bend sewer system wasn't built to handle '500-year flood'

South Bend Tribune photo

A lot of people are still drying out after historic flooding.

As homeowners assess the damage, many are wondering if anything could have prevented the destruction?

the North Shore Triangle neighborhood got hit pretty hard.

Almost every home in this area had water in the basement.

WSBT showed you the families hauling up soaked drywall and ruined furniture, but many of those families say they had sewage in their homes as well.

Some feel the sewer system didn't perform well enough.

"I think we have a problem here that has not been addressed,” said Al Kirsits, who lives in the North Shore Triangle.

He didn't get any sewage in his basement, but his neighbors did. They've all dealt with flooding before -- but nothing like this.

"…Somehow, at a point, it intercepted into the sanitary sewers and flowed over," he said.

Kirsits was a city councilman for 12 years. He served as chairman of the Public Works Committee.

"I have been told by sewer operators at the waste treatment plant that we have a major capacity problem down here and it's just too much coming through a pinch point and not enough big pipes," he said.

Current leaders with Public Works say the sewer system worked as well as it could under the circumstances.

"None of these systems are built for a 500-year flood. They just aren't," said Eric Horvath, director of Public Works.

Matt Rudkin, chief meteorologist at WSBT-TV, said South Bend saw nearly 8 inches of liquid precipitation last month. The wettest February on record in 1976 saw 5.23 inches.

Some officials including Mayor Pete Buttigieg were calling it a “500-year flood,” because it is the type of flooding you can only expect to get once every 500 years.

Horvath says the St. Joseph River got so high it actually reversed flow in the storm sewers.

"There's nothing, in those situations, you can do other than raise the entire area up, which you can't do now without taking out all the homes."

Kieran Fahey is in charge of the city's long-term control plan, which would eliminate combined sewer overflow into the river. He says -- as part of that -- they're looking into building storage tanks.

"For extreme events, we would store and treat, and then after the event we would be able to emit back into the system."

But he says he can't add enough capacity to handle a 500-year event. The cost would be in the billions.

"If it's not handling that kind of sewage frequently, if you've got a very large system, you'd actually lead to more maintenance issues and there's no guarantee it would work in the long run."

Kirsits says he understands the flooding isn't typical, but he hopes the city uses it as a learning opportunity anyway.

He says most of those who live here have for a long time.

But now many are considering moving away.

Kirsits says that would be bad for the neighborhood, and hopes the city considers serious construction.

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