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'River of sewage' floods Ashland home

An Ashland family of six was forced to flee their home recently after a sewage malfunction on Morton Street rendered the house uninhabitable.

Caroline Shaffer, her husband, and their four children fled their house the night of Oct. 28 after sewage began flowing from a toilet on the main living floor of their home. The malfunction, which began a little after 4 p.m., wasn’t remedied until 8:30 p.m. During that time, a high volume of sewage flowed through the house, permeating floors, walls and even soil beneath the home.

“Our house was engulfed in a river of (raw sewage)," Shaffer said. "It’s really devastating, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. I mean, I still don’t really know what happened, but there has been construction up the street, and maybe something got blocked in the city sewage pipes, but everything seems to have been rerouted from the houses up above through our house. So basically our house is ruined. It’s totally uninhabitable.”

Shaffer says she and her family were forced to couch surf with their dog and two cats. She says a friend will have a house available to rent in a couple of weeks for the family, but that she isn’t sure how long they will need temporary residence.

“They’re all saying months. Months. They have to clean everything up, then they have to tear out the floor. Then they have to tear out the subfloor, then they have to figure out how much of the soil beneath the house is permeated. Then they have to take that out. Then they have to let it dry. Then they start rebuilding. You know, and that doesn’t include all of the logistics between now and then. I mean, I have my home business there. I record audio books from my home, and my studio is completely submerged. All my equipment, I mean everything.”

Shaffer says the company undertaking the cleanup has told her the walls have been permeated by sewage 8 feet up and will have to be removed entirely. She also says there was little time to grab any personal belongings, and that the home is considered a biohazard, so their possessions are essentially unavailable, possibly permanently.

“The cleanup company said it’s a biohazard. So we were able to kind of wade in and grab a few things when they were there with suits and breathing apparatus. You aren’t even supposed to breathe it. So we have a couple of things that we laundered so we have a bit to wear, but the company has taken everything and they sort through it to determine what can be salvaged. And anything that can be saved has to be professionally deep cleaned, and everything else has to be thrown away. They’ve taken everything away, there’s nothing left in the house.”

Shaffer says her understanding is that there was a blockage in the main line and that the toilet in their downstairs was the closest outlet for effluent flowing down from houses above her. She lives at the bottom of the steepest part of Morton Street, and that the pressure resulting from sewage running down hundreds of vertical feet in the main was enough to push raw sewage back through the pipes in her home, eventually blasting out of the toilet. Shaffer says she was upstairs when her son returned from school and alerted her to the problem.

“What happened was it starting spewing out of the downstairs toilet rather suddenly. And by spewing I mean really spurting. By the time I walked downstairs, and I mean this couldn’t have been happening more than 10 minutes … five, maybe. It was already flowing across the whole kitchen and toward the front door. It was pressurized sewage. That’s why I’m laughing, because it’s like something out of a horror movie, or like a Disney horror movie where it’s gross but it’s supposed to be funny.”

While Shaffer has maintained a positive attitude, she does have concerns about the cleanup. She says she has spoken to her homeowner’s insurance company, and they told her damage by sewage isn’t covered. The city has also sent representatives from their insurance carrier to examine the site, but they have also been noncommittal with regard to taking financial responsibility for the spill. Shaffer says the only person she has spoken to from the city’s insurance carrier was in Portland.

“I don’t have any idea if or when they are going to come look at the property. Meanwhile, I have a company cleaning up the property, bagging all the possessions, and that has begun tearing apart the house, because black mold is the big concern, and I have to keep paying them. And I’m no longer confident in my ability to keep paying them if I don’t get some help from insurance. So we haven’t had much of a response.”

City Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said a blockage occurred when the city was doing maintenance on an access point in the area.

“We believe the blockage occurred when some foreign objects got into the sewer system while we were replacing a manhole," Tuneberg said.

Tuneberg says the first step is to mitigate the effects of the spill, a process that is currently underway. Who will cover the costs of that cleanup, however, is less clear.

“The city is working with ... the city’s insurance carrier," Tuneberg said, "to determine the next steps. The property owner has retained counsel, and as this is an ongoing investigation, I really can’t say anything more about it at this time.”

Shaffer says friends in the community have stepped up to offer whatever help they can. She says that while it’s been a hectic time, she and her family are coping.

“People have been absolutely amazing getting us the things we need. The kids’ friends have been taking them in, feeding them. So people have been fantastic about helping us. It’s overwhelming, but I keep reminding myself that it’s a little bit funny, and we’re OK. Our kids are OK. It’s not the end of the earth. It’s just a pile of (raw sewage).”

While it may not be the end of the world, Shaffer has had to purchase all new recording equipment for her studio to keep earning income. She says, in addition to worries about housing her pets, the biggest problem at the moment is grappling with the finances of the situation.

“We have to pay rent on a second place, plus the expenses of our home. And then all the work on the house, and these expenses are really adding up. And the further we get away from the actual event, the less contact … nobody from the city is talking to me, so I’m getting frustrated, let’s just say that.”

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.

Caroline Shaffer in her kitchen. Her cabinetry and appliances will have to be replaced after a flood of sewage soaked her home. Photo by Alec Dickinson
Caroline Shaffer stands in her kitchen as workmen rip out damaged materials from her Morton Street home. Photo by Alec Dickinson