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Shit Storm: Why won’t SF stop flooding homes with sewage? 

Wednesday, Oct 14 2015
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It started with the banging.

A few months after Blane Bachelor and Chris Tilton moved into their new home on the corner of Rotteck Street and Cayuga Avenue, just a few blocks down the hill from the Glen Park BART station, they were woken up at 3 a.m. on December 3, 2014, by loud, pounding thuds.

Raoul Cobar and Susan Garduno, who lived around the corner on Cayuga Avenue, heard the banging, too.

Donna Marie Ponferrada, who also lived on Cayuga, didn't hear the banging, but her grandmother and aunt, who lived in a house a few doors down, were startled by the sounds coming from downstairs. They telephoned Ponferrada. Was someone breaking into the house? Were there burglars?

"We were thinking, 'What in the world is that horrible sound?'" Bachelor recalls.

Then they looked outside.

Cobar ran to his front door. Like most of the Mediterranean-style houses on the street, his front door is one story up from street level, at the top of an exterior staircase. It was dark outside and pouring rain. He heard a neighbor calling to him, "Your car, your car."

"I look outside," Cobar recalls. "My car is floating across the street."

Cayuga Avenue was a river. The banging was caused by the lids of the manholes. They kept popping off, says Victoria Sanchez, who lives on that last block of Cayuga, "like champagne corks." The paved-over creek that gives the little neighborhood of Cayuga its name had taken back the street.

In the morning, the neighbors assessed the damage. The sounds Donna Marie's aunt and grandmother had heard were the contents of their garage — Donna Marie's just-paid-off Ford Explorer and 10 years worth of storage — floating in several feet of water.

Bachelor and Tilton, who had just moved into their house and had yet to unpack completely, were confronted with a garage full of computers and camping equipment covered with a layer of filth.

Cobar had to climb into his basement through the windows. Inside, "it was like you had tipped over a ship," he says. "Stuff was all over. You couldn't get in a door."

Worst of all was the smell. "Feces," Cobar says. "It's feces."

When Cayuga floods, it doesn't just flood with rainwater rushing over land to fill the quasi-natural basin formed by the residential street meeting the rise of I-280. When Cayuga floods, the underbelly of San Francisco belches: sewage from toilets flushed upstream of this little cul-de-sac flows into basements, garages, and backyards.

After the storm came the cleanup. The city of San Francisco flooded Cayuga again, this time with work crews in Hazmat suits.

"They said, 'Don't worry about anything,'" says Cobar, as he stands in the dusty basement of the house he shares with his fiancee, Garduno. The floors are unfinished plywood, the bottom half of all the walls are gone.

"'We're going to take care of it all. We're going to demo what's here, and we're going to replace it as good or better than it was.'" Cobar knocks on an exposed stud. "Or better."

Before the flood, this room was finished. The walls were covered with pine wainscotting that Cobar installed himself. There was a tiled kitchen with a working stove in the back. There was a bathroom. Now you can see how high the floodwaters went, because that's how high the demolition crews ripped out the sheetrock.

It's been almost a year since the flood, and the city has not fulfilled its promise. The only good thing, Cobar and Garduno say, is that they can't smell the stink anymore. They are used to the faint whiff of lingering dampness.

The promised cleanup was hampered by a second flood. Eight days later, as residents were still sorting through sodden belongings and preparing to file legal claims, the waters returned. The second major storm last December sent high tides pouring over the Embarcadero, cancelled classes for San Francisco public schools, and unleashed another torrent of floodwater through Cayuga.

To Ponferrada, there was a certain serendipity to the second flood. It couldn't destroy the neighborhood any further — and now, there were witnesses. "The crews and the trucks were here cleaning up. The manhole at the very end of the cul-de-sac was spewing, and I was like, 'Ha! Now you guys are experiencing this firsthand!'"

Garduno was less amused. "After the first one, on December 3, I was telling myself, telling my family, my neighbors: I am not going to be here for another flood," she says. "Damn it, but a week later we had another one. And I was still here. I shouldn't have opened my mouth."

Signs of last year's floods are still visible in the neighborhood. People still have sandbags outside their homes. Inside the houses, basements are still gutted. Bachelor and her husband have spent $9,000 installing a trench drain, backvalve, and sump pump in their garage, but the rest of their basement — formerly a one-bedroom apartment — is still bare to the studs. Michael Sanchez, who lives in the basement unit of his mother Victoria's house, has put up some new sheetrock to make his room liveable, but it's still under construction, and he has to keep the windows open because of the damp. Cobar and Garmudo paid to put down a new floor, but they don't have the capital to complete the rest of the work.

Ponferrada's grandmother, 93 years old and suffering from Alzheimer's, had her furnace totalled by the flood. With no money to fix it, Donna Marie and her family members have pitched in to buy a portable electric heater for the winter. "We bought her a lot of robes and an electric blanket," Ponferrada says.

It's not an ideal situation, but the Ponferradas are struggling to come up with $10,000 to fix the sidewalk — which is caving in due to flood damage — outside her grandmother's house. This work, required by the city of San Francisco, must take precedent over the busted furnace.


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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