Floodgates: Insurance firms haggle after sewer floods family's home
MIDDLEBURY — It was far from the Father’s Day gift that Middlebury resident Jeffrey Schnoor had been expecting.
While other dads were engaged in fun family activities back on June 21, Schnoor and his wife, Leilani, were frantically dealing with a major household disaster wrought by thousands of gallons of nasty sewer water that suddenly spewed from the first-floor toilet of their North Pleasant Street home.
The overflow lasted around two hours and ruined the hardwood floors in their late 19th-century residence. Stench-filled waves of the brown liquid poured into their basement, ruining various items they had in storage.
The June 21 debacle has been linked to a town-commissioned project to connect the Schnoors’ home into Middlebury’s municipal sewer system. And the fetid cherry on top of the sour sundae is that two months after the incident, the family has yet to receive an insurance settlement through the town’s or its contractor’s insurance company.
“It’s taken our summer away from us,” Jeff Schnoor said on Monday of the wastewater backup and its lingering aftermath.
The Schnoors’ home was one of three on North Pleasant Street that had inexplicably never been connected to Middlebury’s sewerage system back in the 1960s. Unbeknownst to town officials and the affected residents, the three homes had been discharging waste through a storm drain tile into the Otter Creek, Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner explained during a recent interview. Still, the Schnoors had been paying for sewer service ever since they moved into their home almost five years ago, according to Jeff Schnoor.
“The town notified us and said, ‘We need to do this work,’” Schnoor said. “They had their attorney draw up what was going to happen.”
It was a contract that included a guarantee that the Schnoors’ property would be put back to original condition following the project, according to the couple.
Heavy excavating equipment mobilized onto the Schnoors’ yard in mid-June, and work got under way.
It was at around 8 p.m. on Father’s Day that the you-know-what hit the fan.
“We got a deluge of rain,” Schnoor recalled. And only a few minutes after the rain started to come down, the Schnoors’ son Cole delivered some disheartening news.
“He said, ‘The toilet’s bubbling, Mom,’” Leilani Schnoor recalled.
That bubbling escalated to a rapid flow that the Schnoors tried in vain to contain with a wet vac, blankets and towels.
“We had a constant flow from the toilet for about an hour and 20 minutes,” Jeff Schnoor said. Once the rain subsided, the wastewater flow continued from a dishwasher drain, the Schnoors noted.
Jeff and Leilani Schnoor watched helplessly as the wastewater enveloped their first floor surface and seeped into their basement. Fortunately, two basement sump pumps sprang into action to get rid of the wastewater.
“We’re talking thousands of gallons of water,” Jeff Schnoor said. “It literally looked like it was raining in our basement.”
“We would have had a swimming pool down there if it weren’t for the sump pumps,” Leilani Schnoor said. “Everything would have been completely gone.”
Still, the family’s water heater and furnace are showing signs of rusting in wake of their exposure to the basement water.
The Schnoors were grateful to Middlebury wastewater treatment plant Superintendent Bob Wells for quickly showing up to assess the situation. But they were disappointed to have not received an offer of housing assistance from the town immediately after a debacle they noted was related to a municipal project.
“There were residents in Barre who, the morning after natural flooding, were given temporary housing,” Leilani said. “Meanwhile, we called four families at 10 p.m. (for help).”
Along with three children, the Schnoors had to find temporary quarters for two senior family members, one of whom is disabled. The couple toughed it out in the home during the initial cleanup effort that included help from a private company to which the Schnoors paid $1,290. The Schnoor children went to camps and/or stayed with relatives during chunks of the summer.
Both Leilani and Jeff work at the UVM Medical Center. Jeff is also a major with the U.S. Army Reserve. Jeff missed work for a few days following the incident, making initial inquiries with town officials and insurance agents. Both have spent considerable hours cleaning and salvaging family possessions and navigating what they said has been a lot of red tape in an effort to get compensation for the damage their home has sustained.
There are still spots on the antique wood floors — which will ultimately need to be replaced — that harbor some moisture and an unpleasant odor, Leilani said. These are floors that the family had refinished soon after acquiring the home. The couple is concerned about the potential for mold taking hold and spreading within the house.
As if cleanup weren’t enough of a chore, the Schnoors continue to haggle with insurance companies representing the town of Middlebury, contractor Don Weston Excavating, and Phelps Engineering.
“They are all pointing their fingers at each other,” Jeff said of the insurance companies, which include VLCT PACIF (for the town) and Patriot (for Don Weston Excavating). “(VLCT PACIF) insures Vermont towns, really for scenarios like this. But they are just like any other insurance company, doing whatever they can to avoid paying a claim. They very quickly denied our claim … They were saying ‘This is not the town’s fault.’”
Jeff Schnoor had hoped the town’s insurance company would pay the family’s cleanup and restoration bills pending an official resolution of liability in the case.
“But two months after the debacle, it feels like (no progress) has happened,” Jeff Schnoor said. “We have gotten almost zero support from the town.”
That has changed in recent weeks. Middlebury officials acknowledged the hardship the Schnoors have endured and have asked their insurance company to redouble its efforts to get some results for the couple. The town has retained a lawyer to see what options the town may have for pursuing payment by Patriot Insurance, according to Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay.
As of Tuesday, VLST PACIF was still researching the town’s contract with the Schnoors to “further substantiate the town’s claims on behalf of the Schnoors,” Ramsay said. She said the town could consider beefing up its insurance coverage to allow for rapid aid to families like the Schnoors who suffer property damage related to a municipal project.
Werner, the town’s director of operations, said his office found out about the Schnoors’ wastewater problem the morning after it occurred. That Monday afternoon, the department installed a check valve on the home’s sanitary line, according to Werner.
“My personal opinion is that the contractor is responsible for this,” Werner said. “It is ridiculous that insurance companies do this to these people.”
Selectwoman Susan Shashok has seen flooding in the past at her East Middlebury home and said she can relate to the associated insurance issues.
“I would like to see what else we can do,” Shashok said. “If (the Schnoors) have a contract with us, we need to explore other things we can do.”
Selectboard Chairman Dean George was candid in his displeasure of how the system has failed the Schnoors.
“We do take this seriously,” George said. “The town manager has spent a fair amount of time trying to push the issue to get some resolution to it. I’m hoping that this latest effort is going to bring some action. It’s frustrating for us as well. Ownership on this belongs with one of these parties and they need to step up and address it.
“It is troubling that the insurance company in this case hasn’t stepped up,” he added. “We’re not going to let it drop.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
WASTEWATER FLOODS THE basement of the Schnoor home on North Pleasant Street in Middlebury earlier this summer.