St. Louis Park residents whose homes were damaged by two water main breaks this spring may take legal action — once they find out who's responsible.
City officials are working to reimburse more than 50 households that experienced flood damage, while waiting for an independent firm to determine what caused the water main breaks along Minnetonka Boulevard in late May and early June. In the meantime, a group of residents, working with attorneys, successfully negotiated to change a city liability release that could have prevented them from suing the culpable party.
"What we can do, and what we're working very hard to do — and to be frank with you, we're very proud to do on behalf of these residents — is to help them through this time by getting them the money from the city, and then preserving their rights going forward," said Philip Krzeski, an attorney representing the residents.
According to an email from a city spokesperson, the revised release was finalized Oct. 6.
"After being approached by a group of attorneys representing a number of residents who had inquired if the release could be revised, the city engaged in positive and productive conversations and agreed to revisions that were beneficial to both parties," the email reads. "The residents who requested changes to the release have received the revised release from their attorneys."
The first water main break May 21 affected 55 homes along Minnetonka Boulevard near Texas and Sumter avenues. The following week, more than 20 homes were hit again. Residents described finding their basements flooded with up to three feet of water.
"Your whole life gets turned upside down," said Joanne Lefebvre, a lifelong St. Louis Park resident. "And it's painful. Did I think at age 70 I was gonna go out shopping for another toilet? No."
In a June 13 video update, Mayor Jake Spano said he and colleagues visited damaged homes after the water main breaks and witnessed the aftermath. The first break alone displaced 1.1 million gallons of water, he said.
"We saw firsthand those basements full of water and in cleanup mode and we saw the trash bags full of personal belongings and baby blankets and wedding photos. And we can't fix that. We can't undo that," Spano said. "But what we can do is, really, three things: Find out what happened; support our neighbors as they're rebuilding; and then assess ourselves, what's the status of our infrastructure? What do we need to do differently?"
The city has allocated up to $4 million for damage reimbursement. Residents can claim up to $180,000 from a combination of homeowner's insurance, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust — which is St. Louis Park's insurer — and the city's reimbursement program.
The insurance trust has paid out about 40 claims so far, with an average payment of $34,300, and is processing several more, according to the city. The city is also offering a $75,000 loan option at 2% interest for damaged commercial properties.
The city has a $97,700 contract with Ohio-based firm DNV, which plans to evaluate factors that may have led to the water main breaks, including nearby construction and the possibility that repairs of the first break contributed to the second.
Affected residents said they started running into each other at City Council meetings, which eventually led to meeting up at a nearby church.
"And before you know it, you're a collective group," said resident Jeff Withers.
About 25 residents reached out to Krzeski to discuss their options and, in early August, they approached city officials to urge them to change the release agreement. The city agreed, and updated the release to allow potential legal action against city contractors.
For now, residents are left to wait and see who's responsible — while still dealing with the reality of the damage to their homes.
Resident Julie North retired from her teaching job last year, but said she decided to go back this year so she could afford a home equity loan to cover upfront repair costs. She estimates repairs will total more than $100,000.
Receipts once organized in a folder have piled up to fill a basket, she said.
"Waking up in the middle of the night, worried about money, you know? It's just been an all-consuming thing," North said.