The spring means flooding – East Germantown organizes

The 5-foot-6-inch woman waded through the thigh high water while she attempted to return to her East Germantown home.

“We’re walking and praying we’re not going to step on a manhole,” said Jocelyn Davis, who had to park a few blocks over to prevent another car from being damaged by the water.

The neighborhood on the 5800 block of Crittenden Street has been plagued with flooding since the 1980s, residents say. Davis shared her story, and her video, to a crowd of more than 30 at an Action United town hall meeting March 2 aimed at ending flooding on several Germantown blocks.

A neighborhood demands action

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Action United, a member-run organization that has its roots with the now defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, puts pressure on public figures to address the issues that affect its members. Out of discussions centering on abandoned houses and vacant lots, Jasmine Rivera, community organizer for the group, learned about the flooding.

Rivera got a better picture when she saw Jocelyn Davis’ videos capturing water gushing from the toilet in the basement or shooting up like a geyser in the street.

Rivera collected locations on more than a dozen streets, such as the 1200 and 1300 blocks of E. Haines Street, and 5600 Bloyd Street, where the flooding occurs during rains, she said.

Representatives from the Philadelphia Water Department were among the invited guests. This information helped them figure out how to start tackling the problem.

New solution

If the sewers aren’t clogged with debris they should be capable of draining the storm water, according to PWD spokesperson Joann Dahme. Instead, the water is coming from the fixtures and walls in basements to relieve itself, she said.

As a short-term goal PWD will send a plumber to the affected homes and determine where to instal a special back-flow preventer valve on home sewer systems, which will only let water flow out, and not in, from overwhelmed pipes beneath the street. This program is free to those impacted, she said.

Over a longer period, PWD will focus on a supplementary sewer system and greening the city’s streets as it’s two main solutions. To get started, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, Inc, offered to plant trees for the attendees.

Old problem

This problem is not new to the water department. Nearly every time it rains the city’s sewer’s are overwhelmed with water flow from city streets. Most of the time the sewer overflow system shunts that extra sewer water directly into nearby streams and rivers instead of allowing it to back up in people’s basement, but Davis’ problem may be an exception.

In fact, PWD is under federal mandate to stop this overflow problem within the next 20 years. Doing so means installing some new underground sewer systems, but mainly focussing on better storm water management all over the city.

Last year that started with an expanded storm water drainage fee on city water bills to places with lots of impervious surface, and it will continiue block-by-block with improvements to local storm water features that can capture and slow down the water as it rushes over streets and into sewer drains.

In short, that means trees and green stuff – the opposite of the urban hardscape.

“With more paving, you get more water getting into the sewers,” said Debra McCarty, deputy commissioner of operations for the department. “Trees help to get the water from going to the water system [in sewers].”

Doubts remain

McCarty told the audience that, despite the sewer overflows, their drinking water is clean.

But Rasmiyyah Gaines, who also lives on the 5800 block of Crittenden Street, disagrees and only drinks bottled water.

“My dogs are sick. My plants have died,” she said to the crowd. “I’m sick. You’re not going to tell me the sewage water is not in the water system.”

Gaines moved into her house about two years ago, when she wasn’t aware that the Federal Emergency Management Agency deemed her block a flood zone. Two weeks after her move, her house flooded.

Although she hopes the issue gets resolved for others, she doesn’t want anything fixed in her home. She just wants to move out, she said.

For Jocelyn Davis, the flooding disrupts all aspects of her life.

She has two houses on Crittenden Street. One is where she lives, and the other she uses for her daycare. Flooding has happened when the children have been at the center, so she is looking for a new property for her business, she said.

The house was something she hoped to pass down to her children. But with flooding happening even with light rain, her children don’t want it.

“Fifteen minutes of rain is three weeks of cleaning,” she said. “(My children) were so happy when they left home to not have to help us.”

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