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Residents Battle City Over Clogs in Sewers

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles officials couldn’t have been nicer when a clogged city sewer line flooded Bridget Nassour’s house with more than 1,500 gallons of raw waste.

Sanitation workers raced to remove tree roots and rags that were plugging the 8-inch pipe beneath Tahoe Drive and causing sewage to pour into her downstairs bathroom.

Firefighters hurriedly built dirt berms to channel escaping waste water away from the Hollywood Reservoir--which is a few hundred yards down the hill from Nassour’s house.

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A municipal crew spent hours squeegeeing brown water and gunk off the wood floor in her family room. They used knives borrowed from her kitchen to cut away her living room’s reeking wall-to-wall carpeting.

City workers hauled off ruined furniture, children’s toys and the bedding and linens that Nassour had frantically used to try to stop the gushing sewage. As they left, they shook their heads sympathetically at the slimy mess that still remained.

Don’t worry, sanitation administrators assured Nassour, we’ll pay for the damage.

That was in April.

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But five months later the only cleaning that has taken place at her Hollywood Hills home has involved city officials washing their hands of any blame for the incident, Nassour complains--a sequence of events not unique among homeowners served by the city’s Hollywood Hills sewer network, a gravity-operated system prone to nasty backup problems.

In Nassour’s case, city lawyers have rejected her damage claim and challenged the family to take them to court.

“ ‘Sue us,’ one of them told me,” said Nassour. “ ‘It’ll take you two years to get to court, and we’re in the litigation business.’ ”

Deputy City Atty. Daniel Woodard said the city is willing to negotiate with Nassour, despite his office’s denial of her claim. But he said the city’s liability for the April 12 flood is questionable.

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It’s not the city’s fault that someone flushed rags down a toilet at one of the 125 houses up the hill from the Nassours or that those rags got caught in the “light roots” that were growing in the sewer pipe, Woodard said.

Meanwhile, Nassour’s family of four is camping out at her mother-in-law’s Van Nuys house, wondering if they’ll ever go home again.

“Our kids are traumatized--we had to put them in different schools when we moved out. They don’t have their playmates. They don’t have their toys--they stood there and watched while their toys were thrown in the back of the city trucks,” said Nassour, 35.

Officials say older hillside neighborhoods such as hers are particularly vulnerable to sewer line backup problems. That’s because the steep terrain creates water pressure that can force sewage into nearby houses if the sewer line beneath the street becomes plugged. And most homes built before the mid-1980s--when city building codes were beefed up--lack special back-flow regulators designed to keep sewage from backing up into toilets and bathtubs.

Woodard, the deputy city attorney, denied it’s the city’s policy to drag its feet in reimbursing homeowners for sewage damage. “No, the city doesn’t routinely deny claims,” he said.

But unless a backed-up sewer has a history of tree-root problems that sanitation workers have ignored, it is up to homeowners to prove the city’s negligence, he said.

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As a result, some hillside residents say fights with the city over damage can be as onerous as the flooding itself. Such fights are necessary, however, since many homeowner insurance policies pointedly exclude coverage for sewage damage.

It took homeowner Mary Farah three years to collect from the city after a clogged Lake Hollywood Drive sewer line flooded her home in 1989. Damage to the house and to furnishings totaled about $51,000.

“The man from the city told me not to expect anything for five years because there were so many claims ahead of me,” said Farah, who remembers watching sanitation officials pull a tangle of roots from a nearby sewer manhole after her flood.

“The roots filled my garbage cans when they were through,” she said.

Sue Cantor contends that city workers shrugged off tree roots that have repeatedly clogged the sewer line beneath Westbrook Avenue, where she has lived for 31 years.

“The attitude is, ‘Gee, that’s too bad, but roots grow all the time and there’s nothing much we can do about it,’ ” said Cantor, whose property has been flooded twice.

When officials balked at reimbursing her for $1,000 damage from a flood two years ago, she took the city to small claims court. Officials agreed to settle her claim.

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“The city denies liability even when it’s an open-and-shut case against them,” Cantor said. “They make homeowners jump through the hoops. They turn homeowners into double victims”--first from sewage, then from bureaucracy.

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Neighbor David A. Goldstein was stunned when the city rejected his claim for $54,385 damage at his Westbrook Avenue home due to sewage backup 28 months ago.

Goldstein, a physician who is chief of general medicine at the USC School of Medicine, returned home one evening to find the electricity off and himself standing in a foot of raw sewage at the bottom of his split-level house.

Clothing and furniture were ruined. Sewage saturated his walls, spilled into the home’s ventilation system and flowed outside across his lawn.

“I had to have emergency crews wearing masks turn over the soil in the yard like I was some sort of mass murderer or something,” Goldstein said.

“I received a note from the city in my mailbox the day after the flood saying they’d had a problem. I naturally assumed they would solve the problem and repair the damage. Basically, I think they abandoned me.”

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Goldstein sued in Superior Court and depositions in the case have begun, said his lawyer, Michael P. Krival. City attorneys in that case could not be reached for comment.

Nassour, meantime, has hired her own lawyer to press for repairs to her house and replacement of damaged possessions carted off by city workers.

Before her claim was denied, the city had offered a $10,000 settlement--even though Nassour contends that cleanup experts brought in by the city estimated it would cost three times as much just to sanitize the place. In all, her family’s losses--including landscaping that has withered since she moved out with husband Joe, 42, son Alexander, 8, and daughter Kelly, 5--could total about $80,000, she predicted.

“We’re living on borrowed time. We’re seriously impacting my mother-in-law by overstaying our welcome there,” she said.

“We don’t have the money to pay for the cleanup ourselves and our homeowners’ insurance won’t pay for it. Right now our house is like a gas station restroom that hasn’t been cleaned.”

Flood victim Goldstein said he has the answer to balky city sewers and balking city lawyers.

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“Septic tanks,” he said.

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