Victims of a Dec. 23 flood in West Cambridge hear city officials’ rejection of financial responsibility for the incident during a Monday meeting of City Council meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city took a hard line Monday in denying responsibility for the damaged property of flood victims in West Cambridge, even though it was a city water main that broke and caused the damage.

“The city does not in fact bear liability. Obviously, we have a great deal of sympathy for the residents and what they’re going through, but the unfortunate truth is that the city is not an insurer … The remedy that residents are encouraged to consider looking into for themselves is insurance,” city solicitor Nancy Glowa said.

The remark drew aggrieved laughter from flood victims in the audience of the City Council meeting, who have testified to their lack of flood insurance after moving into homes outside a mapped flood plain and the uselessness of the general policies they did take out. “Our home insurance company, Quincy Mutual, has refused to cover our claims,” Brattle Street resident Julia Holderness said. “We have a standard policy and it seems it’s unusual for insurance to cover water damage when the source is outside the property. There’s no leverage we have.” 

City Solicitor Nancy Glowa says a principle known as “sovereign immunity” covers Cambridge in the case of West Cambridge flooding.

Flood remediation with a replacement water heater and heating and air conditioning systems is at $40,000 so far, not including the cost of redoing a finished basement and replacing destroyed possessions, Holderness said. 

The situation sounded worse for fellow Brattle Street resident, Petronella Teunissen-Kooloos, who finished an expensive home renovation to city historical standards in 2017 – winning a local Preservation Award in the process – and now “must start a renovation process again of a process we have just finished and paid an enormous amount for, for something we didn’t do.” Alan Dworsky of Mercer Circle reported the toll of being in a hotel for seven weeks, with an estimated three weeks to go, an expense no more covered by insurance than the home repairs he faces.

No plan in place

The water main at Berkeley and Craigie streets broke open just before 4 a.m. Dec. 23, sending fountains of water into the air and a resulting lake of water and waste sludge into the homes and cars of eight nearby families. After the leak was stopped, the residents were left to recover and find temporary lodging, with minimal contact from the city – a stark contrast with the attention and aid given to people displaced by fires.  

That is one element that could see improvement, as City Manager Louis A. DePasquale acknowledged Monday that “we really [don’t] have a plan in place as we do for fire. I mean, the response by the city of Cambridge after a fire is second to none.”

“What is the role when something else other than a fire happens? This is not necessarily talking about what we’re supposed to be paying, it’s about how do we show compassion for people,” DePasquale said. “It’s something we’re very good at it, but in this case we really didn’t have a plan to show that.”

Meetings with fire, police, health and other officials have begun to flesh out “a plan that would be not at the level of a fire, because that’s different, but something that would show the residents that even if we’re not there financially with them, we are showing the compassion they deserve and finding ways of helping them that are different from just handing out funds.”

Sovereign immunity

A Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund – which famously disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars after a Berkshire Street fire in 2016 – may yet be repurposed to include disasters such as flooding, Mayor Marc McGovern said, but it’s citizen-funded and the size of payouts are subject to how much is put in. Meanwhile, an idea of a capped reimbursement for flood victims suggested by residents was rejected by the city solicitor, who said Cambridge would never reach the point of reimbursement because it wasn’t liable in the first place for flood damage resulting from the bursting of a city pipe – even like the one that broke in December, which has been described as being installed in 1867 and last upgraded with a cement lining in 1954.

Under a legal principle known as sovereign immunity, the government is generally safe from being sued for damages “if we have a reasonable program of maintenance and preventative care and we’re diligent and responsible in how we handle these systems,” Glowa said. “If there’s a glaring defect we’re aware of and we just ignore it day after day, month after month, and then something terrible happens, we might be found liable.”

That’s not the case with the water main break, officials said. The pipe’s age isn’t considered a serious factor in its rupture, and the city has been aggressive about assessing the system for leaks and making improvements on a rolling basis, prioritizing replacement work where needed. An annual citywide leak detection completed in December included Craigie Street, DePasquale said, with an outside vendor saying it “found the system to be in excellent condition with only five leaks located throughout.”

“We do a lot of work on the system,” Water Department director of operations Sam Corda told councillors, and the number of leaks has been cut in half over the past 15 years.

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