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[whitespace] Before and After in Bathroom
Photograph by George Sakkestad

A Kodak Moment to Forget: Although the bathroom has been completely remodeled, the layer of black sludge that overflowed into John Gibbs' Cambrian home last year is immortalized in the family's photo album.

Holiday Backup

Last Thanksgiving Beth and John Gibbs came home to find their home flooded with raw sewage. The city has taken responsibility and sent its apologies, but has yet to settle the bill.

By Mary Spicuzza

BETH GIBBS SAYS words can't describe the stench that filled her home the day before Thanksgiving last year. She didn't notice anything odd when she first drove her car up to the house, except perhaps the moisture seeping out into the driveway from the family laundry room.

But when Gibbs opened the front door, she found her home drenched in a thick layer of raw sewage. Her then 13-year-old dog, Maple, the only one home, was cowering on a dry spot of their otherwise saturated hardwood floor.

"The floor was completely black, and the smell ... you can't imagine the smell," Gibbs says. "I ran to the phone to call my husband but it wouldn't work. The line goes under the house, and I think it got soaked."

Photos spread across the wooden table of the Gibbses' living room hold memories of the day. They show the Gibbses' modest one-story home in the Cambrian Park neighborhood of San Jose covered in a thick, black, opaque liquid. A black sludge covers the couple's bedroom floor, only a tiny corner still showing the carpet's original tan shade.

"You don't know what a big undertaking it is to wash raw sewage out of everything you own," Gibbs says sadly, peering down at the photos through gold-rimmed glasses.

Almost one year later the house looks immaculate and no trace of sewage stench remains. Her husband, John, nibbles on a sandwich next to me, and Maple is stretched out at Beth Gibbs' red plaid Dearfoam-slippered feet. But as the couple and their son, Jason, nervously prepare for Thanksgiving this year, the Gibbses still await compensation from the City of San Jose for the massive repairs needed to restore the house, which the family estimates at more than $100,000.

"The city has been no help to us. Every step of the way is a struggle," John says. "They won't help us, they keep saying it was a sewer backup, but it wasn't a backup. Raw sewage was forced into our house when the city [workers] were trying to repair the sewer, and city employees still haven't helped us."

"We've been shut out by the city," Beth adds. "It's almost a year and we're still fighting."

No Holiday

CITY ATTORNEY Rick Doyle says that he sends his sympathy to the Gibbses. He acknowledges that the City of San Jose is responsible for the sewage overflow that holiday weekend, which occurred when city workers were trying to unplug the main sewer line with high-pressure equipment. But Doyle says the city is limited in how much money it can shell out to help homeowners restore their homes, even if the city caused the damage.

"We've had a few of these, and they sometimes get down to what is the cost of the cleanup," Doyle says. He adds that the city pays for cleaning carpets, but not the extent of the work the Gibbses say they needed to repair damages.

"They're not legally entitled to the amount they are seeking," Doyle says. "They can't recover pain and suffering or loss of business income. We've offered them amounts that they have refused.

The Gibbses have receipts indicating that their insurance company has spent $125,000 to repair sewer flood damages, and that they have also paid about $6,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

"Our insurance didn't have to cover it because the flooding was caused off-site, but they said they'd cover it one time only," John Gibbs says. "So if it happens again, we're on our own. And after the trouble we've had with the city, that's terrifying."

The couple says that even when they called to report the sewage flooding their home, they were treated poorly.

"The woman who answered the phone was extremely rude. She said the trucks would get here when they could, but wouldn't say when," Beth says.

"And when I asked about getting a hotel the night that this happened, the investigator who came to check out the damage asked, 'You mean you can't sleep here tonight?'" John says.

That investigator is no longer working with the city, but Doyle says that the city tries to resolve problems in a timely manner.

"People go through these things, and no one likes to go through it," Doyle says. "We say, let's get this thing sanitized and cleaned up. We do get an occasional backup; it's just a reality of city life. But these are isolated cases."

Family Photos
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Thanksgiving Memories: The horror of the raw sewage that coated every floor in their home still haunts Beth, Jason and John Gibbs, who fear that it could happen again.

Crappy Holidays

BETWEEN COOKING, shopping for gifts and gathering with family, the holidays are notorious for inducing stress in even the calmest of civilians. But the busy holiday season may hit plumbers harder than anybody else.

"It's a bad season for plumbers," Rescue Rooter employee Diana Lopez says. "We get a lot of calls during the season and it's nothing but kitchen sinks. People throw potato peels in the garbage disposal and extra food down the sink even if they don't have a disposal."

In the Gibbses' case the problem was larger than potato peels. According to Dan Perez, maintenance supervisor for the Westside sewer line cleaning and emergency response unit, his team was called to unplug the main sewer line for Calvin Drive.

"This doesn't happen a lot, but when it happens, it happens," Perez says. "It's usually a buildup of grease in the sewer lines, and when the grease cools, it cools in the main line and causes a blockage."

Photographs of the Gibbses' house indicate that when workers cleared the blockage, they also forced raw sewage to ooze out of the toilet, bathtub and sinks and into the home. Three other homes were flooded as well, but none to the extent of their unfortunate neighbors.

While plumbers see sewer woes as a seasonal stressor, East Side maintenance supervisor Ernie Espedia says problems tend to recur in certain neighborhoods that have more problems with grease.

"If there are a lot of restaurants, we tend to have more problems," Espedia says. "A lot of people don't know how to dispose of grease. Some people try to flush it down their toilets or pour it down the kitchen sink."

Manhole Mania

BETH GIBBS didn't get to peel potatoes or do much of anything else in her kitchen last Thanksgiving. Instead the couple sat in the yard on lawn chairs, awaiting help as raw sewage seeped into their hardwood floors, baseboards, walls, and even the foundation of their house, according to the frustrated couple. They finally moved back in May, after months of commuting to work and driving their son to school and practices for his soccer team.

Yet their sense of security remains shaken.

"Ever since we moved back in, if I smell something bad, I get really worried," Beth says.

"First thing I do every morning is go to the window and check to see if the manhole is overflowing," John says.

Although the city denies severe structural damage in the main sewer line near the Gibbses' home, the couple says they remember constant problems since moving into the neighborhood 14 years ago. And they worry about what will happen if there's a next time, now that their insurance company has said they will be on their own if the sewer overflows again.

"Things like this do happen, and they need to have a plan," Beth says. "This is our only investment, for our retirement and our son's education. If we ever try to sell, we're going to have to tell potential buyers about this."

"We've been shut out by the city," she adds. "It's almost a year and we're still fighting."

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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