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Richard Avila has remodeled his basement three times in eight years, the last two times because sewage from a city treatment plant backed up into his home after flooding in October and May.

The city denied a $17,400 claim Avila filed against the city for damage caused by an October storm. Now, he said, he fears the city won’t help him pay for nearly $30,000 in damages caused by sewage in his basement from storms in May.

“It just feels like the city doesn’t care,” said Avila, who lives at 4420 Judson St.

The Lincoln City Council voted Monday to deny more than $600,000 in claims by residents who suffered damage to their homes after the Theresa Street Wastewater Treatment Facility backed up.

The city attorney has said the city was not negligent in operating the treatment plant and is not legally liable for the damage done by the sewer backups.

The Theresa Street plant sits on 51 acres along Salt Creek in the north-central section of the city. Diluted sewage backed up into nearby homes during rainstorms Oct. 1 and May 6 and 7. Both were 100-year storms, and the city's systems could not handle the volume of water.

The council has agreed to create a $1 million disaster assistance program to help victims with the cleanup costs for the two sewer events. The program will pay up to $5,000 per claim, though residents may submit multiple claims if their property suffered damage in each storm.

City staff will consider claims in the order they receive them, said Assistant City Attorney Rick Peo.

“It’s kind of a first-come, first-serve basis,” he said.

Peo said 130 people have filed claims with the city. An additional 100-200 people have contacted the city, but not filed claims.

Even though the stormwater and sanitary sewer systems are separate, some rainwater gets into the city’s sanitary sewer system in a variety of ways, including along tree roots that pierce service lines, from manhole covers that are off, from cracks in the mains and from sump pumps illegally discharging into the sanitary sewer.

Consultants from Carolla, a water-related engineering firm, looked at Lincoln’s system and determined its water pipes are designed for a 10-year storm, while most communities in the Midwest have pipes designed for just a five-year rain event.

The several hundred property owners and renters affected by the sewer backups have two options: accept the city’s disaster assistance for cleanup costs, or take their claims to district court.

Recently, more than 60 property owners and renters affected by the sewage backups attended a meeting presented by Domina Law Group about their legal options.

Several residents Monday questioned why they haven’t heard from city staff about how to apply for help from the disaster assistance program.

“We shouldn’t have to call and call and call,” Avila said.

Peo said the city sent letters Monday to those who filed claims against the city informing them how to apply for help from the disaster assistance program, which the council approved two weeks ago. He said the city will send letters Tuesday to others who have contacted city staff about damage caused by sewage backup but who haven’t submitted claims.

Miki Esposito, director of Public Works and Utilities, said her office planned to publish information Tuesday about how to apply for the disaster assistance program on the city’s website, lincoln.ne.gov.

Donna Garden, assistant director of Public Works and Utilities, said the city plans to seek ways to prevent excess stormwater from flowing into sewer pipes at the Theresa Street plant and is also considering capital improvements. She urged residents to be patient.

“It is going to take some time,” she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJS_Abourezk.

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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