Queens residents driven from their homes by a clogged sewer line demanded answers Sunday from city officials who said they weren’t sure when the problem would be fixed.
A jam in a sewer line serving 300 homes in a swath of South Jamaica just north of Kennedy Airport backed up raw, fetid sewage into about 80 residences on Saturday.
Officials from the Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the city sewer system, said they weren’t sure when flooded-out residents could return.
“We are alive and OK but everything is gone,” said Sani Lakudi, 50, an Uber driver who lives in the neighborhood. “My TV, printer, computer — they are ruined. We stayed up all night pumping water. We had to do what we had to do or the water would have destroyed everything.”
“Nobody from the city has come to me,” Lakudi added. “We are doing all the work ourselves.”
Streets were blocked off, including 133rd Ave. near Inwood St., as crews pumped out of the blocked sewer to keep the smelly, stinking waste from pouring back into homes across the 15-square block area affected by the crisis.
Residents were asked to turn off their heat, hot water and electricity while the problem was addressed.
DEP spokesman Edward Timbers said crews worked overnight to “pump around” a blockage in the neighborhood’s main sewer conduit near 150th St and Rockaway Blvd.
City officials on Saturday said that 300 homes were affected by the sewage backup. On Sunday, Timbers said that figure was the total number of residences served by the affected sewer line, and that only about 80 of them were flooded.
“We don’t know when it will be fixed,” said Timbers. “People should contact their home insurance carrier. The DEP has been helping people fill out claim forms against the city.”
A bypass system to prevent further basement flooding was to be finished by Sunday evening, Timbers said.
DEP officials are not sure why the sewer line clogged. The agency’s commissioner, Vincent Sapienza, said on Saturday that the clog appeared to be caused by people pouring grease down their drains on Thanksgiving, a comment that angered residents.
“They said it was our frying and our fried chicken that caused the backup, but we eat healthy,” said Aracelia Cook, 61, who has lived in South Jamaica her whole life. “We don’t eat stuff like that.”
Whatever the cause, dozens of families were left homeless on Saturday night. Public School 223 on nearby Sutphin Blvd. was converted into a makeshift shelter for reeling residents.
It took the city too long to get the shelter running, said Aracelia Cook, vice presidnet of a local civic association. “They didn’t put up the cots until midnight,” she said.
“People decided to sleep in their homes and cars instead because the cots weren’t set up yet,” said Cook. “Ten people slept in hotels but they had to pay out of their own pockets for the hotel room.”
Kulwilder Singh slept in his house Saturday night while his wife and young child slept in their car. “We couldn’t leave our home,” he said. “We were afraid someone might break in.”
Many residents expected to sleep in their cars again on Sunday night.
“I slept in my car with my family of seven and a dog,” said Adriana Alcide, a resident who said she was fixing up her house with the hopes of selling it. “I need to clean up the feces in my basement, but DEP said they’re not responsible for inside cleanup. I’m going to spend another night in my car.”
The damage seemed to vary house by house.
Cook said her home was hit with a slight bit of sewage — but her next door neighbors’ basements were inundated. She said more homes were flooded Sunday afternoon as a winter storm began to blast the neighborhood with freezing rain.
By Sunday afternoon Singh had five pumps set up to pull water out of his home, but they weren’t enough to get the backlog of sewage in his basement below 1 1/2 feet.
“The whole house smells,” said Gamaliel Bravo, 59, a South Jamaica landlord and resident. “I got a big cleanup. My boiler and hot water heater are damaged. I have no heat.”
The city’s Office of Emergency Management held an emergency meeting at the school later in the afternoon, Reporters weren’t allowed into the meeting until after it started.
Dozens of residents were desperate to know when the sewer line would be fixed so they could begin repairing their homes. Representatives from Red Cross were at the meeting, and told people they would find them immediate shelter in hotels as soon as they registered with the organization.