AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) — In April, while out of town, the Skillman family learned a backup sent a staggering 8,000 gallons of sewage gushing into their home.
Originally, it was a phone call that put a pit in a West Austin family’s stomach. Now, it’s their new reality, in the midst of a 7-month fight for help from the city for thousands of dollars in damage.
Jennifer Skillman showed KXAN areas in her now former home, where sewage rose to 7-inches high. She says a remediation company supervisor she hired to help clean up the mess, told her in his 30 years of experience, the backup is among the top three worst he’s ever seen.
Between cleanup costs, demolition and repairs, four months of temporary housing and items lost to the damage, Skillman said, “It’s about $60,000 out of pocket for us.”
Strapped with bills, she says the city is to blame. Insurance covered $10,000.
“I’m sad. I’m angry that no one is helping us,” she said. “They said they would help with the cleaning, but it’s only a small fraction. It’s about $2,000 that they gave us.”
Skillman provided receipts showing the total cleanup portion was closer to $17,000.
The Skillman family received a denial from the city to their claim, saying the city is not liable for the damages under Texas law. When KXAN Investigates tackled a similar case on a smaller scale two years ago, that homeowner was ultimately reimbursed for damages, which totaled $1,100. He had sewage bubbling up into his toilets and bath tubs at home.
That individual later learned a city of Austin crew failed to reconnect his line to the main sewage line when they finished some repair work. Because of that, after KXAN’s investigation, city officials agreed to pay the homeowner.
The city says the difference is in the Skillmans’ situation is that “there is no fault or blame to be assigned.” But the Skillmans say crews told them the city is responsible, it’s just not liable. The city says it reviews each claim individually and follows state law, which “limits the circumstances where a city can pay for property damage that may be caused by the operation of a sewer line.”
While the Skillmans say a city crew on site told them the cause of the problem turned out to be rocks and grease in the sewage line, the city was not able to confirm with KXAN what exactly caused the issue, and said it is not aware of any construction in the area when the backup happened. The Skillmans simply received a denial to their claim, saying the city is not liable for damages under Texas law, leaving the family in disbelief.
“This is the first home we’ve ever bought,” Skillman said. “We were planning on doing this big house and having it for our main home and big renovation and making it personal to us and it is sad. I do kind of cry every time I come here.”
KXAN met with Skillman during one of her final visits before selling what’s left of the home.
“We decided not to incur any more costs in the house,” she said.
But the family isn’t having it. Moving beyond communication with their own district representative, the family recently sent a letter to the entire city council, other city and state leaders and KXAN, pleading for help.
“I feel like we’re at our last resort,” Skillman said.
In the letter, further detailing the sequence of events, Skillman wrote, “Part of the reason the city said they could not find the fault fast enough to clear it out was because their tools couldn’t reach the blockage and they would need to put in more manholes to get better access. While they were already aware that these manholes were needed, they have yet to put them in.”
The letter continued on to say,” Due to the sheer magnitude of this backup, a leak/flood similar to this is not likely to ever happen again. While we understand that the city cannot pay for damages caused by sewage backups for all occurrences, we feel this is an extraordinary circumstance.”
In a statement, a city representative told KXAN, “We realize this aspect of Texas law may seem harsh to many. However, the legislation enables a city to achieve a balance between providing necessary and desirable services to its citizens and having the resources to do so. This could not be done if the City became an insurer, compensating for every harm that occurs within its limits. “