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    City expected to pay sewage damage costs

    Only $100,000 will be paid to the man whose home was flooded with waste after hardened grease clogged city lines.

    By BRIAN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Charles Gross was out of town when his daughter called with disgusting news: Much of his home on N Winfield Road was filled with reeking, raw sewage.

    The sewage had accumulated in four bedrooms, the living room, family room, dining room, kitchen and two bathrooms. It was 3 to 4 inches deep in some places, and virtually everything was ruined -- drywall, vinyl flooring, carpet, cabinets. Even the refrigerator, oven and most furniture were unsalvageable.

    City officials say the damage was the city's fault. Cooking grease collected around tree roots that had grown into a city sewer line. The grease hardened and clogged the line, causing the Feb. 28 backup.

    The City Commission is expected to approve a recommendation tonight to pay Gross $100,000 for damages from the sewage surge. Four of the five city commissioners reached Wednesday agreed that the city was at fault and said they would support the payment.

    They plan to award Gross the full amount allowed by Florida Statute 768.28, which limits the city's liability to $100,000 per person and $200,000 per claim.

    "He's experienced a terrible tragedy," said commissioner Bill Jonson. "It really was the city's fault, and if we can compensate him, I think that's the appropriate thing to do. I really feel badly for him. It's a terrible thing to have sewage back up right into your home."

    Gross and his daughter, Teriza Philipson, are outraged that $100,000 is all Gross can collect. Gross claims he's already exceeded that amount trying to repair the damage.

    "I stopped counting at $100,000 when they told me that," he said, adding that his expenses might reach $125,000.

    Gross has not contacted an attorney about the issue. Philipson said they don't believe they can collect anything about the $100,000 because of the statute.

    Burns Services Inc. has been working since March 1 to restore the house, which still isn't ready for Gross to move back in.

    Philipson first noticed something wrong when she smelled a piercing, foul odor behind her father's home Feb. 28. She initially wrote it off as something in the air.

    Then she opened the back door and the smell hit her like a ton of bricks. Gazing toward the floor, she saw standing black water. She stepped in, peered through an inner doorway and found raw sewage covering the house.

    Not knowing how or why she was seeing -- and smelling -- what lay in front of her, she walked slowly toward the opposite end of the house where Clio, a Siamese cat, was locked in a bathroom. Philipson sloshed through the mixture of water and human waste, leaving behind footprints as she trekked through the kitchen and dining room.

    She began feeling nauseous as she saw shoes 3 inches deep in sewage. Her own shoes were soaked by the time she reached the bathroom in what seemed an endless walk. She opened the bathroom door and found Clio sitting on a shelf above the toilet.

    Clio's paws and legs were black from the water. The cat was in the bathroom when sewage surged from the toilet. Philipson got Clio out of the house and called her father from a neighbor's phone.

    "I was getting sick and nasty and disgusted," Philipson said. "I didn't know what to do or what to say."

    Gross, 75, had left the house on Feb. 24 to be with his sister, who was recovering from a heart attack in Sebring. Philipson periodically visited the house.

    Gross drove home as soon as heard the news. Since then, he's lived a vagabond lifestyle. He stayed in his RV parked in his driveway for several days before moving to a hotel room.

    But Gross doesn't like hotels. After two weeks, he moved to Camper's Cove RV Park on Seminole Boulevard, where he stayed for two months. He's been living in the RV parked in his driveway since May 18, waiting for work on his home to be finished.

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