BATH — Joanne Adams woke to police pounding on her door and what sounded like thunder.
The noise was coming from underground – and beneath the 3 feet of water that covered her yard. A water main carrying an estimated 900 gallons per minute had cracked that night early in August and was pumping water into her yard at 10 Marshall St.
“You could see the pavement rumbling,” Adams said.
More than two months later, and with winter fast approaching, Adams is still stuck with a wet basement and thousands of dollars’ in repairs caused by something over which she had no control. Neither the Bath Water District nor her homeowner’s insurance carrier will cover the costs. And the same thing could happen to anyone living near a water main, according to the water district.
“Every single person that has a business or a house on the 50 miles or more of our water mains is in the exact same position should this occur again,” said Trevor Hunt, superintendent of the Bath Water District.
Adams, who is single and lives alone, struggled to control her emotions while telling her story before the Bath City Council last week. After replacing her furnace, she said, she has no money to finish the repairs or to pay her property tax bill, which arrived the same day she learned no one would pay for the damage caused by the 60- to 70-year-old pipe that ruptured while Adams and her neighbors slept the night of Aug. 3.
Located just downhill of the break, Adam’s cellar flooded quickly. The water rose to the top step of her bulkhead, submerging her furnace and hot water heater in 5 feet of water and reaching just below the electrical panel. The furnace, water heater and sump pump were destroyed, causing more than $10,000 in damage.
Adams immediately contacted Allstate Insurance, only to find out the damage wasn’t covered by her homeowner’s policy.
“When I spoke to my claims agent, she told me she was just sending me a letter to let me know that they would not be covering the loss since it was considered a flood,” Adams said. “I explained the situation to her, and she said my situation was no different than having a 4-year-old leave a garden hose on and having a flood.”
According to a letter Allstate sent to Adams on Aug. 5, the claim was denied because “Water or any other substance on or below the surface of the ground, regardless of its source,” is not covered by her policy.
Tracey King, a media liaison for Allstate, said a standard homeowner’s policy doesn’t cover damage from broken water mains.
“To our knowledge, there is no homeowner product that would cover water or any other substance on or below the surface of the ground, regardless of its source,” King said.
Adams then went to the Bath Water District and asked it to pay her for the damage. She said she was told the claim would be sent to the Maine Municipal Association’s insurance service, which would handle it.
More than a month later, the district’s insurer gave Adams an answer she didn’t want to hear: Her claim was denied because the Bath Water District has municipal immunity.
According to a letter sent to Adams from the Maine Municipal Association on Sept. 11, a Maine statute grants immunity to all government entities on any and all claims seeking recovery for damages. Chris McCauley, an employee with the municipal insurance carrier, confirmed this in an interview.
After spending the next three weeks trying to get someone at the water district to talk to her, Adams pleaded her case to the Bath City Council on Oct. 1.
“I haven’t had anybody willing to even listen,” Adams said in an interview. “I just feel like a beggar. It feels bad. I’ve always worked for a living and paid my taxes. This isn’t a way to treat people.”
After Adams’ appeal, several councilors criticized the water district.
“I’m going to say I’m very disappointed in the Bath Water District in the way they handled this situation,” Councilor-at-Large Steve Brackett said. “They need to find a way to do the right thing.”
Hunt, the water district superintendent, said the district mishandled the case, but that he got distracted while working to fix the break and get the water system back online. However, Hunt noted that publicly regulated water districts are not allowed to set aside funds for such claims, and suggested it was the responsibility of Adams’ insurance company.
“I’m quite concerned that the homeowner’s insurance industry, and in this case this particular person’s insurance, is calling this a flood when it’s obviously an accidental release of water from a main break,” he said. “I’ve come into work agonizing every day. Think about someone that lives near a water tank. There’s 1.2 million gallons of water sitting on a hill. What if that breaks?”
Adams, who works in dining services at Bowdoin College, said after taking out a loan, the money she would have put toward her taxes has gone toward a new furnace.
“My taxes have never gone unpaid,” she said. “I don’t have money for my taxes now.”
She also can’t afford to replace the water heater, which works sporadically.
“I hope it will come to a solution,’ Adams said. “If not for me, for someone dealing with the same thing.”
Chris Chase can be contacted at 386-5227 or at: