SOUTH JAMAICA, Queens (WABC) -- The cleanup continued Monday after a blocked sewer main flooded basements in Queens with brown filth and left residents feeling sickened by the stench, while a story of one hero has emerged.
Officials said they had confirmed 74 homes with a sewer backup, though earlier reports put the total number of homes in Jamaica and South Ozone Park in the hundreds.
Jennifer Mendez was in Massachusetts with her four dogs and a cat in her basement when she got the call that homes in the area were flooding.
"We called our family friend Regale Rodriguez said get into the house, break the door down," she said.
He busted through the door and saved the animals just in the nick of time.
"This little one was up against gate, and she was going underneath the water," Mendez said. "We got what was irreplaceable. These are our babies."
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will use emergency procurement to hire contractors to clean the affected homes and that the Department of Small Business Services is working with Emergency Management on the effort.
Cleaning is underway and continue until all homes are done, while residents file claims with their insurance companies and reimbursement claims with the comptroller.
The city has set up a service center at the Courtyard Marriot at 145-11 North Conduit Avenue to function as a central point for homeowners to reach city resources. City workers at the service center will help affected residents fill out claim forms from the comptroller in order to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses.
"I feel for the homeowners in Queens who were affected by the sewage blockage this weekend," de Blasio said. "We are implementing the emergency procurement process to ensure that homes are cleaned quickly, and we are going to work with each and every New Yorker who experienced flooding to make sure they get back on their feet."
A bypass system was activated overnight, and wastewater is again flowing to the Jamaica Wastewater Treatment Plant. Officials say this should end any further backups into basements.
Teams went door to door Sunday evening and did so again Monday to identify homes that need assistance.
The trouble began on Inwood Street at dawn on Saturday, and homeowners said they had to wait more than six hours to get help from the city.
Cynthia McKenzie said she woke up around 3 a.m. to an odor she thought was a gas leak, only to realize that sewage water was rushing into her basement.
As the water level rose, McKenzie said she raced to move furniture and other belongings - but some electronics couldn't be saved. After a few hours, she said, her whole neighborhood was awash in fetid fluid.
"It's messy," said McKenzie, who posted photos showing murky water covering the floor of a basement bedroom and the bottom of a staircase. "When you open it, it just smells. It makes you want to vomit. We have to pack up all the clothes."
The city's water agency says drinking water is safe and unaffected, but Mayor Bill de Blasio advised residents to reduce usage to cut down on water going into the blocked main.
McKenzie said she bought two pumps from Home Depot and ran extension cords and a hose to try and clear water from her basement, but the rig hardly kept up.
"There's still some at knee level," she said. "The odor is just unbelievable."
McKenzie said she called 911 and the city's 311 help line soon after discovering the sewage. A few firefighters eventually showed up, she said, but according to her, none of the city services could stop the flow of sewage.
Officials have a culprit in mind: cooking grease that's been poured down the drain, which they say tends to congeal into big masses that slow or stop the flow of sewage, leaving it no place to go but back up the pipes. In some places around the world, the grease balls have gotten so enormous they've been described as "fatbergs."
They blame Thanksgiving and turkey grease for the mess.
"This time of year we get a lot of grease blockages in sewers from residents that discharge grease," city environmental protection chief Vincent Sapienza told reporters. "We're under the assumption that it's that."