Victims of Queens sewage backup flooding plead for FEMA help

SOUTH JAMAICA, Queens (WABC) -- The cleanup effort intensified Tuesday after a blocked sewer main flooded basements in Queens with brown filth and left residents feeling sickened by the stench, and now, victims are pleading for federal help.

Residents in Jamaica and South Ozone Park say the city is moving too slowly to make repairs that have lingered for days, and they want FEMA to foot the bill and move them to safer living conditions.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Vincent Sapienza tells Eyewitness News that more than 100 homes have reported damage, with the number rising because people who were away for the Thanksgiving holiday are returning to discover damage.

Work continues to find what caused the blockage, and crews are digging 40 feet below the surface near JFK Airport to reach the 42-inch main that was blocked. That process could be completed later this week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday 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.

Residents are to file claims with their insurance companies and reimbursement claims with the comptroller, and the city has set up a service center at the Courtyard Marriott 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.

Related: Family friend saves dogs after sewage backup floods Queens homes

The Travaras family is among the victims, their two young children quarantined in their bedrooms as mom and dad clean up the mess. The basement is the one place they can't go.

"He said we have to call the insurance, and if the insurance say yes, he can send somebody right away," Robert Travaras said.

The hum of generators now echo across the neighborhood, and the Department of Environmental Protection says its bypass system of hoses and above-ground piping is holding. But residents say their conditions aren't livable.

The city is still investigating what caused sewage to backup into at least 74 homes early Saturday, and bags of sewage-caked belongings now covered in snow decorate dozens of properties.

Those trying to recover their lives are looking for answers.

"I need somebody that can, you know, rip off the wall back over there," Travaras said. "Because if we don't clean behind the wall, we don't do nothing."

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.

The investigation is ongoing, but 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."

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