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Professors deal with flooding, find high levels of E. coli in floodwaters

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018

While the rain poured down Tuesday, Feb. 20, one Saint Mary’s professor of biology found refuge in a dorm on campus.

Laura Kloepper, unable to get home because of the flooding on Angela Blvd., Ostemo Place and Iroquois St., among others, spent the night with her two dogs in the same building as many of her students.

Mary Bernard | The Observer

A street corner in South Bend is engulfed by floodwaters after heavy rains last month. Many local residents, including Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame faculty, had to deal with floodwaters in their homes.

“There were rumors that we may have forced evacuations [from our houses] where they were going shut off the power and the water,” Kloepper said. “I have two big dogs and I wouldn’t know where to go … so I spent the night in a Saint Mary’s dorm.”

Unsure of how long she would need to stay campus, Kloepper packed her bags and brought her dogs to a dorm room which one of her students, a RA, had helped to arrange for her.

“I had a little pajama party with my students,” Kloepper said. “I think every professor should spend the night in a dorm. It was a really fun experience.”

The next day, Kloepper went home and realized that the sewer was backing up into her basement, leaving three feet of standing water.

“There was so much water pressure and the sewer system is pretty outdated and in need of repair,” Kloepper said. “I have a pretty big basement and it was coming up at a rate of an inch and a half an hour.”

A group of students from Saint Mary’s came to Kloepper’s neighborhood to help her and her neighbors put sandbags in front of their houses to divert the water away from the homes. Luckily, a plumber was helping a neighbor and was able to rid Kloepper’s basement of the water with an industrial pump. Her furnace, hot water heater and dryer were ruined by the water.

Kloepper estimates she has around $5,000 or $6,000 worth of appliance repairs and replacements. However, that is just a fraction of the tens of thousands that some of her neighbors estimate to have lost.

Kloepper’s basement also flooded in August 2016, prompting her to take precautions to avoid future damage in the case of another flood.

“I put everything in my basement up on shelves or in bins, so that if it ever happened again, all my personal belongings would be okay,” Kloepper said.

Before removing the water from her basement last week, Kloepper took a water sample to Reena Khadka, an assistant professor of microbiology at Saint Mary’s, to test the levels of E. coli and determine the kind of fecal matter in the water.

“Since it was the backup from the sewer, I was really interested to see ‘how contaminated is this water?’” Kloepper said.

Kloepper and Khadka found 450 colonies of E. coli per milliliter of water. Kloepper said the levels in the water are about 200 times the levels that are considered safe for human swimming, but still lower than the levels found in the St. Joseph River.

“It gave us an idea of what we were dealing with, and then I helped communicate that to my neighbors so everybody would be really careful,” Kloepper said. “Sometimes you look at water and you just think it’s muddy … but really, when it’s that contaminated, you need to sterilize anything that came into contact with that water.”

Although Kloepper was able to prepare for the flood and bleach the surfaces that possibly were contaminated by the water, the citywide lack of preparation has frustrated her neighbors, Kloepper said.

“Two events within two years is not good for the residents that are there,” Kloepper said. “I know there’s a lot of people in my neighborhood that are really frustrated with this situation. … there’s a lot of people in my neighborhood that are talking about wanting to move out of the neighborhood now because of this.”

Notre Dame business professor Bruce Harris lives a few blocks from Kloepper and also experienced both the 2016 and the recent flooding.

“I got up and I saw that water was trickling into the basement when I went to class,” Harris said. “It hadn’t filled up, it was still draining. And then the drain started flowing backwards.”

By the time he got home, Harris said he found several feet of water in the basement. Harris used pumps and hoses to remove the water, but rain on Thursday brought several more inches of water into the basement.

“A lot of times, the water will continue rising after it rains,” Harris said. “It’s coming all the way up from Michigan, so everything that’s happening up there is draining in. It could start rising again even when it’s sunny out because the water keeps creeping out of the ground.”

The neighborhood in which Harris and Kloepper live, the Northshore Triangle, have been using the Nextdoor app to communicate about the flood damage and reparations.

“Everyone’s posting. [Kloepper] put the lab test out there,” Harris said. “People were really good in terms of helping out all the neighbors. Everyone kind of watches out for each other.”

Harris recently rewired his basement because of the damage caused by the 2016 flood, but he moved the outlets from the floor to chest-level, narrowly escaping further electrical damage by a few weeks.

“The last one ‘16, they called that a 100-year flood. The water gets up that high, and it’s this much damage, only once in 100 years,” Harris said. “This was a 500-year flood, so I figure we’re good.”

However, the increase of frequency and intensity of storm events due to climate change might merit a new way to categorize storms, Kloepper said.

“They called this a 500-year flood, and that means it’s supposed to happening once every 500 years. But, with climate change … extreme weather events are supposed to happen more often,” Kloepper said. “Even though it’s called a 500-year flood, with climate change we can expect these things to happen more and more.”


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About Mary Bernard

Mary Bernard is a sophomore with a major in Anthropology and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and fell in love with journalism while writing for her high school newsmagazine, the Clayton High School Globe.

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