Families walk on sewage-saturated rugs for three weeks
by Carol Harvey
Reeves Court floods
Trelease Miller, 1126G Reeves Court, woke at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday to find water pouring out of her first floor bathroom toilet bowl two inches deep into the hallway, submerging the living room rug and streaming through the front door and out the patio door into the backyard. “It covered my shoes,” said Miller.
Water traversed the entire width of the unit, surging through an adjoining wall and flooding across the full expanse of her next door neighbor’s apartment. “This is the biggest one we had.”
On that same day, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, crowds in Clipper Cove bleachers cheered Chinese Dragon Boat races, completely unaware that, at that same moment, on the island’s far end, Treasure Island residents were suffering years of infrastructure collapse and being flooded out.
Infrastructure collapse: power outages and flooding
Three days previous, on Wednesday, Sept. 17, and nine days later, on Friday, Sept. 26, two more power outages afflicted islanders. And, from Tuesday, Sept. 16, to Friday, Sept. 19, daily flooding displaced Reeves Court residents.
While the two families moved boxes of belongings, additional daily spills continued. Ten people – three adults and seven children – suffered stressful displacement to alternate island locations.
In 2012, Miller first reported the same toilet bowl overflowing and flooding her apartment.
Two years later, on Aug. 29, 2014, Miller reported the toilet gushing brown water all over her floors. For the following 23 days, these 10 people lived in rooms with sewage-saturated rugs and mold-encrusted walls. “On the 23rd day,” reported Neplensah, Trelease’s next door neighbor, at 1126F Reeves Court, “we had three floods in 72 hours,” Sept. 18 and 19, 2014.
Trelease stated that on Aug. 29, the spill “originally came out the toilet bowl. The first time around it was (sewage water). It was dirty. It was ridiculous. It just ran and ran and ran.” They called maintenance, who arrived at 2:00 a.m. They could clearly observe floating fecal matter.
“He (the first maintenance man) would come in here with the Wet Vac, suck it out of the toilet, go empty the Wet Vac, and by the time he came back, it was pouring again.
“That’s all he could do until, like, the other maintenance man came to help him which was about 3:30 in the morning, and they finally shut off the water. It was also floating nasty-ass brown water everywhere.”
Then a new series of deluges began.
“This particular round started four days ago, Wed. Sept. 17,” Trelease disclosed, “and has been flooding daily ever since. It came from the same toilet.”
When the spill recurred three weeks before, workmen ripped out mold-infested baseboards. All that did,” said Miller, “was make it easier for the water to spread faster because now the baseboards aren’t there to stop it from going up under, (the wall) and so it just goes everywhere.”
“Two years ago (when) we flooded,” said Trelease, “(it was) the same problem. They just didn’t fix it.” Frustrated by the continued flooding, she hired an outside plumber who forced a camera-mounted C-snake into her pipes. The images on a television-like screen in her apartment showed that over the years, spreading tree roots had grown the length of her backyard. Tight tangles wound around the pipes and burst through them, blocking the flow. With no place to go, water exploded out its only escape route, the toilet bowl.
On Friday, Sept. 19, her housing provider, Community Housing Partnership, sent maintenance staff. “They pulled 65 gallons of water out of the kitchen vent alone yesterday,” Trelease stated. Yet, three days after the flood started, Saturday, Sept. 20, a wet trail still ran into the backyard, the rug remained soggy and, in living room and kitchen floor vents, deep water was visible.
Flooding, radiation, mold trifecta
Reeves Court is mere feet from Bigelow Court, which is so radioactive that, following Navy decommissioning in 1997, no civilians were allowed to occupy the former military bungalows built in the 1960s. Two years ago the Navy started radiation clean-up there.
Proximity to Bigelow Court, one of the most toxic island sites, makes the Reeves Court flooding particularly dangerous for families nearby. Groundwater washes radioactivity and chemical contaminants into affected houses. Then, moisture-saturated floors and walls trigger toxic mold spores, rendering the situation even more deadly.
Black mold pandemic
Miller described thick black mold growth spreading through the space between the two apartments. Though Trelease suffered no breathing problems six years ago before she moved to the island, currently her doctor has her on an inhaler, and her family of two adults and two children cough continuously.
Her next door neighbor, Neplensah, born in Bayview Hunters Point, has had asthma all her life. Said Trelease, “They just broke out two feet of (Neplensah’s) wall on the other side of me, and it’s furrier than this damn rug.” Concerned for her neighbor, Trelease told me, “She has severe asthma.” She held her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “She has been living with fur at least this thick coming out of the wall.”
The fur comparison is accurate. The toxic black mold, Stachybotrys, sends out stalks bearing slimy heads like bunches of grapes. Disturbing the spores releases toxins that have been implicated in respiratory disturbances ranging from coughing to death.
“When they (maintenance) came the other day and they were busting out her wall over here, and all of that mold started crackling and sizzling when they sprayed it with something-or-other, they told her it wouldn’t harm her,” said Trelease.
Neplensah Yarway, 35, known as “Princess,” resides at 1226F Reeves Court. Her asthma attacks began afflicting her far more frequently seven years ago when she moved to the island.
During this recent flood and mold contamination, she reported two inches of standing water in her living room and kitchen. “I was coughing in my sleep. I would wake up … in panic – can’t breathe, lungs all tight.” Because an inhaler no longer works, “I decided to come get (Trelease’s) breathing machine,” she said.
Neplensah has visited the ER for breathing difficulties. “They told me that if I come into the Emergency Room again about my asthma, they will put me on life support.” Of her five children, she is most worried about Alisha, who was also rushed to the ER with asthma attacks.
Groundwater flooding spreads radiation
Another child suffering possible reactions to island radiation stirred up by groundwater surging into her home is Trelease’s 9-year-old daughter, Brianna.
She told me, “I started getting these little bald spots in my hair on the top and on the sides ‘cause I’ve been playing in the soil, and from the radiation my hair is falling out.” Brianna refused to go to school out of embarrassment, so her mom braided hair over the spots.
Asked how she knew it was radiation, Brianna answered, “Because the people, they came and did the little radiation things in front of our house” where the soil was located.
She led us down a path between buildings where “people” had planted a trail of little orange flags bearing yellow triangle radiation symbols. This line of flags led directly toward radiation warning signs on the un-remediated Bigelow Court fence and a blue play structure in a nearby mini-park where spiking radiation readings were recorded.
Though kids have said they felt sick upon contact with the jungle gym, neither the Navy nor Treasure Island Development Authority have removed it.
After testing scalp scrapings, Brianna’s doctor concluded only that her hair loss was caused by contact with soil “toxins.” Using her keen powers of observation, this pre-adolescent child easily deduced that the cause was radiation exposure.
While Dragon Boat enthusiasts gloried in the free spectacle near the island’s entrance, Treasure Island Development Authority continued to rake in event admission fees which will fund island redevelopment. Though current subsidized renters like Trelease and Neplensah are filling build-out coffers as well, TIDA is making no infrastructure improvements to protect them from the ravages on their health of flooding, mold and radiation.
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.