DADE CITY — Christine Penney had just lain down for a Sunday afternoon nap when the sound of trickling water pulled her off the couch.
She was on her way to a bathroom to check the shower when a surge of putrid water came at her.
It didn't take long for her to correctly identify it as waste water, and it didn't take long for the flow of sewage to flood the inside of her home.
"The smell was awful, it was just overwhelming," said Penney. "It's a day I'll never forget."
That day was June 24, when Tropical Storm Debby dumped at least 13 inches of rain on Dade City in just 24 hours and caused flooding in various spots, but especially the low-level area around Penney's Osceola Street home. The heavy flooding caused a "back pressure surge" in the city's sewer system that pushed sewage up through Penney's toilets and shower drains, according to an engineering report.
A professional cleanup involved removing the flooring, the lower portions of the walls, bathroom vanities and a few other items. Nearly a year later, Penney is still living without flooring, full walls and complete bathrooms. She hasn't had the money for repairs and her insurance company refused to pay because her policy doesn't cover damage from sewage backup.
Relief is coming, though. In a special meeting Tuesday, city commissioners agreed to pay Penney $14,760 to settle a claim she filed with the city in July.
"I'll be even more relieved when I get the check," said Penney, 52. "Then I can get out of this misery."
The city's insurance provider, the Florida League of Cities, denied Penney's claim in December after its investigation determined the city wasn't at fault. The heavy rainfall, not any maintenance issues with the city's water or sewer systems, was responsible for the flooding and subsequent back surge of sewage, the investigation report said.
As a courtesy, the League did pay the $11,000 cleaning bill.
Penney asked the City Commission in December to consider paying for the damage anyway. Commissioners said they needed more information, including estimates from contractors.
She returned in March with the estimates and after much discussion, commissioners agreed to pay the lowest estimate.
City Attorney Karla Owens said the expense was justified — and would not set a precedent — because there was a question as to whether a permit should ever have been granted to build the home in 1974. Penney bought it in 2005. "It's the only property in the city built in a hole," Owens said at the March meeting. It's also the only property that experienced sewage backup or sought compensation from the city after Tropical Storm Debby.
Even though commissioners agreed to pay the repair costs, Penney would only get the money after providing receipts for the finished work. She told commissioners at their April 23 meeting that if she had the money to pay for the repairs first and get reimbursed later, the work would have been done a long time ago. Commissioners agreed to pay the contractor directly in two disbursements, once the city received invoices.
Owens again reviewed the situation, and at Tuesday's meeting she recommended the commission pay the full amount to Penney. The cost of settling the claim is less than defending a potential lawsuit, and the city has previously settled claims in a similar manner, Owens said.
"For the length of time this has been going on, I think it's a smart move to treat it as a claim and pay it," said Commissioner Jim Shive. "We need to move forward."
So, too, does Penney, said Mayor Camille Hernandez. The vote, she said, allows her to get on with her life. Penney should have a check by the end of the week, said City Clerk Jim Class.
For much of the past year, Penney said she has felt helpless and at the mercy of an insurance system that just "doesn't give the little guy a break." She said she is grateful for the way commissioners treated her.
"They were genuine, they cared, and they looked at the human side of this, not just the legalities," said Penney. "And I really appreciated that."