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August 9, 2012
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County blamed for flooding home in Grand Lake

Owners of a house in Grand Lake that flooded March 14 as a result of water released from behind a frozen culvert on County Road 645 are seeking reimbursement from the county for the cost of repairing the damages.

The owners of the home are Malene Mortenson, 74, and Vincent Comella, 68. They are seeking reimbursement from the county for a total of $8,737.91, which is the cost of repairs they have completed so far.

Under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, the county cannot be held liable for damages caused by a drainage structure.

The commissioners could decide not to pay any damages because the county is shielded by the Act. However, the county commissioners have decided to review whether to pay the cost of replacing the carpet.

"We could stand behind the immunity but is that the right thing to do?" asked County Commissioner James Newberry. "We are still a small enough county to be able to look at these situations individually."

County Attorney Jack DiCola said he would be reluctant to spend tax money to pay for repairs to a private residence for which the county is not legally liable.

The cost that was incurred to buy new carpet and install the carpet totaled $4,222.12, according to the list of itemized expenses Comella submitted to the commissioners.

A decision is expected to be made during the county commissioner meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

The owners' request for reimbursement from their insurance provider as well as County Technical Services Inc., which handles claims against Colorado counties, have been denied.

A letter addressed to the Grand County Commissioners dated Aug. 7 states that because the home is not in a designated flood zone, the owners cannot buy flood insurance.

The basement of the house was flooded after a frozen culvert on County Road 645, which had a large amount of water behind it, was thawed by county employees using steam equipment. When the culvert opened, the water behind it quickly drained, according to a witness statement filed by one of the neighbors.

"I've seen backyard swimming pools break open and gush out water, but this was many times larger, and lasted longer," the witness statement said.

The witness statement also says that county personnel watched the water flow into two homes for over an hour and took no action to mitigate what was happening, despite having equipment on hand that could have rerouted the water.

"In fact, they left for about an hour after releasing the water dam, while flooding was still going on," the witness statement said.

No attempt was made by county personnel to contact the homeowners to inform them about the incident.

Water sat for months

The owners of the Grand Lake home, who are part-time residents, did not return to the house until May 30, two and a half months after the incident occurred.

A summary of the incident filed by the homeowners and dated June 12 said, "Upon entering our home we were overwhelmed by a sickening odor."

Water damage was found throughout the lower portion of the home including mold in the walls, carpet, and on the sides of furniture.

The owners of the home have attended at least three county commissioner meetings to request compensation as well as to ask the county to change processes and procedures for releasing water from the culvert so an incident similar to this does not happen in the future.

The owners of the home wrote in the letter addressed to the commissioners that they were insulted by a comment made by a commissioner at a previous meeting to the effect, "Don't you know water flows downhill?"

"We think they should pay for it because, in spite of the law, what happened was created by the county and cost us a significant amount of time and money as well as stress," Comella said.

Comella said it seems morally correct to him that the county should compensate he and his wife for the loss they suffered, and that the county should change its processes to make sure this doesn't happen again.


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The Sky-Hi News Updated Aug 9, 2012 07:00PM Published Aug 9, 2012 06:53PM Copyright 2012 The Sky-Hi News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.