Cheyenne Families Have No Homes, Or Answers, After Catastrophic Water Main Break

Homeowners have been told their insurance won't cover damage from a catastrophic water main break that ruined several homes in Cheyenne last week because it's from a city water main. But they're getting few answers from the city.

RJ
Renée Jean

January 29, 202411 min read

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Phylicia and Ben Peterson bought a little cottage near Cahill Park in Cheyenne as their first starter home right before their son Daniel was born.

The home needed a little work — as most starter homes do — but it was something they could afford. It was a place to get a start on life, and they didn’t mind some hard work.

Phylicia rolled up her sleeves and created a nice playground for her baby in the backyard, while her husband Ben helped with landscaping and other repairs the home needed. They felt like they were in a good place.

And then, overnight, everything changed.

The nightmare began with the frantic sound of barking dogs at 2 a.m. last Tuesday.

“My Boston terrier was screaming bloody murder,” Phylicia told Cowboy State Daily on Monday. “And I heard something crash. I thought my husky had plowed something over, as huskies do.”

‘Is Your Basement Flooding?’

What time was it even, Phylicia wondered, grabbing her phone to check. She saw then that a neighbor named Rosie had called her at about 1 a.m.

“She’s 15 weeks pregnant, so I thought something had happened with the baby,” Phylicia said. “So, I called her right away, and she said, ‘Is your basement flooding?’”

Bewildered, Phylica put her phone down and went to check her basement.

“So, I go to look and my husky is losing her mind,” Phylicia said. “She’s just running in circles, and my Boston is freaking out.”

Moments later, Phylica was also freaking out.

“I looked downstairs and there was already 3 feet of water, which means it was up to our outlets, and we could not go down there because it was basically a giant electric pole at this point.”

Phylicia called Rosie back and learned that 911 had already been called.

“But ironically, no one ever showed up to check if we were OK,” she said. “There wasn’t an EMT or anything that showed up for us. The fire department was there, and they turned off the gas and electric in most of the houses because the water was getting too high, and we would then become hazardous to everyone on the street.”

Phylicia and her family didn’t know it then, but their nightmare was only just beginning.

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Insurance Doesn’t Cover This

Among the first calls Phylicia made was to her homeowner’s insurance company, where she made a queasy stomach discovery.

“Our home insurance can’t help us because it came from the city’s water main leak,” she said. “They tried everything. I’ve never seen an insurance agent cry. And they were crying as they were trying to find loopholes for all of us, because we have been quoted between $30,000 to $80,000 just to repair our homes.”

Phylicia’s quote was for $80,000, while one of her neighbors was quoted $30,000. She thinks there are at least five damaged homes in the neighborhood and maybe more.

Some of the companies providing quotes for restoration and cleanup work, meanwhile, wanted the money up front before they would even begin any work.

“I have to give Cowboy Jones and Rocky Mountain Restoration kudos, because they just showed up and they just started working,” Phylicia said. “And they have explained every single step of the process. They’ve honestly been so kind, and I can’t say it enough.”

They’re taking the job on faith that eventually — somehow, some way — they will get paid, Phylicia said. But for that faith, Phylicia and her neighbors might be waiting a month or more to have any money for cleanup work — far too late to save their homes from becoming a complete loss.

“Even flood insurance may not cover this because it’s not a natural flood,” Phylicia said. “It’s from city piping, and we’re not on a FEMA floodplain, so none of us had FEMA flood insurance.”

Not Even Sympathy

Among the next calls Phylicia made was to the city, but there was no help there either, and, she feels, precious little sympathy to boot.

“We called the city and got nothing,” she told Cowboy State Daily, adding that Board of Public Utilities personnel “were wandering around handing out little blue pieces of paper that said, ‘If you feel like filing a claim with the city go to Risk Management.’”

Phylicia did just that, that very day — despite having little to no sleep thanks to all the flooding.

From them, she got another piece of paper.

“It said we’d have to file with the state insurance, WARM, and that’s it,” she said. “Apparently, the city cannot help us at all. Their hands are free and clear from us. We have called the mayor’s office and have not heard anything. Reporters have called the mayor’s office and not heard anything.”

Water Main Breaks Not Uncommon

Cowboy State Daily called Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins and was referred to Board of Utilities Director Brad Brooks.

BOPU, the mayor and Brooks both explained, are separate entities, each with their own insurance policies.

Brooks, meanwhile, told Cowboy State Daily that water main breaks are not uncommon, particularly this time of the year.

“What causes this is the ground shifting,” Brooks said. “So, it’s all the cold weather that we got. Frost goes down into the ground and the ground freezes. And so, when it starts thawing out again, it shifts and moves and it will basically break, you know, pipes in half.

“I mean that’s what happened. And it’s very typical this time of the year for us to get those types of main breaks.”

In fact, the 12-inch water main that shattered in the Cahill Park area was one of three water main breaks that happened in the same time frame, Brooks said.

“We had another one over by the transfer station and another one over on Carlson,” Brooks said. “This is a time of year that we always have them. It’s typically when we get the freezing temperatures and the cold weather.”

A 12-inch water main breaking caused devastating flooding of a Cheyenne neighborhood with water running down the streets and gushing into this basement, right.
A 12-inch water main breaking caused devastating flooding of a Cheyenne neighborhood with water running down the streets and gushing into this basement, right. (Courtesy Phylicia Peterson)

Lots Of Water, No Responsibility

What’s less typical, however, is the amount of water. Because it was 12-inch main rather than a regular water main, there was so much water it flooded the streets, overpowering stormwater drainages and rushing into basements that were downhill from the leak.

Unfortunately, other than repairing the water main break and providing basic cleanup of the neighborhood and its streets, there’s little BOPU can do to help individual homeowners, Brooks said.

“We really can’t do anything, you know, until our insurance company has determined the status,” he said. “That’s our first mode, the first step is always file, people have to file claims and follow the procedure.”

That’s a process that can take from two weeks to a month, Brooks said.

“We do have our crews out there, and they’ve got everything repaired. The hole has been backfilled, and they’re just cleaning up the area, like on the streets and alleys, getting all the mud and stuff cleaned up (from the streets).”

Although the leak happened last Tuesday, Brooks said he did not know how many families were affected by the leak.

“I know of two for sure, because I’ve talked to them,” Brooks said.

Not A Minor Leak

Between fruitless phone calls to the city and her insurers, Phylicia was outraged to see BOPU call what happened in the Cahill Park area a “minor leak” on social media at one point.

Once videos started appearing online however, she noticed BOPU shifted its language a little bit and started calling it a “large leak,” which in her opinion still falls far short of the catastrophe that has befallen her and other families.

What’s really made her angry though, is the lack of empathy she feels coming from the city. While her alderman has been in touch, her calls to the mayor haven’t been answered, and she feels that regardless of whether the water main break was an act of God on paper, the city should be doing more to help the families in the neighborhood.

“We’re being told nothing,” she said. “We heard nothing except for that piece of paper, which I guess is what they consider outreach. We just want to know that people even care in the city at this point. And, also, how are they going to help us, when we could do nothing to prevent this?”

The starter home she and her husband bought was supposed to be the beginning of a nest egg that would one day help her family afford a better home, as well as a foundation from which to save for their son’s future education. All of that is now in jeopardy.

“This is putting us in a different economic class, which means my son is going to be in a different economic class,” she said. “Everything that we were going to do with any money when we sold that house for my son is gone.”

It’s also a tragedy Phylicia believes could happen to anyone living in Cheyenne at this point, and she’s concerned about what that means for other residents.

“If this happens (in your neighborhood), the city will handle it the same way,” she said. “And, yeah, we’re angry, but mostly we are just scared because this can and will ruin our lives if we do not get support from the city.”

Uncertain Future

Phylicia was told by the restoration company that pumped out the water that her basement had 55,000 gallons of water in it — enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“We tried to do some of the work ourselves to save some money,” she added about trying to clean up after the disaster. “But we had to throw everything out. All of my son’s baby items were down there. We cannot find my grandfather’s Purple Heart Medal and he passed last year. His uniform was ruined. They’re trying to save my wedding dress, which was ruined, and my baby blanket.”

Because there was sewage mixed in with the water, Phylicia has also been told her home requires special cleaning, otherwise the family risks exposure from “very dangerous things.”

Meanwhile, she has the sinking feeling that the city’s insurance company is just going to call it an act of God and say it’s not covered.

“If my pipe flooded a city building, if my car went through a city wall, I would have to pay for it,” she said. “If we don’t get any help, we can’t refinance enough to get this covered. Even if we did refinance, we cannot afford the payments. And if we take out personal loans, it’s going to cripple us so that we have to sell the house.”

But, if they cannot refinance to fix the house, they cannot sell it.

“We’ve had to throw around words like foreclosure and bankruptcy,” she said. “We were doing just fine before this, like we were your average middle class who sometimes struggles to make ends meet but we were doing better. I was about ready to go back to school for a master’s, but that dream is gone right now.”

Phylicia and some of the neighbors are talking about GoFundMe pages and fundraisers as well, hoping that the community will help them. But that has done little to ease Phylicia’s worry for her family’s future, as they wait for a tortuously slow legal process to play out.

“We need a knight in shining armor right now,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “Or a cowboy in shining leather or whatever. Because if this can happen to us, it means it can happen to anyone.

“And if this happened to my neighbor, if this happened to someone who lived 6 miles from me in town, I’d want to help them because that’s what you do when you live by the cowboy code of ethics. That’s what you do when you’re a good person. That’s what you do when you care about the community.”

How To Help

GoFundMe accounts have been set up for the Peterson and Hernandez-Rochia families.

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter