COLUMBIA — Eledia Stone’s land near Hinkson Creek in northeast Columbia has been in her family for generations.
Stone has lived there since 1964, when she returned to Missouri from California after her father's death. Given her Cherokee ties, she finds the place has special meaning to her because it was blessed as a Northern Cherokee Holy Site in 2007.
In early May, however, the land and Stone’s mobile home sustained the worst flooding Stone has seen in her 45 years there. Storms dumped 4 inches of rain on the city, and Hinkson Creek spilled out of its banks and across Stone’s property.
Stone thinks the flooding was the result of construction on Hinkson Creek, downstream from her home, where Emery Sapp & Sons is being paid $6.7 million by the city to install new sewer lines and to build a bridge as part of an extension of Mexico Gravel Road. Stone and her family have complained to the city about the flooding, but neither the city nor Emery Sapp & Sons is taking responsibility.
The creek water has stained Stone’s shed and forced her to sort many of her possessions into groups in the yard. Heirlooms passed down from her father are piled into a wheelbarrow. The cedar chips from her garden have been washed away, and parts of a wooden fence that used to surround the garden were pushed to the other side of the street. The insulation under the house must be torn out and redone, and mold is gathering after the water damage. Stone will also have to get rid of a ruined lawnmower.
In addition to her waterlogged possessions, Stone lost photo albums, her husband's death records and mementos from his funeral.
Stone said Emery Sapp & Sons inadvertently dammed Hinkson Creek when it dumped rock in the creek bed to facilitate the bridge construction. Stone's daughter Donna Spector said the family doesn’t think the contractor did it on purpose.
"We choose to believe they would not intentionally do that," Spector said as she surveyed damage to the property.
"You can't force anyone to take responsibility for something they have no intention of taking responsibility for," Spector said.
Although city officials have accepted no blame for the flooding, they have considered buying Stone’s land and relocating her. Stone and her family, however, say there’s no way Stone will leave.
"This is family land," Spector said. "It's her home. She's not going anywhere."
In a May 12 letter to the city's chief engineer, David Nichols, Emery Sapp & Sons said it is not at fault.
"As much as we do sympathize with anyone who suffered losses from these acts of nature, we must make it clear that Emery Sapp & Sons, Inc., does not accept responsibility for those losses," the company’s project manager, Jason Rode, said in the letter.
The company said that it worked in accordance with all industry practices and legally issued permits and that the flood was an act of nature. The temporary construction crossing was authorized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is normal procedure, said Ward Lenz, Missouri state project manager for the Corps. Lenz said Emery Sapp & Sons told him that the 4-inch rain that coincided with the flooding washed away culverts that were part of the temporary crossing.
Lenz said that the Corps has not inspected the site since the crossing was completed but that the contractors have committed no violations.
The company did not return calls for comment.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said he isn't specifically assigning blame to anyone for the flooding of Stone’s land, but he thinks the construction contributed to the problem.
"All I know is that because of rain and flooding, the opening on these culverts got blocked up," leading to damming of the creek, Skala said. He added that determining responsibility would be a legal matter if the Stones choose to pursue it.
Skala is particularly upset about the lack of urgent city response to Stone’s concerns and what he calls inadequate oversight of city contractors.
"It's important to make sure the city puts inspectors in the field," Skala said.
Nichols said city inspectors keep an eye on contractors and visit the Hinkson site almost daily. He said Emery Sapp & Sons is following city specifications.
Nichols visited Stone's house once after the flooding to gather information but said he doesn’t know enough to determine what caused the flooding. City acquisition manager Wendy Lister met with Stone last week.
Skala said he is unhappy that the city initially failed to follow up with Stone. In a June 3 e-mail to City Manager Bill Watkins, before Lister’s visit, Skala said no one from the city had contacted Stone in the 27 days following Nichols’ initial meeting with her.
Skala called that “unacceptable and intolerable.”
Stone had no idea what the city was planning on her behalf because she has no computer and received nothing by mail, Spector said.
Spector said that both the city and Emery Sapp & Sons have made it clear they will offer no monetary help, so the family is just trying to help Stone get everything back together. At this point, Stone said she just wants the city to leave her alone to clean up. Spector said Stone will have help.
"We will do what we're doing," Spector said. "We have family, and we have friends. We'll do what we have to do to get her back to normal."