Final settlement in 2004 storm that toppled Burlco dams

The storm broke 21 dams and damaged 30 in Burlco.
The storm broke 21 dams and damaged 30 in Burlco. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2013

Nine years after a "1,000-year storm" struck Burlington County, destroying dams and causing massive flooding, a state Superior Court judge has approved the final settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by 217 affected families.

The $2.5 million settlement will be paid by KSA Inc., a now-defunct Medford engineering firm that allegedly failed to warn the Girl Scouts and the YMCA to have the dams at their camps fixed before they burst.

Previous settlements were reached with several townships, the Girl Scouts of Camden County, YMCA Camp Ockanickon, and other dam owners. In the end, the families were awarded a total of $11.7 million.

The YMCA has since replaced its two earthen dams with concrete ones with adjustable spillways at a cost of $2.1 million. The Girl Scouts' two lake beds are empty, but there are plans to build new dams and restore the lakes perhaps by next year.

The settlements will allow most of the affected families to be reimbursed for half of their damage claims. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be able to recoup part of the $8 million it paid to flood victims in the county's lakes region after the July 2004 storm.

"It's an important day," Judge Karen Suter said Wednesday at a hearing attended by about a dozen homeowners. She had set a trial date for August and was preparing to hear the "very highly technical case" against KSA when the settlement was announced.

The settlement is fair, she said, because the trial would have been lengthy and centered on whether the damage was caused by torrential rains or water from the dams that collapsed. "It was going to be very difficult to prove," she said.

Twenty-one dams broke and 30 more were damaged, forcing 800 people to flee their homes. Lawyers for the homeowners said the failed dams in the Rancocas Creek watershed had a cascading effect, exacerbating the surge of water.

"We were in the car and were leaving when a six-foot wave came over the top of the car," said John Jardine, who lives on Main Street in Lumberton with his wife, Elaine. The couple said they lost both their cars and had to replace the first floor of their Victorian house after water filled the basement and encroached on the living area.

"The basement had four feet of mud in it," Elaine Jardine said after the hearing. The house was wet for 45 days, she said.

The couple estimated the damage at $168,000 and received $74,000 from flood insurance provided by FEMA. Initially FEMA offered to only pay $19,000 but increased it after the couple hired a public adjuster.

The Jardines say they expect to receive $10,000 from the lawsuit. The litigation was filed to recoup money not paid by insurance.

"We're pleased," she said, of the settlement. "It's like a little extra money."

Edward Petkevis, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said the settlement was a fair way to resolve "how much is attributable to the act of man and how much is attributable to the act of God."

He said the attorneys were prepared to argue that KSA was hired to examine the dams at the camps and failed to recommend immediate repairs and explain why.

"Shouldn't KSA have warned the YMCA of the potential disaster if the dams failed?" he said in court.

Petkevis said the firm had written a memo to the YMCA advising the camp against filing an emergency action plan with the state Department of Environmental Protection, as required, or it would be forced to make repairs immediately.

KSA was "helping them hide the danger," he said.

He said the YMCA's two dams and the Girl Scouts' two dams had been cited as deficient by the DEP.

KSA attorney Dante Rohr told the judge that his client agreed to the settlement. He also said that the settlement called for the dismissal of individual claims against the firm's principals, Kevin Kammerer, John Schweppenheiser Jr., and John Schweppenheiser 3d, and that it contains no admission of liability.

Petkevis said KSA had argued during the litigation that its job was to make recommendations on the dams and that it was up to the owners to pay for and fix them. He said the firm had also argued that some of the dams were cited by the DEP dating back to the 1980s, long before KSA was hired.

Carlo Scaramella, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said the families would end up with an average of $35,000 per household from the various settlements. FEMA also will be reimbursed about 20 percent of the money it paid to flood victims as a result of the negotiations.

He said the legal costs of preparing the case were about $78,500 and legal fees would be about $807,000, or one-third of the recovery.

"This is it," he said. "This is the last hurrah."


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.inquirer.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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