By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

For more than a month, Jose Barreiro and the other residents of nine condos in the William Hughes Building on Bloomfield Avenue were shut out of their homes — some living in hotels provided by the Red Cross, in their cars or with family members — after Ida flooded the building the night of Sept. 1.

Barreiro, president of the homeowners association at the building between Park Street and North Fullerton Avenue — also home to restaurants Mesob and Ani Ramen, and The Shade Store — said the basement flooded with more than 5 feet of water. The furnace, electrical panels, sprinklers, fire alarms, the thermostat for the entire building, the walls and all of the storage rooms were damaged.

The building, from 511 to 515 Bloomfield Ave., had been among those hardest hit in a storm that caused extensive damage throughout Montclair. In the days after the storm, a notice was posted out front, declaring it unsafe for human occupancy.

On Oct. 12, a Montclair engineering report certified that the building was safe to be reoccupied, Township Communications Director Katya Wowk said, and the condo owners were able to return that same week, Barreiro said. The building’s three businesses have since reopened as well —  Ani Ramen and The Shade Store both in mid-October. Mesob was out of operation for the longest time, opening for pickup and delivery in mid-December; its dining room reopened Jan. 20.

The building still needs additional repairs. Barreiro said the condo association had to pay more than $173,000 out of pocket to repair damages and make the building livable again. 

“We're in fully working conditions for all essential services. But we don't have walls in the basement. We don't have doors. We don't have windows. We don't have storage,” he said. 

Barreiro said the condo association applied for a Small Business Administration disaster loan as soon as Essex County became eligible to receive assistance from FEMA in mid-September. But he said the SBA has notified him that it hasn’t yet received the businesses’ tax returns from the IRS because of pandemic-related backlogs, and the application can’t be processed until it does.

Barreiro said the condo association also filed a claim for damages with the Essex County Counsel’s Office in September, saying its members believe the flooding was partially caused by damaged culverts at the corner of Bloomfield Ave and Park Street. 

Flooding in the basement of the William Hughes Building on Bloomfield Avenue during Tropical Storm Ida destroyed the storage units of nine residents. (COURTESY JOSÉ BARREIRO)
Flooding in the basement of the William Hughes Building on Bloomfield Avenue during Tropical Storm Ida destroyed the storage units of nine residents. (COURTESY JOSÉ BARREIRO)
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In the claim, Barreiro wrote that the building has been flooded four times since he has been living there for the past 12 years. A letter back from Inservco Insurance Services, the third-party administrator for the claim, said a public entity can’t be held responsible for weather conditions like heavy floods in Ida, “as these are considered ‘an act of God.’” It says Inservco couldn’t find any liability on the county’s part, and warns it “takes an aggressive approach in responding to claims that are not properly directed to it.” It also said that under the N.J. Frivolous Lawsuit Act, the county policy is “to seek reimbursement of all legal fees and expenses for any suits filed against it without merit.”

“That’s not a proper explanation,” Barreiro said. “There’s a problem with that culvert. And the county is ignoring it and using the hurricanes as an excuse.”

Barreiro also said the condo association is not suing the county for damage caused by the flooding that happened on Sept. 1, but was asking the county to follow up on the issues with the culvert. 

Update, March 9: Anthony Puglisi, a spokesman for Essex County, told Montclair Local by email on March 9 that county officials first heard from the property owners by email that day. He said he was checking with the county's Department of Public Works whether there were any known drainage issues of concern in the area.

The William Hughes Building on Bloomfield Avenue was declared unsafe Sept. 7, after flooding from Tropical Storm Ida destroyed the building's basement and electrical systems. It has since been declared safe, and residents have moved back in. (COURTESY JOSÉ BARREIRO)
The William Hughes Building on Bloomfield Avenue was declared unsafe Sept. 7, after flooding from Tropical Storm Ida destroyed the building's basement and electrical systems. It has since been declared safe, and residents have moved back in. (COURTESY JOSÉ BARREIRO)
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While the condo association is waiting for the SBA loan and will follow up with Essex County officials further to seek a repair the culvert, Barreiro said the building will undergo some changes so flooding doesn’t happen again. 

Since the area where the building is located is not a flood zone, the condo association cannot apply for flood insurance. However, Barreiro said the association is looking to upgrade the drainage system, with the goal of adding a French drain around the building. It also aims to add a sump pump in the basement, to remove water during future flooding.

“We are planning on that, but that’s $40,000, maybe $50,000 to install those new features to a building that didn’t need it before. FEMA knows we want to do this so it doesn’t affect us again,” Barreiro said. “My biggest fear, to be really honest, is that there is another [flood] like that and to lose a person in the basement.”