John Strong was 16 years old when he lied about his age to join the Navy. He served during the height of World War 2.
“That gun right there is the gun I shot down the 14th kamikaze airplane with,” Strong said, showing photos from his time in the military.
Strong is 89 now, and fighting a different battle in his own backyard.
“We’ve been fighting for 24 years, and I’m going to let the municipality know this is the last year I’m putting up with it,” Strong said.
The fight is over who is to blame for the flood that engulfs the Strongs’ property near Klatt Road almost every spring.
It began nearly a quarter-century ago, he said.
“In 1990, our property here was a lake,” Strong said. “It cost me $12,000 to have an outfit come out here and pump the water.”
The problems started, he said, shortly after his former neighbor built an access road, moving dirt and creating what Strong says is an earthen dam.
“It was never a swamp until they put that dam in,” Strong said. “Last year, I paid $3,800 for pumping.”
Since the road was built, Strong said he has spent more than $60,000 on septic services.
He said the water also pours into the basement, where his grandson, Calvin Calloway, lives with his wife and daughter.
“There used to be carpet down here,” Calloway said, as he gave a tour of his downstairs living quarters.
“This is our bedroom. As you can see, we keep everything in totes. We try to keep everything up off the floor, just in case the water comes in.”
The Strongs aren’t the only ones who have been affected by the flooding.
The decades-long dispute has also stalled new development in the neighborhood. Spinell Homes had planned construction for 13 homes on a nearby lot.
“The municipality has been real particular about the drainage plans for this site,” said Andre Spinelli, design and development manager for Spinell Homes, which owns the property under development. “It's basically put on us to solve the existing impacts between two neighbors, who seem to be feuding, and the municipality, who wasn't able to resolve the issue.”
Spinelli said he’s been trying to develop the 20-acre lot for nearly three years now and has spent more than $70,000 on different plans the city requested.
“Anything that happens to me throughout this development gets tacked on to the cost of these lots and will be paid for by the future homeowners of these lots,” he said.
Spinelli said he’s hopeful for a solution.
But Strong said his dealings with the city leave him frustrated, and said there’s no end in sight to his flooding problem, despite laws that allow the city to step in when land use codes are violated.
“I tried to get the municipality to do something about it but never got anything done,” said Strong. “I want to see the municipality remove the whole damn road.”
Channel 2 News obtained city records that show the municipality did, in fact, try to help about 20 years ago.
In 1993, the city issued what’s called an abatement order. It says the Strongs’ current neighbors must fix and pay for changes made by the previous neighbors.
But the Strongs said that never happened.
“We don’t know what the problem is that they couldn’t enforce the abatement order,” said Strong’s wife, Daisy.
Strong blames the municipality.
“If they'd have done their job, they would have come out here and removed it when they put out the abatement order, I wouldn't have had any flooding from then on,” Strong said.
City attorney Dennis Wheeler said the 1993 abatement order in Strong’s case is the only one of its kind the municipality has issued in recent memory.
Channel 2 News called several municipal employees for an interview to find out why the order wasn’t enforced, but each declined to address the issue on-camera.
The mayor’s spokesperson, Lindsey Whitt, said the issue is a “civil matter” between two neighbors.
But seven years ago, documents show the city had a different stance.
In a 2005 email to other city employees, then city manager Denis LeBlanc urged the municipality to act on the Strongs’ behalf:
“After 15 years, I believe it’s time for us to take action,” LeBlanc wrote. “After 15 years of no response from us, they have stopped paying their taxes and are now accruing penalties. I don’t have all the details but this appears to be a classic opportunity for the MOA to move aggressively to resolve a long outstanding issue, which is precisely what the Mayor expects of us. Let’s do the right thing and do it quickly.”
In late 2007, the municipality offered to help once again.
But when the neighbors didn’t agree to the proposed terms, the city stepped back and in a 2007 letter said, “This is fundamentally a private matter between two adjoining landowners.”
The property next door to the Strongs has changed owners several times since the access road was built.
Channel 2 News called the current owner, James Williams. He decline to speak on-camera but did tell us he tried to help.
Within the past few years, Williams said, he paid to install culverts that met municipal codes as part of recent legal settlement with the Strongs.
In 2011, court documents show Strong agreed to a $7,500 settlement with Williams to put the issue to rest. The money paid for attorney fees.
Strong signed the document but said he did so “under duress” because of bad legal advice.
He said the settlement does not negate the city’s responsibility. The Strongs said the flooding wouldn’t be a decades-old problem if the city had enforced its own order.
“The municipality didn’t do their job,” Strong said.
A lawsuit against the municipality is now the Strongs’ last resort.
“If we sue the city, we’re suing all the other taxpayers,” said Daisy Strong. “We don’t want to do that.”
Nor do the Strongs want to spend another year dreading yet another flood.
“We’re emotional about it because it shouldn’t be happening,” said Daisy. “We’re 87 and 89. What are we going to leave (our grandson) to deal with--and our great-granddaughter, whom we love dearly?”
“When I die, the property goes to Calvin here, and if we don't have this out by the time I kick the bucket, then he's got a problem,” Strong said.
Calloway said he has lived with the problem much of his life, but it doesn’t get easier.
“It stresses you out, makes you crazy, when your grandparents go to the city to get help and all they get is a bunch of 'Well, what are we supposed to do'?” he said.
With no resolution in sight, Strong’s nearly quarter-century-long mission to achieve a flood-free home has proven to be the longest battle this World War 2 veteran has ever fought.