When a wall in Jeremiah Caldwell’s basement recently caved in, he used a railroad tie to prop up that side of his century-old house.

The 60-year-old Akron man stacked the bricks from the wall, piled the dirt back up and laid ladders, tires and wheels outside to try to keep the dirt from caving in more.

Caldwell thinks the wall collapse was caused by the nearby work on Akron’s giant sewer tunnel project — and is looking to the city for help. He is hoping for assistance in repairing his house or in finding a place to live.

“I can see the progress and I don’t want to be in the way of progress,” Caldwell said of Akron’s sewer project.

“If they don’t find me another place to live …” Caldwell continued, looking at the dirt wall in his basement with grass sprouting from it. “I’ve never been homeless.”

Caldwell is among more than a dozen Cuyahoga and Mustill street homeowners who have complained to the city about complications they think were caused by the tunnel project, including damage to their homes, noise, dust and potential health concerns. Several have gone to City Council meetings weekly for the past month, appealing to city leaders for assistance.

“We’re not asking them to rebuild,” said Cynthia Bell, who says her Mustill Street house and the home her daughter lives in next door have sustained damage. “We just want them to fix the damage.”

The neighborhood is at ground zero for the city’s $184 million tunnel project, a major part of the sewer system overhaul that began in October and involves a mile-long tunnel being bored underground. At the end of Mustill Street, a giant conveyor belt spews the dirt and rocks collected by the tunnel boring machine into large piles that are then trucked over to a nearby muck yard.

City leaders have taken some steps to address the residents’ concerns, such as blocking off the end of Mustill to keep construction vehicles from driving on it, hiring an exterminator to respond to a resident who had sewer rats coming into her basement, and running sprinklers on area streets to try to lessen the dust. As for the damage complaints, they are gathering information from residents about what problems they’ve had and will investigate.

“We don’t know what the damage is or what caused it,” city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said.

Family’s concerns

When Bell attended a pre-project meeting, she asked a city leader whether the tunneling could damage homes, many that have stood for a century or more.

He told her it would not, but she recalls thinking, “How can you say that?”

Bell, 65, who has lived on Mustill all of her life, claims he was wrong, as she and others point to damage they say was caused by the project.

Daika Moegerle, Bell’s daughter, lives in the family’s original 1913 home. Moegerle said the disruption began in 2015 with the clearing of trees for the project. “That was when I first felt my home just shake, like an earthquake,” she said.

Moegerle said the vibrations were sometimes extreme enough to wake her four children. She said they would come downstairs and ask, “Did you feel that?”

Moegerle recently took a two-minute video of a lamp in her home rattling from the construction.

She and her mom took a Beacon Journal reporter and photographer on a tour of their homes, identifying the damage they attribute to construction.

Moegerle pointed to places where her hardwood floor is separating, cracks on the walls and ceiling, and a growing space between the floor and baseboards — large enough for an envelope to be slipped under.

“You can tell there’s movement,” she said. “This was [a] sturdy old home. It still is. It’s just been under stress lately.”

Next door, Bell pointed out a leaky roof and chimney and cracks around the windows and doors, down the stairway, and on the walls. This includes one wall crack that Bell said she marked with a blue piece of tape after the first year of construction. The crack has gotten bigger.

“It never stops,” she said.

City officials put a seismograph, an instrument that measures ground motion, in Moegerle’s backyard about a year ago. This is one of 13 seismic and sound monitors placed throughout this area. None have registered any vibrations severe enough to damage homes, city leaders say.

“It’s happening,” Bell said, despite these readings. “We feel the houses moving.”

Other issues

Mustill Street residents closest to Cuyahoga Street and nearest to the construction appear to be having the worst issues.

Joyce Tucker lives in the last house on Mustill. The conveyor machine is visible from her front porch. She’s been in her home, built in 1908, since 1980 and points with pride to how she keeps it up. She said her windows are separating upstairs, the steps on her front porch are crooked and her porch is leaning.

“I want to know what the city is going to do to put our homes back to where they were,” she said.

On Cuyahoga Street, several houses are vacant, but at least two homeowners have had problems.

Caldwell’s wall collapsed in early January. He said his biggest concern was critters getting in, but, so far, he’s only had an issue with carpenter ants.

Next door to Caldwell, Sherry Harris has also had problems in a house that is much newer — built in 2006. She said her kitchen floor is coming up and her basement floor is cracking. She said she thought her house was just “settling” until she went to a council meeting and heard other residents talk about the damage to their homes.

A few residents in the area haven’t had any damage to their homes, but say their lives have been disrupted by the uptick in noise, bright lights and dust — lots of dust. When the weather changes, Mustill resident Karen Neal said the excess dust makes it seem like a stand storm.

The dust is so bad that Tucker said she’s given up trying to keep her windows clean. Several residents say if they wash their cars, they are dirty again within a few hours.

The residents also are concerned about what type of chemicals could be in the dust — and whether it poses any health concerns.

Harris, a hospice nurse, said she’s been having health issues since the construction began, including shortness of breath, coughing, dryness of the nose and nose bleeds. “I don’t go outside anymore,” she said.

Harris said her grandson kept getting sick whenever he came and stayed with her. She said he no longer visits.

Several residents said the city offered to buy their homes before the project started, but only for the amount on their tax bills. They said they would need more to purchase a comparable house.

With that aside, many of the homeowners said they don’t want to leave their houses because they are attached to them and to the area where neighbors look out for each other.

“We probably wouldn’t have moved,” Bell said.

City’s response

City leaders say they’d like to keep the residents in the area.

“They love this neighborhood — and we want them to stay,” added Chris Ludle, Akron’s deputy service director.

Officials say they have done their best since before the project began to inform residents of what would be happening and to address their concerns, including having several neighborhood meetings.

“We understand this is A) expensive and B) not necessarily convenient to the community,” Nischt said.

The city has received complaints from about 15 residents. Steps taken so far include limiting the hours of removing the material from the tunneling conveyor to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and requiring project trucks to quiet their back-up alarms.

A structural engineer hired by the city looked at the homes of two residents and found that tunneling was not causing damage, Ludle said.

City leaders have asked the residents with complaints to make a list of their issues. That way, Ludle said, they will know what to look at when they visit their homes.

Councilwoman Veronica Sims, who recently visited the homes of three affected residents, is hoping the city will be able to help. She noted that the residents have been patient and reasonable.

“I’m hopeful that we can find a solution,” Sims said. “They feel like their homes are falling apart and no one is being as responsive as they are being respectful.”

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmithabj and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith.