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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 1, 2011
Relief is on the way
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
As area homeowners are struggling with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, many are making the unwelcome discovery that flood damage is not covered by standard renter’s or homeowner’s insurance.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama declared disaster for New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo thanked him for his “quick action,” which will make residents of Albany County among others eligible for assistance.
This helps fill a gap for those without flood insurance.
“Homeowner’s does not cover a flood,” said David Neustadt, a spokesman for the New York Department of Insurance. “You have to have federal flood insurance.”
His department, he said, is sending a van to some of the hardest hit areas in the state, and it is fielding calls on insurance through a hotline at 1-800-339-1759, which is now open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Rainfall from Tropical Storm Irene was measured at 5 inches in McKownville, 6 inches in Voorheesville and Medusa, 7 inches in Rensselaerville, and 9 inches in Altamont, according to the National Weather Service.
Asked to explain the difference between storm damage, which is typically covered, and flood damage, Neustadt said it is best to have a claims adjuster visit the premises.
On the East Coast, flooding happens mostly from June through October hurricane season. About three-quarters of households located in federally designated special flood hazard areas have no flood insurance, according to estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Neustadt said on Tuesday that the “best hope” for those without flood insurance to recoup their losses would be for Obama to declare their region a disaster area, making it eligible for FEMA funds.
Yesterday, Obama did so.
Obama’s action makes federal funding available for affected individuals in eight counties, including Albany, Schenectady, Greene, and Schoharie. The following aid will be provided to homeowners, renters, and small businesses: the Individuals and Households Program, Crisis Counseling, Disaster Unemployment Assistance, United States Department of Agriculture food coupons and distribution, USDA food, disaster Legal Services, Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Small Business Administration disaster loans.
The declaration also makes public assistance available for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities in 19 counties, including Albany, Greene, and Schoharie. This money reimburses municipalities for money they spent removing debris and taking emergency protective action in response to Irene.
Further, Obama’s disaster declaration activates a Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, to assist in projects that prevent or reduce long-term risk to life and property for natural hazards. All counties are eligible to apply for this assistance.
FEMA has outlined the sort of aid being offered to individuals and families:
Rental payments for temporary housing for those whose homes are unlivable;
Grants for home repairs and replacement of essential household items not covered by insurance to make damaged dwellings safe, sanitary and functional;
Grants to replace personal property and help meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation, and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance or other aid programs;
Unemployment payments up to 26 weeks from the date of the disaster declaration for workers who lost jobs and don’t qualify for state benefits;
Low-interest loans up to $200,000 for primary residences and up to $40,000 for personal property to cover residential losses not fully compensated by insurance;
Loans up to $2 million for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and most private, not-for-profit organizations;
Loans up to $500,000 for farmers, ranchers, and aquaculture operators; and
Other relief programs such as crisis counseling for those traumatized by the disaster; income tax assistance; and advisory help for legal, veterans’ benefits, and Social Security matters.
Collecting on insurance
The New York Department of Insurance urges those who suffered damage from Irene to contact their insurance companies as soon as possible. It also says to take photographs or videos of the damage before undertaking clean-up or repairs. While temporary repairs, such as covering broken windows or leaking roofs may be undertaken, residents are urged not to have permanent repairs made until the insurance company has inspected the property and an agreement has been reached on the cost of repairs.
In a similar vein, the New York Farm Bureau is encouraging farmers affected by Irene to carefully document their damage and report to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The New York Farm Bureau website www.nyfb.org has a list of available federal relief programs.
Public adjusters may be hired as a comparison with the insurance company adjuster; they are paid a percentage of the claim settlement, usually between 10 and 15 percent.
Property owners are encouraged by the New York Department of Insurance to save all receipts for repairs, both temporary and permanent, and to keep a diary of all conversations with insurance agents, including names, times, and dates of the calls or visits.
The department also stresses that home repair fraud increases following a major storm and urges getting more than one bid from contractors, and requesting at least three references before hiring. Residents should also ask for proof of necessary licenses, building permits, insurance, and bonding, and should record the contractor’s license plate number and drivers’ license number, and then check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints about that contractor.
Residents are also warned to be wary of contractors who demand payment ahead for repairs. The department recommends that, if the contractor needs money to buy supplies, going with him and paying the supplier directly.
Floods are the most common hazard in the United States, according to FEMA, and someone with a 30-year mortgage in a high-risk flood area has a 26 percent chance of experiencing a flood during those three decades.
Flooding can be caused by hurricanes and tropical storms, Nor’easters, cyclones, heavy rains, winter storms, spring thaws, clogged drainage systems, and new construction, according to FEMA.
Congress, in 1968, created the National Flood Insurance Program so property owners could protect themselves. The program offers flood insurance to homeowners, renters, and business owners if their community participates in the NFIP. Participating communities agree to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA requirements to reduce the risk of flooding.
The enormous costs from Hurricane Katrina sparked Congressional debate about keeping the program, which has continued in a series of extensions.
Maps are created as part of NFIP, assessing areas for risk of flooding. Currently, map updates scheduled for Albany County include those for the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville, and for the towns of Berne, Bethlehem, Guilderland, Knox, New Scotland, Rensselaerville, and Westerlo.
People can determine their risk of floods, based on where they live, by going online to FloodSmart.gov, a site maintained by FEMA, and entering their property address under “Assess Your Risk.” Flood maps may also be viewed at FEMA’s Map Store, located at www.store.msc.fema.gov.
Statistics kept by the NFIP state that floods are the most common natural disaster in the United States and, in the past decade, from 1001 to 2010, flood insurance claims averaged $2.6 billion with the average claim at nearly $48,000 a year. The average flood insurance policy costs about $600 a year.
People outside of high-risk areas file over a fifth of NFIP claims and get a third of the disaster assistance for flooding. The NFIP paid $709 million in flood insurance to homeowners, business owners, and renters in 2010.
In 2010, the state of New York came in third, behind New Jersey and Tennessee, with number of claims at 2,210, and New York was eighth for claims payments at $21 million; Tennessee was first at $226 million for 4,209 claims and New Jersey was second at $99.6 million for 4,690 claims.
NFIP flood insurance covers both buildings (from its foundation to systems like electrical and plumbing) and contents (from clothing and curtains to furniture and appliances).
Horticulture faculty at Cornell University Professor Marvin Pritts and Associate Professor Stephan Reiners have issued a warning to both gardeners and farmers in the wake of Irene: Unless growers are absolutely sure that flooding is not from streams and surface water, they should not use fruits and vegetables that were at or near harvest at the time of flooding. Runoff from stream and river overflows may be contaminated with human pathogens as well as chemicals, they say.
And finally, the United States Department of Homeland Security offers these tips for people dealing with the aftermath of a flood. First of all, residents are urged to beware of hazards and check for damage before re-entering their homes, contacting professionals if they suspect damage to water, gas, electric, or sewer lines. They are urged to throw away damaged food, including canned goods that have come in contact with floodwaters, and to boil water until local authorities declare the water supply is safe to drink.
When cleaning up, residents are urged to prevent mold by removing wet contents right away. Carpets, upholstered furniture, and bedding, when wet, keep dampness inside of a building. Those whose homes have flooded should wash and disinfect walls, floors, doors, closets, and shelves.
The building’s interior should be dried thoroughly; rented dehumidifiers may be covered under flood policies. Air conditioners may also be used to start the drying-out process.
Removing baseboards and knocking small holes at floor level in the drywall, between the wall studs, lets moisture trapped behind the wallboard seep out.
Furnaces should be checked for damage. Even if the water heater is working, if the floodwater was up on the tank, the insulation between the walls is damaged.
Tips for restoring books, heirlooms, and photographs damaged by water may be found online at http://www.fema.gov/hazard/flood/coping.shtm.