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Few have flood insurance

Other options for flood assistance still aren’t certain

May 11, 2011
By CHRIS KNIGHT and JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writers , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Now that the flood waters in Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake have receded, the dozens of property owners whose homes and businesses sustained flood damage are wondering how to pay for repair costs that, in some cases, could add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

It's still not known if those who were impacted will be eligible for federal disaster aid, which hinges on whether the state will be declared a federal disaster area, but there's one option most people can already cross of the list - insurance.

"I haven't heard of many people at all having flood insurance in either community," Franklin County Emergency Services Director Ricky Provost. "The majority of the folks we've talked to do not have it."

Article Photos

Gauthier’s Saranac Lake Inn co-owner Dan Brownell and employee Tom Panter relish the dry, sunny weather Tuesday afternoon while they stand in front a sand-bagged doorway to one of the motel’s rooms.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Jessie Belleville, president of Belleville and Associates, which has offices in both Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, said only a few of her company's customers have flood insurance, and none of those were actually affected by flooding.

Very few people buy flood insurance, she said, because it's one of the two things specifically excluded from home- and business-owner policies; the other is earthquake insurance. The deductible for flood insurance is $1,000, a number dictated by the federal government, Belleville said; damage less than $1,000 isn't covered.

She said the only people who have it are those who were required by their bank to do so, generally people who bought a home or refinanced one recently and are in a designated flood zone.

"It's very rare that people just call up and say, 'Oh, I want flood insurance,'" Belleville said.

She said she cringes when she sees emergency updates telling people affected by flooding to call their insurance companies. Belleville said many people realize they're not covered, but others call and ask.

But she's still learning what will happen to all the businesses and homes affected by water.

"There's so much that we don't know because it's not something that we usually experience," Belleville said.

The large majority of property owners in Essex County do not have flood insurance, either. County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish said Tuesday he has heard it is less than 10 percent in the towns on the shore of Lake Champlain.

"If you live on the lake, it's very expensive," Jaquish said.

Jaquish said hundreds of homes and businesses have been damaged in Essex County, the majority in the lakeshore towns of Crown Point, Willsboro, Essex, Moriah and Westport. The lake's level set records these past couple of weeks and is still above flood stage.


Saranac Lake

At least 30 businesses in this village were directly or indirectly impacted by flooding, while another 25 homes or apartments were closed or damaged due to flooding, according to a flood impact statement filed last week by village Manager John Sweeney.

Doug Brownell, co-owner of Gauthier's Saranac Lake Inn, said 11 rooms on his motel's lower level, all of which had just been renovated last year, were damaged by the flooding on Lake Flower. He said repairs could cost $20,000, and he doesn't have any flood insurance.

"The premiums are in the tens of thousands of dollars for a large property like this," he said. "You couldn't sustain those types of premiums and run a business. It would really suck at the bottom line."

Even if his motel had flood insurance, Brownell said most of the damage wouldn't be covered because the lower-level rooms are considered a basement.

"They will cover a heating system down there, but as far as carpet, Sheetrock or furnishings - nothing," he said. "We were told the premium would be $10,000 plus for our property and it wouldn't be covered anyway."

Brownell said he filed a claim for loss of income, which he estimated at about $10,000. But since the loss was triggered by a flood, he said his insurance company won't cover it. He's hopeful that grants, loans or some other form of disaster assistance will be made available. Otherwise, "I'm really going to have to take it on the chin."

At Scott's Florist, which is located off Woodruff Street along the Saranac River, the water was as much as a foot deep at the height of the flooding on April 29. Owner Kathy Steinbrueck said she, like many people, doesn't have flood insurance.

"I don't think there's a person around that has insurance that's on the river," she said.

Steinbrueck said she's hopeful that some kind of flood relief funding will become available. She said a representative of the U.S. Small Business Administration visited her business last week, but she said she wasn't able to provide him with a damage estimate.

"I told the guy I couldn't begin to, because we were front-to-back flooded," she said. "Every wall in the place has mold already started, and we'll probably have to replace the rugs. We had the water in here for so long; it was over a week plus. For us it's mainly structural and, who knows, loss of business. I had people thinking we were still closed but we stayed open."


Tupper Lake

In Tupper Lake, some people are still waiting to be able to get into their homes to assess the damage. Business owner Rickey Dattola said he expects it will be another week until he can inspect his flooded camp on River Road, but people who have paddled nearby said they could see water in the main floor.

"It's pretty shot," Dattola said. "We know it's bad. We know we're going to have to tear out all the carpets, and I'm sure the kitchen cabinets and all that stuff will be shot."

He said his family never thought about getting flood insurance because his dad built the camp 42 years ago up on three or four blocks. The water would sometimes surround the house, but it never got this high.

"We're fortunate enough that if it takes us two years to redo it, it takes us two years," Dattola said. "I feel sorry for the people that that's their main house."

For Dan McClelland, it is his main house that flooded, a few houses down from Dattola's camp. McClelland doesn't have flood insurance either, and he sells insurance to supplement his income as publisher of the Tupper Lake Free Press. He said he's still waiting to get under his house to see how bad the damage is, but water hasn't permeated into his main floor.

He said he may have some major expenses when the town code enforcement officer inspects the home if there are any problems with the wiring. There's also some insulation he'll have to replace under the house, but McClelland said he's waiting to see what other repairs he'll have to do.


Other options

Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state Emergency Management Office, and the SBA toured Essex County, Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake last week to assess areas impacted by the flooding.

Provost said the SBA could make loans available to eligible small businesses while FEMA could provide grants to individual property owners through what's called an Individual Assistance program. But it will take a federal disaster declaration before either of those options are made available, he said.

"If we get it, that would be on the table," Provost said. "Right now there's nothing official because we don't have a federal declaration."

The state needs $25 million in disaster to publicly owned infrastructure for a federal disaster declaration, a line it seems likely to cross, with an estimated $12 million to $13 million in public damage in Essex County and $11.5 million in Franklin County. (The Franklin County estimate now includes Tupper Lake.) Several other counties also had storm damage.

Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas of Jay said Tuesday he is "very confident, after numerous conversations" with U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, that this declaration would be made.

But Tupper Lake village Mayor Mickey Desmarais said people can't just sit around waiting for a federal declaration. He said people re-entering their houses on Demars Boulevard are already starting to rip up their floorboards. You can smell the mold when you go into homes affected by flooding, he said.

"These people can't sit around and wait for anybody," he said.

Jaquish and Douglas stressed that people should report all damage, to bolster the chances of the county's getting federal aid. Damage report forms are available on the Essex County website and at town and village offices throughout the county. People can also call the county emergency services office at 873-3901.

Provost said people should document the damage to their properties, plus any repair or clean-up costs they've incurred.

"The best thing I can tell people right now is to document their expenses because if the time comes and we do get a federal declaration and they're eligible for funding, they're going to need to show that documentation for their reimbursement," Provost said. "That's the best I can give them right now."


Staff Writer Nathan Brown contributed to this report.


(Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that earthquakes, not hurricanes, are the natural disasters other than floods that are specifically excluded from home- and business-owner policies.)



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