KEENE - The first thing anyone with flood damage should do is pull out their insurance policies.
"This is what insurance is for," Benjamin Lawsky told reporters Wednesday. "This is what insurance companies do. They collect premiums for years and years and years, and then they have to pay claims."
Lawsky is superintendent of the state Department of Financial Services, which encompasses the formerly separate Banking and Insurance departments. He attended a meeting with local officials at the Keene firehouse Wednesday to discuss the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which swelled rivers and brooks on Aug. 28 and caused millions of dollars worth of damage in Essex County.
Lawsky toured the area Wednesday, visiting the badly damaged communities along the AuSable River and its tributaries. He said his office would work to make sure insurance payments come quickly, noting that there isn't much of a construction season left in the North Country. He said most insurance companies he has heard about have done a good job, so far, of paying claims.
However, the large majority of people in this area do not have flood insurance and may need to rely on federal help instead. Most of this aid will come in the form of low-interest loans. There are grants available, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website makes it clear that grants are only available when insurance and loans don't cover the damage.
"I think it's important to note, because a lot of people think they're just going to get cash," said North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi.
Some of the loan programs are administered by the Small Business Administration, not FEMA. There are both FEMA and SBA representatives at the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in AuSable Forks. Also, another recovery center is scheduled to open in Moriah today.
Under current law, people's property assessments for tax purposes are based on the condition of their property on March 1, meaning people whose homes were damaged by the spring flooding or by Irene - and may even be uninhabitable now - will still have to pay full property taxes for 2011. School tax bills just went out.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, sponsored legislation earlier this year, after the spring flooding, to allow for assessment reductions based on the damage. This passed the Senate but not the Assembly.
Little said Wednesday that she is working with Senate legal counsel to draft legislation to allow for tax relief after Irene.
"The last thing anyone wants in January, when they can't live in their house, is a tax bill," Little said.
The state has created a task force, headed by state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Darrel Aubertine and Environmental Facilities Corporation President Matt Driscoll, to coordinate recovery efforts.
The task force already has senior members appointed for Clinton and Essex counties, and teams are being put in place to provide assistance in a variety of areas, according to Dede Scozzafava, deputy secretary for local government at the state Department of State.
People with questions about insurance coverage can call the Department of Financial Services' hotline at 800-339-1759.