Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

July 10, 2013

Flood relief off the table for homeowners

By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — It appears unlikely that homeowners will qualify for federal disaster aid after the recent rain storm that caused flash flooding around the city.

The city itself may not be able to access disaster aid either, Mayor Michael Tucker said Wednesday after meeting with state and federal officials who toured water-damaged properties.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency won't approve a natural disaster declaration for New York State unless a weather event produces at least $26 million of property damage statewide, and despite the governor's office having issued an emergency declaration for 15 counties stricken by flood events in late June, F.E.M.A. reportedly isn't finding that much damage.

By department heads' first estimates, the city faces a $1.2 million tab for storm response and recovery costs, including repair of equipment that broke down at the wastewater treatment plant.

Private property losses are estimated at $3 million apiece in the residential and commercial classes. Flood damage to residential properties is mostly confined to basements, which F.E.M.A. doesn't consider to be primary living space and therefore won't aid, an agency official reiterated to Tucker. Businesses are not eligible for aid.

Emergency responders pumped out an estimated 600 basements on June 28, after heavy rainfall — about 5 inches in three hours — strained the city's combined sanitary-stormwater sewer system beyond capacity. All the water couldn't be taken into the system at once, so it pooled, filling streets and yards, seeping into basements and causing sanitary sewer backups.

If F.E.M.A. does not approve a disaster declaration for the state — which Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly conceded on Tuesday doesn't seem likely — the only government assistance for property owners will be low-interest loans from the state Small Business Administration, Tucker said.

"We've been trying hard the last two weeks, exhausting every avenue to make sure residents are taken care of," he said. "It just doesn't look promising."

On Wednesday, officials from F.E.M.A., Homeland Security and the state S.B.A. visited about 30 water-damaged properties on a list kept by the city. The list included a couple dozen homes and a handful of commercial properties: Metal Cladding, the YWCA of Niagara, the American Legion hall and Widewaters Drive-In restaurant, which was condemned by the city last week due to mold infestation and weakening of the structure.

Restaurant co-owner Marty Oliveri, who met with an S.B.A. representative, said that agency's loan program "would help tremendously" as he works to rehabilitate or rebuild the more-than-50-year-old seasonal business. Also, he's been assured by both U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and state Sen. George Maziarz that grants are out there from places other than F.E.M.A. and he can count on their help trying to landing one.

"We're not looking for handouts (but) if there was something out there for signage, or related to us being on the canal, every little bit would help," Oliveri said. "Whether the government can assist us or not, we will be back. We just have to figure out our next move."

Widewaters' property insurer will not cover losses caused by sewage flow through the building, Oliveri said.

Tucker said he's heard from various homeowners that a few property insurers are "playing games" with them regarding whether their losses are covered or not. Flood losses are not covered in homeowners' policies but riders are readily available to protect against specific water-related incidents, such as a sewer backup or sump pump failure. Where homeowners are citing a sewer backup, some insurers are saying the damage was caused by flooding and therefore isn't covered.

Tucker said he has asked Maziarz, and the senator has agreed, to contact the state insurance commissioner and "shake things up a bit." Insurers doing business in New York are regulated by the state insurance department.

Given that federal aid for homeowners is all but ruled out at this point, "insurance is going to be the best way for people to get relief," Tucker said. "Most people aren't going to get any help (from F.E.M.A.) even if there is a disaster declaration."

Property owners are still encouraged to submit notices of claim to the city listing damages they suffered due to the storm. The city will continue keeping a list of affected properties in the event there is some change in F.E.M.A.'s policies, Tucker said. All notices of claim are turned over to the city's insurance carrier for liability review, that's routine; but the carrier likely will reject most flood-related claims, city attorneys predicted. Instruction sheets on composing a notice of claim are available at the city clerk's office.