Dukes County gets no aid after March storm

Despite widespread damage, FEMA threshold was not met.

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The March 2 nor'easter that yanked boats off their moorings wasn't bad enough to warrant FEMA aid. - Rich Saltzberg

Do you remember the March 2 storm that tossed yachts ashore, flooded Five Corners and the Edgartown waterfront, washed out the Dike Bridge, and uprooted trees across the Island? Despite all the lost shingles and downed utility lines, the storm didn’t land the Vineyard any Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding. The damage was not severe enough, state and local officials said.

“For the FEMA Disaster Assistance Program, MEMA [Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency] reached out to coastal communities, including the six in Dukes County, for potential damage costs under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program,” MEMA spokesman Chris Besse wrote in an email. “The information received from Dukes County communities for potential eligible costs — emergency protective measures, debris clearance, and repairs to storm-damaged public infrastructure — fell short of the county threshold needed to qualify.”

“They’re looking for stuff we don’t have the resources to recover from,” West Tisbury emergency manager John Christensen said. “There were downed trees everywhere.” But relief applies to damage sustained by public infrastructure, he said, and West Tisbury was able to handle most of that cleanup through the highway department.

Island damage didn’t cross the necessary threshold, Aquinnah emergency manager Gary Robinson said.

“The county did not submit any claims,” county manager Martina Thornton said.

On April 30, Gov. Charlie Baker asked the Trump Administration for disaster declarations in Essex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Bristol, Barnstable, and Nantucket counties, according to a MEMA release. “We are waiting for a decision from the president, but if issued, the major disaster declaration will allow FEMA to reimburse the state, municipalities, and certain nonprofits in the six counties for 75 percent of their eligible costs for emergency protective measures, debris clearance, and repairs to storm-damaged public infrastructure.”

The Vineyard also did not make the cut for Small Business Administration (SBA) low-interest disaster loans. Norfolk County, and all the counties that border it, did, however.

“Administrator McMahon made the loans available in response to a letter from [Baker] on April 30, requesting a disaster declaration by the SBA,” a release from SBA states. “The declaration covers Norfolk County and the adjacent counties of Bristol, Middlesex, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester in Massachusetts; and Providence in Rhode Island.”

Unlike the FEMA funds, the SBA loans target private homeowners and businesses.

“For the SBA Assistance Program, their criteria is 25 homes or businesses with uninsured losses of 40 percent or more of value. Dukes County did not meet this threshold,” Besse wrote.

Private insurance adjuster David Burke described the storm of March 2-3 as a serious event.

“It was significant, that’s for sure, similar to a hurricane,” he said.

Burke said what supports his use of the word “significant” was a “flood” of “stormtroopers,” a term for insurance adjusters who sweep in after a storm. The Vineyard’s local adjusters were overwhelmed in the aftermath of that storm, so the insurance companies dispatched so-called stormtroopers to stem the tide, he said.

“This storm, it hurt a lot of people,” he said, because of high wind deductibles. The deductibles range from 2 percent to 5 percent, he pointed out. For a $500,000 home with a 5 percent deductible, tree damage to the structure would need to clear $25,000.

“That’s quite common,” he said.

Moreover, Burke said most policies, even when the deductible is cleared, only pay for getting a tree off a house, not off someone’s property.

Because so much damage on-Island, by his estimate, fell within the limits of deductibles, it went unreported. This could have had an effect on how the Island was assessed for catastrophe, he said.

Burke also said while “a lot of agents do the right thing and report the loss,” some do not, and can employ “intimidation tactics” to keep policyholders from reporting damage to an insurance company.

Too many losses on an agent’s balance sheet can affect his or her commissions, Burke said, so some try to talk their clients out of making the claim, and argue the damage falls within the deductible.

A common scare method, he said, was warning the policyholder the insurance company may drop their coverage if a claim is submitted.

Burke said he can frequently adjust a claim to exceed the deductible if given the opportunity.