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Many must fend for themselves

State of emergency won’t solve most homeowners’ flooding woes

By Megan Woolhouse and Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / March 17, 2010

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WINCHESTER — On a clear sunny day, Paul Welliver slogged through his swampy backyard as heavy-duty pumps hooked to a blaring generator belched water from his flooded home.

With no flood insurance to help him recover, Welliver was hoping that a state of emergency declared by Governor Deval Patrick would mean that he and other inundated residents would get relief from the government.

“I’m heartbroken,’’ he said, looking at his yard, where tools and lawn equipment floated in 3 feet of water. “I feel like I got beat up.’’

But Welliver and others mucking out damaged basements are mostly on their own. Other than to give the governor broad powers to, for example, mobilize resources such as the National Guard, the state of emergency offers no real help for homeowners. Massachusetts expects to ask the federal government for help, but any aid that might be forthcoming is likely to go to only those homeowners who have suffered a near total loss.

“There isn’t any direct impact to residents other than them knowing that, at the state level, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to protect their health and safety,’’ said Scott McLeod, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Government aid most often will fund municipal cleanup and emergency efforts.

Jeanne Gallagher, a regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said individual disaster aid typically provides temporary emergency housing for victims, not money for reconstruction. If Massachusetts does qualify for federal aid, some homeowners might receive money to replace damaged items that are necessary to “make a home habitable,’’ FEMA said.

And flood insurance, which can run from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars, generally covers only major systems damage, such as ruined water heaters or boilers.

“It’s not going to cover the Sheetrock, the wallpaper,’’ said Steve Aronson, owner of Aronson Insurance in Newton and Needham. “It’s just not going to pay for the kids’ toys and the PC and the guitars in your basement.’’

The backyard of Dana O’Leary’s home on Cross Street in Winchester looked like a swamp as a pump churned water out of his basement. O’Leary, a contractor, said the flooding would have been much worse if he hadn’t trucked in more than a ton of loose sand and dumped it in front of his garage to prevent water from seeping into his house.

He acted from experience: A lifelong resident of Winchester, O’Leary said flooding is routine in his neighborhood, recalling other high waters in 1996, 2001, and 2005.

“They say these are 100-year floods,’’ O’Leary noted wryly. “Well, we’ve had four of them.’’

Despite the seeming regularity, O’Leary, like many homeowners, does not have flood insurance. He felt that as a contractor he had the wherewithal and experience to deal with flooding problems.

The flooding came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency wraps up a major remapping of the flood zones in Massachusetts, scheduled to be completed next year. The remapping has already added neighborhoods that previously were not in flood zones to new federal flood plains. Some homeowners in those flood plains will be required to buy additional insurance. Some streets in newly zoned regions, like Cambridge’s Alewife section, were flooded following the weekend’s heavy rains, while other areas that are now considered at higher risk, like some in New Bedford, did not see flooding.

A few blocks away from O’Leary’s home, a man in a small boat paddled across the flooded parking lot of an office park where more than 4 feet of water stagnated. One of the flooded buildings there is home to Gregg Johnson’s construction company. Yesterday he surveyed the damage and said he expected his insurance to cover losses. But beyond that, Johnson is worried his rates will increase, and worse, that the flooding will recur. A maintenance worker at the site noted that Winchester, home to many ponds, used to be known by locals as Waterfield.

“You get mad,’’ Johnson said of the flooding, “but there’s nobody to get mad at.’’

John B. Doherty, the owner of a flooded office building on Skillings Road in Winchester, said the three pumps installed in the building’s basement were overwhelmed by the volume of water, and the boiler and water heater were damaged.

Yesterday, several insurance offices in the building were without heat, bathrooms, and running water. And Georgia’s, a hair salon located in the basement, was closed as 2 inches of water remained on the floor.

Doherty, who works as an insurance agent, said he learned about the benefits of flood insurance the hard way, after a flood in 1996 damaged the property. Since then, he has paid $180 a year for a policy that provides up to $15,000 for damages, which he expects will cover replacing the boiler and water heater.

“It’s been a struggle,’’ Doherty said, noting that it is easier for him and the insurance agents who work in his building to navigate the claims process.

“It’s tougher when you have to call people and tell them you’ve got no coverage for this,’’ he said.

Back on Forest Street, Welliver, the Winchester resident without flood insurance, said the Aberjona River, which runs about 30 feet from his property line, rose so high it filled his basement with more than 7 feet of water and soaked the first floor as well.

His neighbors were in the same boat.

“It’s a major inconvenience,’’ said Welliver, 29. “And it’s going to cost us tens of thousands of dollars to get back to where we were.’’

Jenifer McKim of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com; Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.