By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
Imagine living through the worst of a massive natural disaster. You’ve stocked up on food, water and other necessary survival items but your home has been hit hard. Your family is evacuated to a shelter. You are grateful that your family is safe but when the weather no longer threatens, you return to your home or business to find it uninhabitable. There is no power, and no way normal life will resume for a long time.
The aftermath of a natural disaster is often as bad or worse than the disaster itself. People’s lives are ruined, and even the infrastructures and economies of entire communities are destroyed. When the rebuilding begins, the cost is often staggering. But who pays for it?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will pick up much of the tab for rebuilding vital roadways and many buildings, and insurance companies will pay for damage to insured homes and businesses. EMS and other emergency mitigation entities will attempt to keep people safe, and utility companies will restore power.
Here in Ashtabula County this only covers a fraction of disaster preparedness costs. Although the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency
has an operating budget of $300,000 per year, the actual costs of preparedness and mitigation are much higher. According to Ashtabula EMA Director George Sabo, much of the real work of disaster preparedness, rescue and mitigation goes to local EMS and other like entities. It is difficult to attach an annual figure because there are so many EMS units with firefighters, search and rescue teams, SWAT and hazardous mitigations teams in the county and budgets vary from year to year based on tax revenues as well as federal grants.
“I can only estimate that number must be well into the millions of dollars in Ashtabula County alone,” Sabo said. “There’s a lot of response training and equipment and it costs money.”
These high-end payouts go for more than local preparedness, mitigation and rescue. Insurance companies pay plenty for the aftermath of bad weather. Some examples include the $292 million in paid insurance losses to Ohioans after Superstorm Sandy in 2012-2013, the $44.2 million paid after January winter storms in 2005 with more than 14,000 claimants across northeast Ohio, and the $18.1 million paid out when tornadoes swept through northeast Ohio in September of 2010. These are only a few examples. The list includes scores of cases where millions of dollars were paid for storm damages in Ohio alone.
Mary Bonelli of the Ohio Insurance Institute said these figures only include payments for wind and other damages incurred during inclement weather, and do not include claims for flooding related damages.
“Claims for flood damage don’t apply to most homeowners’ policies,” she said. “Flood damage is something they must insure themselves for separately.”
Bonelli said claims for flooding damage through those policies probably equaled those from regular homeowners’ policies, especially in places near rivers and lakes.
Ashtabula County is susceptible to flood damage because of its Lake Erie shoreline and many rivers. Ashtabula received no money from FEMA during Superstorm Sandy because it was not as severe here and did not cross the Federal damage threshold, like Cuyahoga County did. But it did receive $646,346 in FEMA assistance for 315 individual damage applications from Ashtabula County residents after the storms and flooding of July 2006. FEMA pays up to 75 percent of the cost of repairing buildings and utility facilities.
George Sabo said Ashtabula County’s Emergency Management Agency spent much of its time and money cutting trenches and water alleviation ditches and repairing culverts during that 2006 event. He said Ashtabula County was not as seriously impacted as Lake County, but things still “…weren’t pretty.”
“This is where preparedness is as important as mitigation,” Sabo said of Ashtabula County’s flooding problems. “Property on the Grand or Ashtabula River, or right on Lake Erie is often very beautiful. But it’s not wise to build or locate there.”