‘We have nothing’: In Coatesville, residents brace to battle insurers, hope for government aid

Now that the waters have receded, the real work begins for many Chester County residents hit by historic flooding: dealing with insurers.

Person stands in front of house damaged by hurricane flooding.

Beverly Angry lives on a higher part of the block and considers herself lucky to have only lost basement belongings. She has renter's insurance but she's unclear on what it will cover. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Marisela Tovar was just about done fixing the damage to her basement from a June 8 flood when heavy rainfall, the remnants of Hurricane Ida, reached her Coatesville home. Tovar, her husband, and two of her young children had to be rescued by boat as the water levels reached the middle of her first-floor staircase.

On Sunday, Tovar took stock of what she’ll need to replace, where it ranks in priority, and when she’ll have the money to cover it. So far, she needs a new water heater and electric box. The entirety of the basement and first floor need to be redone.

“We spent all our savings on the June flood repairs and this time, we have nothing,” said Tovar, as family members and volunteers removed the final pieces of damaged furniture and whole chunks of walls in a race against time to avoid mold. All that remains of the basement and first floor are the wooden frames.

Now that the waters have receded, the real work begins: dealing with insurers.

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Tovar lives on 5th Avenue and Olive Street, the lowest point in Coatesville, according to Councilman Donald Folks. While the block can clearly flood, the block isn’t on a designated flood plain. Tovar, one of the few homeowners on the block, said she was told she can’t get flood insurance because of this.

Person stands in damaged house.
Marisela Tovar’s home was one of the worst-hit by flooding. To avoid mold, she had to rip out entire sections of waterlogged drywall. She’s not sure insurance will cover anything. (Ximena Conde/Whyy)

After the June flood, Tovar said her insurance company gave her some money because she owned a sump pump.

“I’m trying to fight [insurance] again so that they give me something because I have a sump pump installed in the house,” she said, though the company told her an adjuster won’t be able to make it to her home for another three days. “It’s not certain if I’m going to get something or nothing at all.”

On this block alone, piles of furniture and electronics offered a glimpse of the thousands of dollars it will take to make families and their homes whole again.

Tovar has lived in this house for about a decade. It’s where she raised her three children — ages 6, 10, and 14. She said fond memories prompted her to rebuild three months ago. She considered that flooding incident a fluke.

Now, she’s rethinking that decision after what her family went through on Wednesday.

“Seeing my children petrified, not being able to get in touch with one of my daughters for almost two hours, and not knowing if she’d made it to safety … All we want is help fixing and eventually selling the house,” she said.

But not everyone has the option to pick up and leave.

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Person stands in front of house after flood.
Marisela Tovar stands in front of electronics rendered useless by flooding and a dumpster full of entire sections of her home. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

“I’m locked in,” said Michelle Rice, who has been renting on the block for seven years. “I can’t afford $1,600, $1,700 for rent. I could do it, but then I’m living in a house with nothing because my paycheck doesn’t cover everything.”

Rice looked into insurance coverage after the June flood, and that’s how she learned they weren’t on a flood plain, despite flooding being a problem for the block.

Rice said she couldn’t even get past the initial intake questions.

“The first question was when was my house built?” she recalled. “What part of ‘I’m a renter’ do you not understand? I don’t know when this house was built, I don’t know when windows were put in, I don’t know when this was, I don’t know anything. I’m renting.”

Damaged house in aftermath of flood.
Michellle Rice said she can’t afford to move as a renter and she’s lost half her belongings in the flood. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Beverly Angry does have renter’s insurance, but since she has been busy emptying out her waterlogged basement, she hasn’t even had the chance to call or access the financial damage.

“We haven’t even thought in numbers, but I’m sure it’s up there,” she said, staring at a pile of belongings stacked on her front yard.

On Sunday, State Rep. Dan Williams touched base with his constituents to lend an ear and explain to them that federal help could be on the way.

“You’re looking at probably some of the most resilient people you’re ever going to find in your life,” said Williams. “The survivors are tough, they’re urban. The concern I have is will the people in power assume appropriate responsibility for the care of these folks?”

Currently, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is assessing damage across the state. The data the agency collects will determine whether people are eligible for aid and how much they could receive, explained Williams, and whether the state will qualify for federal relief. Eligible counties need to meet certain thresholds of damage, as does the state as a whole.

For now, Williams encouraged families to document everything. He said people should photograph damage and keep receipts of sump pump purchases or other recovery-related expenses.

Still, he was just one of the many voices looking at the bigger picture. Williams and others want to prepare residents for the next storm.

“Pipes that are flowing water through this community right now are hundreds of years old … Underneath where you’re standing, everything you can see is hundreds of years old,” said Williams.

Coatesville’s aging infrastructure wasn’t built to handle these more frequent weather events, said Folks. But whether it’s a designated flood zone or not, Folks is calling for a rapid and historic investment in drainage and other infrastructure.

“[Politicians in Harrisburg] know it’s going to happen again,” said Folks of Coatesville’s flooding. “Everything we’re doing now, we’re going to have to do it again if they don’t fix this.”

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