Chanceford Township family facing bankruptcy after flood damage
Stephanie Burns was out running errands when the rain began to fall in York County on Aug. 31.
She received a text message from her mother, Nancy Marquette, 74, who lives with Burns, 53, in their Chanceford Township home on Laurel Road. Marquette told her daughter not to come home during the storm, and the message included a picture of the usually shallow creek that runs through their property and under their driveway.
"It pooled in that area, and it started swirling because it couldn’t get through," Marquette said of the stream.
The rising water gained enough force to wash out the asphalt and the ground beneath it, leaving a small canyon in the yard.
From the outside, the driveway looks like the worst of the damage, but it's the mold and mildew inside her home that worry Burns the most.
The water from the late-August storm saturated the wood floors and walls and flooded the basement. A patch of what appears to be stemonitis splendens mold (also known as chocolate tube slime) is growing on the outside wall next to the front door, and other forms of mold have begun to develop inside.
Before the storm, Marquette was already dealing with health problems. She suffers from asthma with a sensitivity to mold, and she has chronic swelling in both legs, which limits her mobility. After the storm, she contracted strep throat, and although the infection might not have been caused by mold spores, the air quality aggravated her condition, she said.
"When I got sick, I absolutely fell apart," Marquette said.
Burns's 15-year-old son is allergic to mold, and the mother of three said that if she had the money and the insurance coverage to cover the cost of repairs, she would move her family somewhere safe with clean air in the meantime.
"We should not be living in the house, but what are you going to do?" she said. "I have nowhere to go."
Burns has been out of work for much of the year after being injured in a fall last October. The family's homeowner's insurance won't cover any of the damage, and they don't have flood insurance.
"We were not in a financial position to be able to sustain any of this damage," Burns said. "And here I am in a position where I’m going to lose my home because it’s unlivable."
Since the storm destroyed their driveway, the family has been crossing the stream on a metal grate foot bridge, with broken chunks of the driveway serving as stepping stones.
Industrial dryers, lent by a friend and placed throughout the house, have been running day and night for about a week. For the first two weeks after the storm, Burns said the family lived with humid air and the smell of mildew in every room.
Burns said she's been calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency every day since Sept. 1, and while the people who answer the phones are sympathetic, she said all they can tell her is that until there's a federal disaster declaration, there's nothing they can do.
"Without any help, we may have to just file bankruptcy and abandon the house," Burns said.
There is federal money available to property owners impacted by a natural disaster, but the government won't accept applications unless a federal disaster has been declared.
Before that can happen, FEMA and PEMA must collect preliminary damage assessments to determine if the state is eligible. If the government does declare a disaster, individual property owners will need to submit a formal application for assistance, after which a FEMA representative will visit the property for an individual assessment.
PEMA spokesman L. Paul Vezzetti said Monday, Sept. 24, that the agency has been working with FEMA and local governments to complete the preliminary damage assessments as quickly as possible.
"Barring any unforeseen developments, we expect to finish them in the next two weeks," Vezzetti said.
David Thomason, a senior program analyst at the FEMA Region III office in Philadelphia, said the maximum individual payout available is $34,000.
FEMA representatives made their preliminary assessment visit on Tuesday, Sept. 25, to look specifically at damage from the Aug. 31 storm.
York County spokesman Mark Walters said the group toured parts of Hellam, Chanceford and Lower Chanceford townships, and Laurel Road was part of the tour. Walters said it looked as if the stream along the road — the one that crosses the Burns's property — can't handle much more rain.
Walters said the group also saw a home on Duff Hollow Road in Chanceford Township where the entire foundation of the structure had been washed out by heavy rain. Walters said the residents were staying with relatives who live nearby.
Representatives from PEMA and the federal Small Business Administration, which awards low-interest disaster relief loans to qualifying applicants who live in a declared disaster area, visited York County on Sept. 20 and 21 for their preliminary assessment.
Wade Gobrecht, assistant director of the York County Planning Commission, said most flood zones are considered to be 100-year flood plains. Essentially, this means that every year, there's about a one percent chance of a flood, he said, which works out statistically to mean there's an average of one flood every 100 years or so.
(Gobrecht pointed out that this doesn't necessarily mean a major flood will only occur in the same flood zone once every 100 years, but the model helps to illustrate the statistical probability.)
The eastern part of York County, where the Burns family lives, is in an area of "minimal flood hazard," according to the most recently available FEMA flood map.
In a minimal flood hazard zone, Gobrecht said the probability of a flooding event such as the one York County saw Aug. 31 is closer to 0.001 percent per year.
"That was probably closer to a thousand-year storm to get that much rain in that amount of time," Gobrecht said.
The Burns family hasn't had an official assessment of the damage to their home, but Burns said her husband, Jeff Burns, used to work in construction as a heavy machine operator. He estimated the driveway alone would cost about $20,000 to fix, not to mention the cost of mold remediation required throughout the house.
Stephanie Burns said her husband wants to hold out as long as they can in their home, but the the headaches and illness caused and aggravated by the mold has left her at the end of her rope.
"I just want to pack up my bags and just get out," she said. "It’s not a healthy environment for my kids, which makes me just want to run away, but the fact of the matter is, I have nowhere to run."