Soggy spring brings flood of business

May 19, 2011

By Adam White
Observer staff
Josh Bruce (left) is handed a piece of air moving equipment by fellow Puroclean technician Bryan Smith during the loading of one of the company’s trucks on Monday. A flood of residential groundwater emergencies this spring has translated into a busy season for the Williston company. (Courtesy photo by Darrel Depot)

When a failed sump pump led to groundwater seepage in the basement of her Kirby Lane home, Williston’s Carolyn DeFrancesco became the latest victim of a nightmare spring for homeowners. She called a local company that bills its technicians as “the paramedics of property damage.”

“They came over the next day, and got everything squared away quickly,” DeFrancesco said.

Williston-based Puroclean has been kept busy by this spring’s widespread groundwater issues resulting from excessive snow melt-off and heavy rains. Darrel Depot, owner and general manager of Puroclean, said that his company has responded to a flood of calls in Williston, mostly resulting from groundwater issues around the footings of foundations.

“As soon as the heavy rains started, the calls started coming in,” Depot said.

As if invading water weren’t bad enough, homeowners have seen their finances take a serious hit from the soggy spring. Depot estimated that on past calls, 75 percent of his customers had insurance protection that helped offset remediation costs – but the steady stream of emergencies in the last few months have been a different story.

“Our business has really flip-flopped,” Depot said. “I would say that 80 percent of the jobs we’ve visited have not been covered by insurance. For the majority of these people, it’s a self-pay situation.”

The problem is that insurance coverage against such situations is far from a cut-and-dry issue. A groundwater emergency only qualifies as a “flood” if it affects more than one dwelling congruently, and even then it is not addressed under most homeowners’ policies.

“Outside of Lloyd’s of London, it is almost impossible to get flood insurance unless you buy it from the federal government,” said Matt Boulanger, senior planner for the town of Williston. Boulanger said that such protection – under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program – is only available to homes within certain risk zones delineated on special rate maps.

The resulting lack of coverage has forced Puroclean to alter its approach to doing business.

“Most of the time now, we assume that there is no [insurance] coverage when we respond to a call,” Depot said. “We do a lot more working backward from budgets. We provide a lot of consultation, and allow people to make educated decisions on what they want to do, and can afford to do.”

Depot acknowledged that even though it is “hard to walk away from those situations,” the costs of equipment and overhead for flood remediation make it impossible for Puroclean to give its services away. Walking through a storage area in his company’s headquarters, he pointed to a row of dehumidifiers that cost close to $3,000 each, and a water extraction system with a price tag of $6,000.

“We’re not talking about some mom-and-pop Shop Vac system,” Depot said. “I’m going into someone’s house with over $25,000 worth of equipment.”

All the same, Depot recognizes that his company has a larger duty to the town it has called home since 2007. He said that Puroclean has basically thrown its usual service rates out the window in order to help elderly customers, families of active military members and homeowners who can’t afford basic remediation in the event of a water emergency.

“That’s a lot of the direction we want to go in as a company,” Depot said. “We’re part of a community here in Williston, and we recognize that we have social responsibilities because of that.”

DeFrancesco was one of the fortunate few with insurance coverage against water damage to her home, thanks to the contractor who installed a drainage system when he built it back in 1986.

“He said that if I ever got more than a teacup of water in my basement, he’d come over and drink it,” DeFrancesco said. “It’s a good thing, because I see what so many other people are going through right now.

“It’s an act of God, and it’s god-awful.”