Loans offer hope to Alle-Kiski flood victims
By Braden Ashe
Published: Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, 12:06 a.m.
Almost two months after an Aug. 28 rainstorm flooded parts of the Alle-Kiski Valley, residents lacking aid are struggling to stay afloat.
Most flood victims point to their insurance companies, mortgage holders and local governments for setting roadblocks to recovery.
A handful are praising the Small Business Administration for throwing them their only lifeline in the form of low-interest, federal loans.
The loans are available because the SBA surveyed an area that includes the A-K Valley on Sept. 10 and declared it a disaster zone. The designation allows homeowners, renters, businesses and nonprofits to apply for loans to cover property and economic losses from the flooding, according to agency spokeswoman Alana Chavez.
The SBA has approved 21 of 36 loan applications in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties, totaling about $829,000, Chavez said, with the majority granted to homeowners in Armstrong.
Most, if not all, of the 15 unapproved applicants remain under review by the SBA and may be approved, according to Chavez.
One such applicant is Ginger Sopcak of South Buffalo.
Homeless since the Aug. 28 flooding ravaged their house along Scenic Drive, Sopcak, her mother and two teenage children have been living with friends and neighbors as they await SBA approval. It has been nearly a month since she applied for loans to repair her home. She has no flood insurance.
The SBA turnover rate from application to approval usually is one to three weeks, according to Chavez. She said the SBA's funding for disaster loan services was unaffected by the federal government shutdown, and the agency has been able to process requests in a timely manner.
Despite the slow turnaround for Sopcak, she said she's been pleased with the SBA's willingness to help.
“They're very methodical in their processing,” she said, “but you can tell they want to help you. They have a genuine empathy, which is more than I can say for the township.”
Sopcak alleges that South Buffalo issued zoning violations to her family just days after they were displaced by the flood. She said her mother received a $575 fine for allowing a contractor to demolish her mobile home adjacent to Sopcak's house.
Flooding damage rendered the home uninhabitable, and Erie Insurance Group approved the demolition, but the township said it violated its zoning ordinance for failing to obtain a demolition permit. Sopcak said the township then issued a cease-and-desist order on the property, preventing her mother from setting up another mobile home on the property.
Vince Venturino, South Buffalo zoning officer, said the township waived the $575 fine last week and the cease-and-desist order was consistent with the zoning ordinance.
He said the Sopcak property along Buffalo Creek has been classified as being in a flood plain. Revisions to the township code made in 2012 prohibit mobile homes from flood plain areas. The township defines flood plain areas as those “subject to the hundred-year flood,” meaning that a flood event has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
Since the mobile home was originally placed prior to the 2012 amendments, Sopcak said the property should be “grandfathered” — in other words, it was a previously existing condition — which she said would allow them to put in a new mobile home. Township Solicitor James Favero was unavailable for comment.
Sopcak said she presented the original zoning certificate from 2010 to Venturino who, according to Sopcak, signed a new certificate of approval on Wednesday after an interview with the Valley News Dispatch. He could not be reached for an update.
Sopcak is tentatively optimistic that her mother will be allowed to put a new mobile home on the property by next week.
“This whole thing has been a nightmare,” she said, “but as bad as the local government has been, the people of this town have been just as helpful.”
Less than a mile up Buffalo Creek, Bill Kronen is scrambling to get his life back in order after the August flooding destroyed two homes he owns along Pinetree Lane.
Like Sopcak, Kronen decried the township for what he says are negligible recovery efforts.
“We lost everything,” he said, “and the township, of course, did nothing. They gave us a Dumpster two weeks after everything happened.”
Calls made to township Supervisors Terry Van Dyke, Thomas Boroski and Glenn Heilman went unanswered.
Kronen has to replace the floors and appliances in each house after floodwater flowed through them “like a river — in one window and out the other.”
He said the insurance settlement is being handled by the mortgage holder, Select Portfolio Servicing Inc. When Kronen contracts a company for a restoration project, he said Select Portfolio provides 3 to 5 percent of the cost up front.
Kronen then has to pay for a Select Portfolio inspector to come out and approve the project within 10 days of its completion. He's then compensated seven to 10 days later with the full amount.
“It's hard to sign a deal with a contractor when they know they may not get paid for another two weeks after they finish the project,” he said. “They don't work that way. I don't work that way.”
Kronen is hoping the SBA loans he has been approved for will provide a way out from under the mortgage holder's thumb. He wants to use the loans to pay off his mortgage and take control over his rebuilding process.
“The SBA's been the only group that's making it possible for me to get rolling,” he said. “They've been really helpful in getting our life back on track since the flood.”
Randy Brozenick, Armstrong County public safety director, said his office was inundated on Aug. 28 with more than 600 emergency calls. The hardest hit areas, he said, were South Buffalo and the Kiski Valley.
For some victims in the Kiski Valley, options are limited and SBA loans are off the table.
Renee Garcia of Parks Township is a single mother with arthritis and a basement full of mold in her Dime Road home. She had no flood insurance and is considering moving out rather than trying to repair the damage.
Garcia said she and most of her neighbors are forgoing the loans because they can't afford even low-interest ones.
“This should have been declared a disaster site by FEMA,” she said. “Everyone down here needs help; it's a mess, and no one wants to fall farther into debt with the loans.”
Brozenick said the damages fell “woefully short” of what's required for a FEMA disaster declaration. Affected counties in such situations must prove $17 million in combined damages before FEMA can declare a state disaster, he said.
In Kiski Township, a clogged drainage pipe that runs under Kiski Avenue caused flooding in dozens of houses along the street, including Mike Maldonado's. Like Garcia, Maldonado doesn't have flood insurance and his debt situation has deterred him from seeking an SBA loan.
“The loans seem like a good idea, but I'm already in debt and I can't afford another loan,” he said. “Other than (the loans), there's really not a lot of help out there. We're on our own.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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