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N.H. Tornado Victims Struggle to Rebuild Months Later

Thu November 06, 2008 - Northeast Edition
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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) Three months after a tornado ripped a 50-mi. swath through central New Hampshire, some residents still are caught in a swirl of red tape as they fight to rebuild their damaged or destroyed homes and get on with their lives.

Arlene and Bill Moffitt are living in a trailer where their home once stood next to Northwood Lake.

Arlene and Bill said that since late July, they have done nothing but tangle with their insurance company, mortgage company, town officials and the bank as they try to rebuild their home. They had to speak with 37 agents at the mortgage company, Bill Moffitt said, before checks were issued and ground was finally broken week of Oct. 19. They hope to be in the house by Christmas.

“The storm was one thing, and we coped,’’ he told the Concord Monitor. “This stress we’re going through now is worse than the storm itself.’’

There is no official tally of displaced families, but the Community Action Program of Belknap-Merrimack Counties has 24 cases open, said disaster assistance Director Andy LaBrie. They include insured homeowners. Most are in Deerfield, Epsom, Northwood and Barnstead.

A federal emergency declaration provided only for public assistance, and the lack of funding for individuals has made it harder for agencies to locate displaced people, said Tim Dupre, executive director of Volunteer NH, a nonprofit that coordinates community-based efforts. Agencies often use applications for such money to track disaster victims.

The availability of federal money for public rather than private costs has frustrated some homeowners. In the Locke Lake area of Barnstead, Ken Dustin complained that a town-owned lot next to his home was quickly cleared, while he was unable to get trees overhanging his damaged house removed.

“They’re using federal money to clean an empty lot, but we get no help whatsoever,’’ Dustin said. He and his girlfriend moved into their Walker Road house two weeks before the storm. They have tried to settle with their insurance company on a sum that will let them rebuild.

Paying living expenses, rent and the mortgage on the uninhabited home took enough money that Dustin was unable to renew his tractor-trailer registration. He is no longer working and, until insurance money comes in, cannot put his construction skills to work rebuilding.

Standard homeowners insurance covers wind damage from tornadoes. But damage to the property, rather than the home itself, may not be covered, said Deb Stone of the state Insurance Department.

Insurance claims filed through the end of September show $6.3 million in damage to about 300 homes in towns the tornado struck, Stone said. Half that amount has been paid out.

The department has received 660 claims of storm-related damage in all, she said. Center Barnstead had the most claims, followed by Deerfield, Alton and Northwood.

Volunteer NH has focused on people who are uninsured or underinsured. Insured people who need additional help must go through their insurer’s full process before applying for money from the limited state-administered disaster relief fund, Dupre said. The one uninsured homeowner Volunteer NH encountered, a neighbor of the Moffitts, received a donated foundation for the replacement mobile home he ordered.

Down the dirt road from the Moffitts, a pale yellow house slouches beneath tarps, its porch steps collapsed.

It was Laurie Plumley’s lakeside “dream house’’ when she returned from Georgia after her husband’s death six years ago, eager to be close to family and away from the threat of tornadoes.

With the house uninhabitable, Plumley now shares a room in Northwood with her three dogs. She has spent the past three months struggling with her insurer, mortgage company, bank, contractors, and officials from the three towns and two counties her land touches, trying to get the permits, and claims and loans needed to begin construction. She sees no end in sight.

“I’m really not any further along than the day after, except my yard’s a little cleaner,’’ she said.

She is frustrated by the never-ending wait, the financial bureaucracy, the anguish of having her life in shambles and by feeling powerless.

“I’m trying to get my life back together without being lost, and it’s very hard,’’ she said. “I get up in the morning and go to work. That’s the only consistent thing.’’

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