Howard County Times
Howard County

Flood insurance woes push Ellicott City businesses under heavy water

Interior of HorseSpirits Gallery after the July 30 flood on Main Street in Ellicott City.

Deadly floodwaters swept fine jewelry and other inventory worth more than half a million dollars from Sam Coyne's Ellicott City jewelry shop, Craig Coyne Jewelers, nearly three weeks ago.

Coyne knew the risks of flooding, which forced him to evacuate his Main Street shop six times in the last 16 years. He thought his insurance policies, one of which has a deductible of $20,000, would protect him during a disaster.


But one policy, which covers lost business contents, isn't giving him a penny.

His flood insurance provider will cover structural damages, but his second policy will not cover lost contents because the losses were caused by a flood, leaving the owner, like others on Main Street, with little recourse.


"You pay your whole life thinking you are protected. But when push comes to shove, the cost is on me. Now, I question the value of having insurance at all," Coyne said.

Insurance woes are popping up along parts of old Ellicott City, where few Main Street businesses, faced with high premiums, bought flood insurance. And some that did buy flood insurance say insurance companies are reneging on their promises, shirking claims and offering limited coverage, leaving many small businesses unsure of how they will recover from uninsured losses that are in the thousands of dollars.

Deductibles are so high that, in some cases, it "is like having no insurance at all," said Tom Coale, vice president of the Ellicott City Partnership, a nonprofit that is managing recovery and distributing funds to cover uninsured losses.

New rates effective April last year shot premiums in flood-prone areas up by as much as 25 percent. In 2014, the average flood insurance policy premium was about $700 a year, but in flood-prone Ellicott City, premiums are higher and businesses frequently opt for higher deductibles to reduce yearly payments.

Many business owners at the county's disaster relief center over the last two weeks said they did not buy flood insurance policies because they were too expensive, said Tracy Imm, a director of public affairs for the Maryland Insurance Administration.

Flood insurance policies are purchased through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or through a handful of independent sellers. Rates are rising as the program struggles to absorb losses from storms like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.

The state agency, which has limited regulatory control over the federal flood insurance program, is working with impacted residents to file claims and plans to gather data on consumer's experiences with insurance companies.

Many business owners like Christopher and Amie McCaslin, of A La Mode Boutique, which opened in October, took a gamble.


Now, with an estimated $100,000 in total damages, the couple questions their decision.

"We thought we were high enough on the street," Christopher McCaslin said. "Our merchandise is four feet above the ground. A little bit of flooding wasn't going to hit us. And now, there's nothing left."

Other companies are denying claims for a special insurance called business interruption, which covers loss of income businesses suffer after a disaster.

Steven McDermott, owner of Southwest Connection and Fudge Shop, on Main Street for 27 years, said his insurance provider, Erie Insurance Group, denied coverage because the disaster and the state of emergency that followed was triggered by a flood, barring any coverage. Although McDermottsaid he did not buy flood insurance because it was too expensive, he bought business interruption insurance, which he found out does not include flooding.

"Nobody is getting anything. You pay your insurance and then you get nothing out of it." McDermott said. "If we had a fire or a flood or civil unrest or an earthquake, it's covered. But because it's a flood, we get nothing."

Robin Holliday, owner of HorseSpirits Gallery, a fine art gallery, said she has been duped by her flood insurance provider.


She said she purchased a policy that covers $150,000 in damages, but the company is only covering $2,500 for art damaged by the flood. Holliday said she filed a complaint with the state and hired a lawyer.

"I'm beyond upset with this on top of the trauma of losing the first floor of my gallery. You think you've hired someone to protect you. But they don't," said Holliday. "We're not going down without a fight."

Flood insurance problems should encourage the county to explore creating an affordable subsidy program for flood insurance, said Jon Sandler, owner of Lawyers Advantage Title Group on Main Street in old Ellicott City.

Sandler, who has flood insurance, said he is surprised many businesses in the town do not have flood insurance.

"It's crazy not to. It is expensive and the losers are the businesses," Sandler. "But the real loser is the community.… If you want Ellicott City to be a viable economic area where people invest, we have to think about this."

Coming back


Elected officials have touted the resilience of businesses and residents in old Ellicott City, paving the way for what Councilman Jon Weinstein called a "rebirth" of a town known for its community spirit and quaint shops.

But some wonder how many small businesses, crippled by financial hardship, uninsured losses and uncertainty on when normal business will resume, will come back.

McDermott of Southwest Connection and Fudge Shop said the future of his shop, his primary income source, is entirely unclear.

"We're now just trying to figure out where we can go from here. How can we survive any lengthy interruption of business?" he said. "We're taking it day-by-day, week-by-week."

High vacancy rates could attract low-caliber shops, said Coyne of Craig Coyne Jewelers, a shop that relies on high-end clientele.

Coyne said it will take a community effort over the next few months to bring back businesses struggling to survive.


"We all rely on each other so strongly. In Ellicott City, you don't go to one shop. You park at the top of the hill, you stroll through the town, grab a coffee, eat a chocolate and pick up earrings from somewhere else," Coyne said. "There's diversity here. That's why people come. That's what we have to preserve."

A committee created by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman to recommend how to distribute more than $500,000 in donations grappled with how to channel funds to those in need earlier this week. The committee aims to open an application process for grants by the end of August.

Two nonprofits, United Way and the Ellicott City Partnership, are collecting donations, but both organizations are limited in how they can distribute funds. United Way, for example, must use funds for humanitarian purposes while the partnership must distribute funds to ensure the vitality and strength of the historic district.

"We don't want to have utilized this relief fund and have an empty Main Street .. or have an empty West End," Coale said.

Recovery of Main Street's business area is poised to take months. As efforts continue, state Sen. Gail Bates said it was key to determine how to keep interest in the recovery alive.

"It's just natural that this just diminishes," Bates cautioned.


To file insurance complaints with the Maryland Insurance Administration, consumers should call 410-468-2340. The agency can review the terms and conditions of insurance policies to determine the level of coverage, Emm said.