WILMINGTON- Al Wurzberger, 74, stood in the 1836 Country Store, a business he has owned for over 40 years, and asked me to put my hand on my head.
“That’s the water line.”
Wurzberger’s business, like so many others in town, was decimated by the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. An empty lot across the street stands as eerie testimony to the flood; it is the former site of the Ann Coleman Gallery, which was swept away by rising waters.
And next door, the Norton House, the rambling quilt store owned by Wurzberger’s wife Sue, also bears the scars of Irene. Its 18th-century wallpaper and original newspaper insulation were destroyed in a matter of hours.
Wurzberger describes the aftermath of the storm, when he entered the 1836 Country Store to discover his merchandise heaped in mounds and a foot-deep layer of mud covering the entire floor. That damage represented more than $100,000 worth of destruction. Twenty -thousand dollars would be spent drying out the interior of the building, $50,000 would go toward new wiring, and $12,000 would replace the floor.
But among the wreckage Wurzberger also discovered an altruistic crowd of volunteers piling debris into trash containers and removing ruined boards from the walls and floors. “Somebody came up to me, handed me a hammer, and said, ‘Go pry the wood off the wall.’ He had no idea who I was.”
Without those volunteers, Wurzberger says, and without the help of the town of Wilmington, which supplied the trash containers, the 1836 Country Store and the Norton House wouldn’t be open today. Wurzberger estimates that the active presence of volunteers saved him and his wife nearly $50,000 in labor costs.
But the real problem posed by Irene involved inventory, the lifeblood of any retail business. In addition to crippling the building, the storm also destroyed $95,000 worth of goods, ranging from cheese to cuckoo clocks, in the 1836 Country Store. Sue and Al Wurzberger drained their retirement savings in order to bring their businesses
back and make sure that their life’s work would not be reduced to rotting piles of rubble.
Wurzberger had hoped to rely on the FEMA-managed National Flood Insurance Program for help. Through the federal program, he had purchased $50,000 of flood insurance, long before Tropical Storm Irene.
Five and a half months after Irene struck Wilmington, however, he is still waiting to be fully reimbursed. “The flood insurance program is a catastrophe, at best it’s a farce,” he says.
Wurzberger has spent the past months cataloging all of his destroyed merchandise in “proof of loss” forms, yet he still waits for help from the program.
“Auditors need to substantiate where damage is coming from,” says Regina Werner of the Richards Group, an insurance company handling a backlog of claims in Wilmington. “It took them a while to get here, and by the time they arrived in Wilmington, a lot of the property was gone.”
The property in question? The destroyed goods loaded by volunteers and the National Guard into dumpsters in the days following Irene. The only evidence that auditors had to rely on were pictures of the damage.
The problem that the Wurzbergers now face is proving that their destroyed merchandise ever actually existed. Only then will they receive the full amount that their insurance covered. In addition, the National Flood Insurance Program requires records of all purchases and sales from 2010 and 2011. As a result, Wurzberger is swamped
with paperwork and faces the challenge of cataloging goods that he accumulated over the course of 40 years. Piles of records only scratch the surface of the arduous process ahead.
“How do you account for all the widgets? How do you account for all the needles and thimbles and spare parts?”
While waiting for a resolution from the Flood Insurance Program, Wurzberger has relied on the good will of his neighbors and the generosity of nearby business owners to get the 1836 Country Store up and running again. With their help, the store was able to return to business.
Lumber from a Greenfield, MA, sawmill constitutes the new floor and walls, and a steeply-discounted candy case now graces the back of the store. Wurzberger also managed to purchase two new cash registers along with cheese scales, a cutting board, and knives that he uses to slice enormous hunks of for-sale cheddar cheese.
For now, the 1836 Country Store and the Norton House are surviving. The Wurzbergers hope that their grievances with the National Flood Insurance Program will soon be resolved, but they expect that the process will continue to pose new challenges. Five and a half months after the flood, they can still use whatever help they can get.