In Oceanside, painful insurance lesson on basements

Gale Bartolo stands in what was once her

Gale Bartolo stands in what was once her split-level apartment, which will not be covered by her insurance company because they classify it as a basement. (Nov. 26, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

Of all the caveats tucked into flood insurance policies, none strikes more frustration and fear along storm-weary Elaine Drive in Oceanside than the one about basements.

The quiet lane, overlooking an arm of Hempstead Bay, is lined with matching high-ranch homes, with the first floors built a few steps below street level. Before Sandy hit, most residents never thought of those lower levels as basements. They were fully furnished with dens, kitchens, bedrooms and so on.

Now they have been deluged by the storm. And residents said they are being told by insurance adjusters that their partially below-grade rooms all potentially fall into a single category: basements.

That's a crucial distinction. Somewhere in the legalese of nearly every flood insurance policy is a clause saying homeowners aren't covered for furniture, rugs and a litany of other things damaged in a basement.

"This isn't a basement," said Gale Bartolo, 62, standing on the remains of her kitchen floor, about 2 feet below the level of her front yard. "We are more than half above ground."

Day by day, Sandy is teaching Long Islanders painful insurance lessons. Many have never before filed a claim. And for many who stored items in the cellar, converted a furnace room into a den or had a sunken living room, the basement clause is yet another cold, wet shock.

Only the federal government, through the National Flood Insurance Program, covers damage from storm surges; regular homeowner policies cover damage from say, wind, but not flooding.

Flood policies define a basement as any room whose floor is "below grade on all sides." In other words, if the ground level outside is higher than the floor within -- even by an inch -- it is a basement in the eyes of the adjusters.

Coverage, consequently, is limited. Flood insurance only pays to fix essential structural elements and a few major appliances in basements, including foundations, furnaces, washers and dryers. It does not cover furniture, carpeting and the majority of appliances, according to Joe Cecil of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the National Flood Insurance Program.

That could be hard to swallow on Elaine Drive. The two-block street is lined with houses built in the late 1950s and early 1960s with nearly identical floor plans. Dozens of the homes dot surrounding blocks. All of the first floors are partially below grade, neighbors said.

But residents contend they were never considered "basements."

"Not one place does it say basement," said Angelo Gerbasio, 68, waving a copy of the original floor plan for his home. He walked through the remains of his first floor, recalling what he lost: a leather couch, a projection television, an upright piano and more.

"Everything is gone," Gerbasio said.

As they wait to hear from adjusters, FEMA spokesman John Mills suggested homeowners apply for disaster aid and read their policies carefully.

Such advice doesn't satisfy some homeowners. "What's the point of having insurance?" said Seth Oberstein, 48. "I pay my premiums. Now I have nothing."

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