I’m no legal expert. But when I hear “act of God,” I think about hurricanes and tornadoes, Noah-level floods, plagues of locusts, stuff like that. Especially here in New Hampshire, snow and cold temperatures don’t strike me as an act of God. More like the cold hard latitude and longitude of living in the northeast. We prepare for it. Taxpayers allow for it when it comes to footing the bill for things like buying a year’s worth of road salt, or setting aside enough money to pay plow drivers overtime during a snow storm.
So when a city-owned “very old” underground water main failed on January 7, causing the “largest water main break in 30 years,” according to the city’s Public Works department, I needed to double-check the legal definition of act of God against my own understanding.
Not for myself.
For Sally Dreckmann, who lives on East High Street – just downstream of the failed water main on Jane Street. When that water main burst, residents in the area were forced to evacuate from 45 surrounding buildings.
Three cars were left partially submerged in the salty flood waters. They belonged to Sally’s mother, daughter and son.
Sally says she saw Mayor Joyce Craig on WMUR that night who said, “Anything I can do and City Hall representatives can do, we are here to help.” It gave her hope.
Sally called the mayor’s office, who told her to call the city solicitor’s office, where Attorney Kevin O’Neill told her she was out of luck.
“He told me it was an act of God, and the city wouldn’t help me,” recalls Sally. “And he wasn’t very pleasant about it.”
She spoke to Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur a week after the catastrophe. He made a point of bringing it up during the Jan. 16 aldermanic meeting. He asked City Solicitor Emily Rice if the city could help out residents who lost their cars in the residual flooding that resulted from the water main break.
Rice reaffirmed the city’s immunity from liability, and said something about looking at claims case by case. That shouldn’t be too hard, given that Sally is the only resident who lost cars to the water main flood.
I’m no insurance expert, but I know that big cities like Manchester carry insurance to cover life’s unexpected hazards. You pay money to the insurance company for a policy and hope you never need it. But when something goes wrong, you’re covered. Usually you can file a claim and get reimbursed for damages. According to the 2017 budget book the city paid $668,342 in casualty and general liability insurance last year. I’d like to think that for the more than half a million bucks of taxpayer money invested in insurance policies, the city could find a way to make things right for Sally and her family.
“I’m not asking for a million dollars, or to be better off than we were before the flood. I just want to be whole again,” Sally told me.
I asked her what she meant by that. She explained that her son’s 2012 Dodge Caliper was totaled. State Farm offered him $7,500 after his $100 deductible, leaving him with $632.41 left in payments to make. His rental that the insurance company allowed him runs out on Jan. 22, leaving him with no way to get to work in Merrimack.
“He’s only had it 11 months. The way I see it, the city could cover the 11 payments of $240 that were for nothing now,” Sally says. “Because he could have used his car as a trade-in for a new car, like he did when he bought the Dodge, but now he has no car to trade in. He’s got nothing to work with,” Sally said.
Her mom’s 2014 Kia was also totaled. She isn’t sure yet what the insurance company will pay after the $100 comprehensive deductible. They’re still waiting to hear. Her daughter’s 2013 GMC Terrain is repairable, after a $500 deductible.
“They say they will check the engine today. There’s still standing water in it. All the carpets and seats will have to be replaced,” Sally said on Thursday. “I could see if she was in an accident or something, but I don’t think it’s right she has to pay the deductible. This wasn’t her fault.”
Sally has renter’s insurance, but unless her cars were parked inside her apartment, there’s no coverage.
After doing the math Sally quickly realized that, even though all three vehicles were covered by insurance, the fuzzy math that goes along with insurance claims would leave them somewhere between up the creek without a paddle, and high and dry.
She also mentioned that there was one other car on the street, a white car with an orange sticker placed on it by police, for being illegally parked there. Right in front of the storm drain.
“It has been there like that through three snow storms, but never towed,” Sally told me.
Seems like the city should have towed that car and cleared that drain. Maybe that would have helped. It would have required not an act of God, but a simple act of towing, which is in the city’s budget.
Anyway, when I looked up “act of God,” I found the dictionary definition seems to align with my own understanding:
“An event that directly and exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution; an inevitable accident. Courts have recognized various events as act of God – tornadoes, earthquakes, death, extraordinarily high tides, violent winds, and floods. Many insurance policies for property damage exclude from their protection damage caused by acts of God.”
I’m no infrastructure expert, but the city has been methodically replacing its network of underground pipes for years because they know they have 500 miles of pipes – much of which are a wing and a prayer – or a cold snap – away from failing. Fire Chief Dan Goonan even told WMUR that one reason the flooding was so bad was that the city at first couldn’t find the shut off valve. And once they found it, they discovered it was frozen.
The “exercise of foresight and caution,” in my book, sounds like part of the painstaking process that a city like Manchester undertakes when it invests millions of dollars over time to replace a crumbling underground pipe system because they know it’s necessary.
Unless God was in charge of maintenance, I’d say the city is responsible for what happened to the Jane Street water main on Jan. 7. I know Sally Dreckmann isn’t responsible.
Sally, whom I first met while covering Central Little League several years ago, is a team player. She’s been hardworking her whole life – in fact, she worked so hard that she got to retire after 20 years of service with Manchester Police Department’s traffic division.
She hates to complain. But she was expecting something more from the city, her former employer if you will, after being told two of the family’s three vehicles were a total loss.
So she called me.
I think Sally’s got a point. I also get that the city doesn’t want to foot the bill.
I’m no bleeding heart, but if the city doesn’t have $6,000 in a snowy-day flood fund tucked away in its $315 million annual budget, and Oprah isn’t offering to give away three more cars, I’ve done some creative math which might help.
If the city’s 165 top-salaried earners who all make six-figures chipped in just $36.36 cents each, Sally would have her $6,000. Or if the city’s 1,260 or so employees wanted to be magnanimous and help out one of their own fellow former city workers, they could pony up less than $5 each – the equivalent of a Starbuck’s Teavana Oprah Cinnamon Tea Latte.
I’m no theologian, but I know an act of God from a municipal malfunction. The city should, too.