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November 16, 2012

Lawyer rebuilding after flood ravaged house

By JOE MAHONEY
The Daily Star

---- — After Hurricane Irene slammed upstate New York last year, damaging thousands of homes and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, the image that endured from the disaster was a yellow and white Victorian home on Main Street in Prattsville that had been knocked from its foundation.

Left standing but tilted and hunched like an overmatched prize fighter clinging to the ropes after being hit too many times on the jaw, the house, owned by local lawyer David Rikard, became a symbol of the devastation wrought by what record experts branded a 500-year flood event.

One well-known artist of Americana, Robert Cepale, even conceived a painting of Rikard's house, coming up with a rendering that made it appear to be a sort of Noah's Ark wobbling atop a surge of water that gushed along Main Street during the storm.

Deemed to be a danger to the public, the house was condemned. A wrecking crew demolished it a day after Thanksgiving last year. Rikard still owns the now empty lot on the site where the house had been the office for his law practice. He said he thought about his options — and considered them again and again.

With Prattsville sitting on the western edge of the New York City's watershed region, Rikard, 54, said he concluded that there would be no guarantees that such a disaster could not happen again.

"As one guy here in town says, he should be 1,500 years old, because in the past 10 years he's lived through three 500-year floods," Rikard said.

Fortunate enough to have acquired flood insurance well in advance of Irene's arrival, Rikard could have collected on the policy and simply moved to higher ground. But after all his deliberations and after talking to his clients and neighbors, he said that he decided there was only one place where he wanted to continue his work: Prattsville.

Ground was broken on a new office this week.

It will be built on the same spot where the yellow and white Victorian had been swooshed off its spot.

"The community gave me a strong indication that they were very interested in seeing my office and practice return here," said the Prattsville native, who has a home in the hamlet of Johnson Hollow, in Roxbury. "We service the whole mountaintop area here."

The building that will be constructed in Prattsville will have both office space and a residential unit, and Rikard said he hasn't ruled out living there himself.

The new building, by design, will be less prone to flooding, he said. "We have to be eight feet up from the grade to be in compliance with FEMA regulations," he noted.

After the loss of his building in the flood, Rikard said his frustration was greatly compounded by his interactions with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. He said his losses ended up being deemed eligible for only a fraction of FEMA's maximum $30,000 award. The lawyer said agency staffers often acted in what he called "an arbitrary and capricious manner," with responses from one official to another often being contradictory.

He said he was going to speak about his experiences in dealing with FEMA later Wednesday in a talk to members of the New York State Bar Association, at a training forum aimed at raising awareness about the legal needs of those New Yorkers struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

"You have to keep pushing and pushing when you deal with FEMA," he said. "They rely on half-information. I tell everybody that you have to make sure you know who you are talking to and make sure you record every conversation."

With federal bureaucrats and independent contractors hired by the agency staying in expensive hotels and charging their meals at restaurants to government expense accounts, Rikard said that he questions whether government resources were put to the best use in the response to Hurricane Sandy.

Kevin Piccoli, an accountant who oversees the Prattsville Development Corp., which was formed to rebuild the town, said only a handful of residents became so discouraged by the flooding-related damaged that they decided to give up on the community.

He said state officials are expected to approve up to $1 million in funds to help businesses and homeowners get back on their feet. "Everyone was a little nervous when Sandy came around, but the mood is good now." he said. "People are focused on rebuilding and we keep pushing along those lines.

Prattsville Town Supervisor Kory O'Hara said he and other town residents were delighted when Rikard opted to build anew on the spot where the Victorian had stood.

"It's a positive picture in Prattsville," he said.