In Misquamicut, insurance woes, temporary structures linger a year after Sandy

Contractors raise 109 Atlantic Ave. in Westerly Monday. The property was damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
Contractors raise 109 Atlantic Ave. in Westerly Monday. The property was damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Westerly - One year after Superstorm Sandy sent torrents of water smashing through Misquamicut Beach, the shattered buildings and pyramids of sand that once dotted the landscape here are only memories, but insurance issues stubbornly remain.

"It's craziness," Deborah Stebenne, owner of the 10-room Sea Shell Motel on Winnapaug Road, said Monday. "The wind insurance company says the water did it, and the water insurance company says the wind did it. Nobody wants to pay."

Stebenne said she is suing both of her insurance companies, Travelers and Lloyd's of London, in an attempt to get someone to pay. Meanwhile, her insurance rates were just jacked up by 35 percent, she said.

Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce, reported one insurance company that offered policies to 11 different businesses in Misquamicut has failed to pay off on any of its obligations.

"People are going to court," she said. "These are responsible people who did the right thing and thought they were adequately insured."

Stebenne said she had to tap into credit cards and received help from the chamber - which raised more than $400,000 to spur rebuilding in Misquamicut - to get her water-soaked motel back in operation by May. Konicki said other businesses have been forced to do the same and, despite the obstacles, came back last summer with better facilities and an improved product.

"We rallied, but we couldn't have done it if the community hadn't responded," Konicki said. "That's what distinguished Westerly from other communities."

That's not to say Misquamicut doesn't contain reminders of the devastation that Sandy wrought. A few seaside residences that look like hollowed shells could be spied Monday along Misquamicut's main drag of Atlantic Avenue, and several homes and businesses are still undergoing structural repairs or complete reconstructions that will jack up their heights to at least 12 feet above ground level - 15 feet if they want better insurance rates.

Brian Tefft, co-owner of South County Steel, who was working on a beachfront residence Monday, said his company has been getting steady work in Misquamicut and elsewhere installing beams required to boost the heights of both private houses and commercial buildings. South County Steel previously worked on a new hotel going up on Atlantic Avenue.

"It's been good for business," said Josh Tefft, a welder and fabricator for the company.

While most of Misquamicut's businesses were up and running last summer, a few might not be ready until 2015. Other businesses, once housed in permanent structures, were converted to mobile units or tented facilities that might remain next summer as well.

According to Caswell Cooke Jr., president of the Misquamicut Beach Association and a town councilor, only one business in the area failed to maintain some kind of presence in the area after succumbing to Sandy's wrath.

"This year, we returned to about 90 percent," Cooke said. "There was a lot of forced renovation. It was better than you remembered it."

The one business that shuttered its doors all summer, Maria's Seaside Cafe at the corner of Montauk and Atlantic avenues, probably won't return for another year and a half, said operator John Bellone. And, when it returns, the restaurant will likely be significantly smaller - about a third of the 150 seats it once contained - while the new building is expected to expand the facility's lodging capacity to as many as 20 rooms, compared with the five suites it currently houses.

"We chose not to reopen or rebuild," said Bellone, who also operates, along with his parents, Nicola and Maria Bellone, the Breezeway Resort on Winnapaug Road. "We wanted to rethink the business."

Another lodging facility destroyed last year, the 24-room Andrea Hotel run by the Colucci family since 1946, no longer graces its familiar seaside perch. Instead, owner Michelle Colucci Pinto decided to erect a tented outdoor restaurant that operated successfully through Columbus Day weekend, the only reminder of the old hotel being the distinctive stone fireplace that remained a focal point of the property.

Pinto could not be reached to comment, but Cooke confirmed that the Andrea Hotel's planned 2014 reopening could be delayed for another year as the family decides how to proceed after receiving an insurance settlement that won't begin to cover the cost of rebuilding. Meanwhile, the Andrea Seaside Restaurant and Beach Bar, though closed for the season, remains a physical reminder of where the hotel once stood.

Two other established businesses that once had prominent structures on the beach along Atlantic Avenue, Sam's Snack Bar and Little Mermaid, were forced to reopen as mobile restaurants last summer because it would have been too costly to rebuild under new codes. The mobile reminders of these longtime businesses were embraced by the community, officials said, though a few copycat food purveyors that came in with similar plans have been cause for concern.

Konicki, the chamber executive, said a new ordinance might be proposed to the City Council in the next few months to address the issue.

"What we don't want to have is a trailer city in Misquamicut," Konicki said. "It just had a honky-tonk feeling."

Normand Dufresne, owner of Sam's Snack Bar, who gave accolades to Konicki for her leadership in helping Misquamicut recover, said he is optimistic about his business's future, though he estimates sales were down 35 percent last summer over the previous year. Most of those losses resulted from opening later in the season than usual, but Dufresne said losing 22 parking spaces and having to relocate behind a huge sand dune also cut into his business.

"Missing a month and a half at the beginning took the wind out of our sails," he said. "It was my first down year in 30 years."

Several Misquamicut businesses were in similar straits because of extensive repairs that had to be completed in time for the high season of Memorial Day through Labor Day. But not everyone reported lower sales; Cooke said the Seafood Haven that he operates on Atlantic Avenue saw a 10 percent boost in sales last summer.

Rinette Ouellette, manager of the Newland Motel and Apartments on Winnapaug Road, pointed out another problem specific to room-rental businesses: Because they took reservations that couldn't be fulfilled because the area was under several feet of water, lodging establishments honored those prepaid commitments this year, resulting in a loss of potential income.

Chamber leader Konicki said one fallout of Superstorm Sandy is that Misquamicut business people have had to plan for streamlined, simplified operations.

"Without the overhead, they could rethink things going forward," Konicki said.

But Konicki pointed out that visitation numbers at Misquamicut State Beach - second highest in the state at more than 213,000 - were a concern last summer.

The Providence Journal reported that visits to Rhode Island state beaches were down 21 percent last year compared to the numbers seen in 2012. Officials blamed the downturn mostly on the weather - rainy in the early part of the season and scaldingly hot in July - but Konicki said Misquamicut business people also suspected that the state's decision to raise parking fees the year before had something to do with a loss of visitors.

One visitor to Misquamicut, Bill Prodouz of Pocasset, Mass., who was in town Monday for the annual Tri-State Catch and Release Tournament, said as he was packing up his fishing gear at the Sea Shell Motel that the area looks different than it did when he last stayed overnight one week before last year's storm.

"It's hard to get your bearings," he smiled. "There's a lot more buildings on stilts. ... It's good to see it built back up."

For Atlantic Avenue homeowners Tom and Arlene DeChesser, whose basement was largely washed away during last year's Oct. 29 storm, the cleanup was the worst part - not to mention $7,000 paid to contractors for the removal of sand from their property. It took about half a year to reclaim their home from the effects of Sandy, and insurance paid only about 80 percent of the costs.

Among the items lost: Tom's cherished Boy Scout hatchet dating to 1946.

"It was a long road," said DeChesser, who has owned his home for 36 years. "I never thought we'd find the end of it."

The DeChessers, who were out of town during the storm, reported that volunteers who came to help out from throughout the state were a godsend, at one point handing out sandwiches to residents.

"A disaster like that brings out the goodness in people," Arlene said. "I don't know what we would have done it without their help."

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