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Rep. Owens visits Potsdam to view rebuilding efforts

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POTSDAM — U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, visited the village Monday to meet with local officials and see the extent of the damage caused by the storm that ripped through Potsdam on July 17.

There wasn’t much to see, as the most extensive damage was cleaned up within days after the storm. Now the focus is on restoring buildings that have been temporarily condemned and obtaining funds to help business owners and residents rebuild.

These funds likely will not come from the federal government, according to Mr. Owens. Although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency for St. Lawrence County on July 19, the damage was not extensive enough for the village to qualify for loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

During the tour, Mayor Stephen W. Yurgartis, Village Administrator David H. Fenton and other officials took Mr. Owens into Sergi’s Italian Restaurant, 10 Market St., to see reconstruction efforts.

Sergi’s roof was destroyed during the storm, causing extensive damage to the restaurant. The debris has been removed, and the walls, ceiling and floor stripped bare to prepare for reconstruction.

Mr. Owens compared the storm to other unusual weather disasters that have been affecting the region and the country over the last year, such as spring flooding, hurricanes and this summer’s nationwide drought.

“We’ve got a lot of things happening in nature that are really affecting local municipalities,” he said. “This climate change, it’s affecting much more than concepts; it’s affecting actual people.”

The county is taking steps to ensure responses to future disasters are as well-organized as possible, said Joseph M. Gilbert, director of the St. Lawrence County Department of Emergency Services. Severe weather warnings will be sent to firefighters and other emergency responders to give them time to prepare.

Now that the damage no longer poses a safety risk, most of the responsibility for the cost of reconstruction lies with affected property owners.

Sergi’s has been condemned temporarily, as has the top floor of 1 Maple St. and a sorority building on Maple Street. Although businesses took the hardest hits, 49 residential properties in the village were damaged by falling objects during the storm.

All of the affected buildings were insured, according to Planning and Development Director Frederick J. Hanss, but it is still uncertain what expenses this insurance will actually cover.

“They all have insurance, but whether it’s proper or adequate is the question right now,” he said.

For those whose insurance does not cover the full costs of the damage, there are funding options available. The Small Business Administration has low-interest loans available to business owners whose insurance covers less than 40 percent of the damage. Representatives of the SBA will be meeting with local officials today to provide more information on the loan process.

The state Office of Community Renewal also has funds available for anyone in the county whose property was damaged by the storm.

Meanwhile, Potsdam’s property owners are looking to open their doors again as soon as possible.

“Most of them have obtained an engineer to create an assessment for them, and the engineer will come up with a remedy for the building,” Potsdam Code Enforcement Officer Andrew Martin said. Renovation plans for Sergi’s and the Delta Zeta sorority house already have been submitted to the code enforcement office and are awaiting approval.

“The business owners here aren’t waiting for that loan to come through; they’re not waiting for that grant. They’re getting down to business,” Mr. Gilbert said.

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