GARDINER — The last two weeks of August were supposed to be festive ones for Sharon Geroux and her family, many members of which lived in her apartment building at 33 Spring St.

Geroux’s mother, who lived in one of the first-floor units, turned 80 on Aug. 14, and her aunt came from Florida to celebrate the milestone, with plans to stay for two weeks. And in Geroux’s first summer of gardening, her tomatoes were coming in beautifully.

Those high spirits ended on the morning of Aug. 15, when an electric fire started in Geroux’s mother’s bedroom. The family got out of the house and, for the next few hours, watched as firemen tore through its front walls and chased the flames.

Since then, Geroux, 56, has been staying in the Comfort Inn in Augusta with her husband, Richard, and her mother, Janice Brown. Insurance has been paying for their stays, but her grown daughter and her 16-year-old grandson didn’t have renter’s insurance policies and are staying with friends. A young family that rented one of Geroux’s units is staying with family members.

Geroux is thankful for the help that has been provided to her family by her homeowner’s insurance, the city of Gardiner, the American Red Cross, Reny’s and other groups in the wake of the mid-August fire. But Geroux is also growing exasperated with the process of working with insurance adjusters and the confinement of her temporary living situation.

“We’re living in a hotel,” she said. “It’s pretty horrible. … It’s been a big loss for me, especially when you’re all used to living together.”

Geroux expressed sadness about the things she and her family members lost in the fire and the uncertain future of their home. She grew up in the building, bought it from her parents, renovated it and, with an entrepreneurial spirit, converted one of its rooms into a hair salon.

Firefighters on the ground pull siding off a building as their colleague waits to spray down the flames that are exposed behind it on Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 33 Spring St. in Gardiner. Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

KNOW YOUR INSURANCE

If Geroux has learned anything from the crisis, she said, it’s the importance of knowing exactly what’s covered by homeowner’s insurance, as well as how inexpensive it can be to obtain renter’s insurance.

All told, she and her husband estimated they put more than $150,000 into the building, including $75,000 to buy it and at least $75,000 to convert it from a duplex to a four-unit apartment building around 15 years ago.

They now owe about $80,000 on their mortgage, which won’t be covered by their homeowner’s insurance policy. And they’re also concerned that their insurance company, Liberty Mutual, won’t pay the full costs to replace the home, because of the depreciation of its value.

“I like Liberty Mutual,” Geroux said, noting the company also has insured the family’s camper and car with no problems. “But I’m kind of miffed with them right now.”

The family members aren’t sure when they will be able to get a contractor to replace the building, or whether they even want to replace it. Geroux also said that she wishes she had purchased renter’s insurance for her daughter, Victoria Geroux, who lived there with her 16-year-old son, Tyrone Payne. They’re not covered by Geroux’s homeowner’s insurance and can’t afford to stay in hotels.

On Thursday, Glenn Greenberg, a spokesman for Liberty Mutual, said that the company can’t comment publicly on individual claims. However, he said a representative of the company would be contacting the Geroux family on Friday to discuss their concerns.

Erica Cioppa, superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Insurance, said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of Geroux’s home and insurance policy, but he agreed with her about the importance of periodically checking with insurance agents about what’s covered by a homeowner’s policy.

“Have they added anything to the house? Have they done any renovations?” he said, referring to changes that might not be covered in an old policy. “You don’t want to be underinsured. It’s important to stay on top of it, with renovation.”

Cioppa encouraged insurance customers to shop around for policies that might offer better coverage and to consider purchasing flood insurance. Damage from floods is not protected under homeowner’s insurance, a fact that’s all the more relevant following this week’s flooding in south Texas, Cioppa said.

Cioppa also agreed about the importance of buying renter’s insurance, calling it “very inexpensive” compared to the cost of homeowner’s insurance, and he warned renters against thinking they might be covered by their landlord’s insurance.

In most cases, a renters insurance policy with $20,000 in coverage and $100,000 in liability would likely cost between $10 and $15 per month, according to an administrator in Cioppa’s office.

Firefighters walk in the back entrance of a burning apartment building on Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 33 Spring St. in Gardiner. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

OTHER LOSSES

In addition to insurance money, Mayor Thom Harnett, of Gardiner, also has asked residents to consider donating to the town’s fire relief fund or donating supplies.

That fund was established in 2015, a year when two major fires happened in the city — one at a 28-unit senior apartment complex on Highland Avenue and another downtown on Water Street. Its balance now stands around $10,300, Harnett said earlier this week.

Harnett, who visited the Geroux family after the fire, said donations from the fire fund can help victims immediately after a fire. It also can help them weeks and months later, as the victims try to get back on their feet.

“Their world is changed in an instant,” he said of fire victims.

In this instance, Harnett said, money from the fund helped to pay for temporary housing for those victims who didn’t have insurance to cover that.

Whatever support comes to the Geroux family from the city and other groups, it won’t be able to replace everything.

Two cats who lived in the building died in the fire, which was caused when a surge protector that was sending power to a television overheated. Geroux made crafts and said that hundreds of dollars worth of textiles were destroyed. And she’s worried she won’t be able to water the vegetables she planted in buckets outside her home, hoping to can them before winter.

Another loss that’s reverberated with Geroux is the handmade ornaments that hung on a Christmas tree she kept up all year in her bedroom. They were made with cotton balls, fabrics and other materials, and after flames swept through the home, they were covered in soot.

“All the ornaments were handmade by me, or by kids, or my clients,” Geroux said. “I can’t replace them, and they’re not cleanable.”

Besides urging people to review the terms of their insurance policies, Geroux suggested inspecting their surge protectors and other wiring. But she also said there were no obvious problems with the protector that overheated in her mother’s room on Aug. 15, starting the fire that climbed up the walls.

“You buy that to protect you,” she said of the power strip. “You don’t expect it to burn your house, but they do.”

Those who wish to help the fire victims may donate to the Fire Relief Fund, either by dropping off a check at Gardiner City Hall or mailing it to the United Way of Kennebec Valley at 121 Commercial St., Augusta, ME, 04330. The city has pledged that all proceeds will go to the fire victims, Harnett said.

An online fundraiser also has been started for the Geroux family on the website GoFundMe. Harnett, though, cautioned that the website does deduct fees from those donations. According to GoFundMe, the service takes 7.9 percent in fees from personal fundraising campaigns.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

 

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