Ten days after Hurricane Ida, Brooke Henderson found herself weeping at her backyard burn pit in Chester County, watching most of her first hemp crop billow up in white smoke like a big bong.
Ida dumped seven inches of water over many hours on Sept. 1, 2021. But disaster for Brooke and Glen Henderson struck within the first 30 minutes when an overwhelmed septic system spewed hundreds of gallons of sewage into the couple’s basement, contaminating the 340 pounds of hemp drying in bins and personal belongings, as well as bowing the basement wall.
“I had just lost everything. I was working and crying for days,” Henderson said after watching her he
mp crop go up in smoke on her four-acre Cochranville property.
Ida may be a weather footnote from last summer for many. But for homeowners such as the Hendersons, the storm marked just the beginning of a trench battle with the insurance industry that painfully lingers — in the Hendersons’ situation, with the added heartbreak of watching sewage destroy their first commercial crop.
There are no hard figures on how many families and individuals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are still dealing with Ida claims and repairs. But eight months after the deluge, upset homeowners are not hard to find.
David Buono, deputy commissioner of the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, ran into about 50 local residents with Ida-damaged properties at a town hall meeting in Upper Dublin on May 5. Some of them also wept while recounting hard negotiations with insurers that haven’t paid claims, or had cut damage estimates dramatically.
Buono implored them to file complaints with his state agency.
Families lost houses, roofs, antiques, rugs and heirlooms in a swath of devastation from Ida after the hurricane came ashore Aug. 29 in Louisiana with 150-mph winds and spun northward, kicking up tornadoes. The storm caused $65 billion in damage, according to Christian Aid, a U.K. group that tracks damage caused by climate change.
In Southeastern Pennsylvania, Ida destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and caused more than $100 million in public infrastructure damage across the state, officials said a week after the storm. Storm waters covered Main Street in Manayunk and the Vine Street Expressway in Center City. It flooded the lower level of the fabled Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford and wrecked the Pickering West water treatment plant near Phoenixville, nearly causing a drinking-water catastrophe for Philly’s suburbs.
Totaling up the storm’s damage
Brooke Henderson had harvested the hemp crop — which can be processed into thousands of products including food, textiles, construction materials, oils, and the dietary supplement CBD — days before the storm. And it was drying in bins in their basement when Ida hit.
The couple estimated their total Ida damage at about $198,000, including the $80,000 in lost hemp. Donegal Mutual Insurance Group cut the claim to $105,000, both sides say in court papers. And so far, the firm has paid only $25,600.
The insurance firm said it had to pay only $10,000 of the just-harvested crop, based on policy provisions on business income. Given the payment, the Hendersons consider their loss on the hemp to be at least $70,000.
Donegal also said that a crack in the basement wall existed before Ida and was not covered. The Hendersons recently bought the house and had it inspected. An inspector for a mortgage on the house did not find a crack, their lawyer said.
“Now I’m numb because it’s become such a contentious part of our life,” Brooke said of the unsettled claims.
Brooke, 40, and Glen, 33, an auto body technician, sued Donegal in January in Chester County Common Pleas Court after the insurer’s repeated requests for information and inspections. They now refuse to allow Donegal back into their home. “It became unbearable to work with Donegal,” Brooke said.
Lawyers for Marietta, Pa.-based Donegal have responded to the couple’s suit with a court filing, but did not answer an email and phone calls seeking comment.
Early in the claims process, Donegal asked for a list of contaminated personal belongings in the basement: guitars, a drum set and electronics from Glen’s band days, along with vintage video games, a pottery kiln and wheel, furniture, rugs, and a train set. The Hendersons estimated the loss at $36,000 just for those items.
Donegal sent a rehabber to the Henderson home to see whether some of the electronics could be repaired instead of replaced.
Donegal has not shared the rehabber’s report and hasn’t paid the claim for the belongings in the basement, the Hendersons said. Donegal said in court documents that it’s “still in dispute” because the insurance firm needs to conduct an additional inspection.
To repair the home’s structure and septic system, the Hendersons estimated $8,500 in repairs to the septic line, $10,800 for the interior basement wall, and almost $50,000 for the home’s exterior wall damage, based on a contractor’s estimates.
Shortly after Ida, Donegal contracted with a forensic engineer to evaluate the Hendersons’ cinder block basement wall that bowed under pressure from the backed-up septic system. The forensic engineer didn’t do tests. Based on observations, he concluded in a 76-page report with photos that “the presence of caulk and cobwebs in the cracks [in the basement] is consistent with the wall having previously been cracked.”
Donegal argued in court papers that because the crack apparently existed before Ida, the related damage was not covered.
But the Hendersons had the 3,800-square-foot house inspected for a mortgage in 2019 when they bought it for $350,000, Glen said.
Matthew J. Bilker, the Hendersons’ lawyer, said he reviewed the house inspector’s report for the mortgage and there was no mention of cracks. “A crack in the foundation would have been a red flag,” he said.
For the $25,600 that Donegal paid for Ida damage, the payments broke down this way: $10,000 for lost hemp, and $15,600 for property damage and septic line repair.
Bilker said that nearly all the $15,600 paid off emergency contractors who pumped the Hendersons’ septic tank and cleaned out the sewage-filled basement. The couple “did not get paid for any losses they sustained,” he said.
The Hendersons said they need the claim straightened out. One side of the basement is temporarily buttressed by wood supports that Glen nailed together.
And it’s a new hemp season. The couple, who have three children, bought the house in what Brooke calls “God’s country” in western Chester County because they wanted to farm the property.
Pennsylvania started regulating commercial hemp growing in 2018 after the federal government lifted a decades-long ban. Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plants. But hemp contains 0.03% or less of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Today there are about 85 licensed hemp growers and processors in the Philadelphia region, based on 2021 data, and 328 throughout the state.
In 2020, the Hendersons bought a John Deere tractor and filed for a hemp license with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The state issued the Hendersons a hemp permit that May and Brooke and Glen considered the 2020 season a test run.
Brooke, who was raised in Sussex County, Delaware, and attended Delaware Technical Community College in Dover for architectural engineering, designed kitchens, and worked at Lowe’s and a granite countertop business. She also had been prescribed medical marijuana for pain from a car accident, leading to a decision to farm hemp.
Brooke harvested parts of her second and third crops after Ida. She dried and cured the hemp in a temporary storage container. She has processed these into CBG and CBD gummies, extracts, pet treats and topicals that she sells through her web site, www.naturalblhend.com — which claims to offer “hemp flower organically grown from our farm to your door!”
In 2021, she vastly expanded her crop by planting 4,000 hemp seedlings on 2.2 acres. She harvested 1,300 plants in mid-August — just before the storm — and stored them in the basement. “We were looking toward getting to the end of the rainbow,” Brooke said.
Instead of a rainbow, Ida’s storm clouds appeared.
Brooke and Glen recently drove back from the Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival in Kutztown. They spoke on the phone from a restaurant. Said Brooke, “We are moving into a new growing season and we have not moved on.”
Brooke said they will likely plant fewer seedlings this year and develop new arrangements for drying and curing the hemp. They won’t use the basement.