Roof leaks are legacy of snow, icy gutters Repair firms, insurers are flooded with calls

January 18, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Sharon Psalmonds can finally put away the trash can and plastic bucket that were catching the leaking water in her second-floor back room. A roofing contractor plugged the leak in her Bayview home yesterday as the sun shone and temperatures rose to near 50 degrees.

But the East Baltimore resident was among the lucky few. Thousands of other area residents will wait weeks -- perhaps months -- for repairs as ice and snow continue to block their rain gutters and the backlogs of contractors and insurance adjusters grow.

"We can't get people down the alleys or into the yards to even see what's wrong. I have between 140 and 150 calls waiting," said Mike Ferren, manager of ABC Roofers in Southwest Baltimore.

Roofers are hoping that the rain forecast for today and tomorrow will combine with above-freezing temperatures to melt the source of so many problems -- ice dams blocking rain gutters.

The ice blocks the water created by snow that melts from the warmth of a house, leaving nowhere for it to go but under shingles and through the roof, Mr. Ferren said.

"Until the ice melts, there's nothing we can do about it. It's capillary action. The warmth sucks the water inside the house," he said

He recommends some first aid for homes with ceiling leaks -- using an ice pick or screwdriver to punch a small hole in the ceiling where a leak appears, giving water one place to go and catching it in a container below.

The hole will be easy to repair -- much easier than dealing with a collapsed ceiling that could result from attempts to plug a leak, he said.

Water always follows the easiest path, Mr. Ferren said. "The water will flow into the plaster, which sucks it up like a sponge, and the ceiling will collapse."

Ms. Psalmonds said her roofer recommended punching such holes before the crew arrived, and it worked. "That relieved the pressure and it looks like it's drying up."

Robert Helsley -- a Maryland Institute, College of Art instructor -- also was lucky. After hearing an ominous "drip, drip, drip," he was able to rescue a valuable 1927 French luxury train poster with only minor water damage, and dry it under the living room rug. "I can have it restored," he said.

Mr. Helsley said discovery of the leak also prompted him to "risk my neck" -- climbing out onto the mansard roof of his North Carey Street house to poke open ice-clogged drains with a broom handle. The leak -- caused by ice pressure rupturing a galvanized drain gutter -- not only soaked part of the poster, but caused damage on three floors of the house.

For Barbara Hill of Maple Avenue in the Hyde Park section of eastern Baltimore County, the sound of cracking metal was followed by the crash of aluminum awning over her patio, 26 feet by 10 feet.

"Fortunately," she said, "we haven't had any leaks, but we have to wait for the insurance company before we do anything."

The first of an anticipated flood of claims for storm damage are starting to reach insurance offices. Bill Gilmartin, senior vice president of RCM&D in Towson, said the agency had received five commercial claims and 35 to 40 residential complaints, "but there is more to come with the thawing and refreezing."

Bill Ballinger, spokesman for Allstate Insurance Co.'s regional office in Fairfax, Va., said the volume of phone calls led the company to activate its "catastrophe plan" and send additional adjusters to Maryland.

Slate roofs are common in Baltimore and roofers said they have had hundreds of calls for broken and falling slates and shingles, as well as ice-packed gutters.

Conditions remain too hazardous in most areas to assess damage -- never mind starting repairs -- and roofers said the most they can do in many cases is to rip down sagging gutters in dangerous areas, such as over doorways, until the ice and snow recede.

"It's too dangerous to go up to remove snow," said Jeffrey Fick of Fick Brothers Roofers. He said his crews have worked only four days since Thanksgiving because of adverse weather.

Mr. Fick said he received 50 calls Tuesday -- a day after announcing that he could accept no further complaints. "We have too many now to count," he said. "I can't make estimates for a month."

Richard E. Smith, manager of Sessel S. Eckhart Co. of Mount Washington, said his company had a 10-week backlog even before the blizzard hit. Mr. Smith said it took until May to complete repairs for customers whose homes and buildings were damaged by the intense ice storms of two winters ago.

"We're all facing the same problems," said Henry Friskey of Ulbig Roofers in Essex, whose employees helped Ms. Psalmonds.

"We're running around trying to remove ice dams to relieve pressure where we can. But it's hazardous and we don't want to put men up on the roofs," he said.

Flat roofs on commercial buildings have been less of a problem, roofers said, because employees of many businesses have been able to clear them of snow.

There have been some collapsed roofs, however, said Battalion Chief Mark F. Hubbard, spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department. "We have received many calls about sagging roofs, too."

The Fire Department warned against climbing onto roofs to remove snow, or spraying water to melt ice and snow because it would add to the weight.

Warning signs of a possible collapse include:

* A dropping or sagging ceiling, especially below roof-mounted air conditioning or heating units.

* Bulging walls visible from outside a building.

* Doors that suddenly stick or become hard to open and close.

* Roof leaks in unusual areas or existing leaks with heavier-than-usual water flow.

* Windows cracking.

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