Floodplains Simplified

Let's Learn about Flooding

Author: Bryan Wallace (page 1 of 4)

Southern Indiana had rain twice in 2015: entire month of May and all of June

Last month, the Indiana Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management (INAFSM) held their annual conference in Angola, Indiana.  As you can imagine, a topic of discussion was the heavy rains that the State of Indiana experienced. People agreed that we had two rains this year, one that lasted all of May and another that lasted all of June…

Ohio River Bridge

Work is still proceeding rapidly on the new I-65 bridge in the Louisville area, even with the heavy rains from earlier this year.

With the heavy rains came the flooding, along with a disheartening realization by some property owners that no one will be there to help them with their costly repairs. I have listened to several people say, “No one told me I needed flood insurance”.

Once the damage is done and the flood waters have receded, how does local government respond and help those that did not have flood insurance and/or prepare for a future flood?

Limited options

If you have a qualified event and resulting loss, filing a claim is your next step…if you have flood insurance.  There are not many realistic options for most communities to help those that are not insured.  The primary request is for local government to purchase their home.  In the Louisville area, the Metropolitan Sewer District has allocated approximately $1 million dollars to buy out various property owners…but few communities have this kind of money to allocate towards property buyouts.  Others request reimbursement of physical property that was destroyed, such as tools in a garage or a heat pump next to the house.

Looking towards the future

If multiple structures took damage in an area, then a community should consider at least two things:

  1. Look for solutions that improve drainage for those areas, without creating more problems for someone else in a different place. Perhaps there is a choke-point that can be fixed;
  2. Review the current floodplain maps created for accuracy.

If structures are being damaged and they are not in the ‘100 year floodplain’, then perhaps the floodplain maps need improved.  An article about this occurring in Colorado was sent to me by David McGimpsey: “Study of 2013 Colorado Flood Could Mean Hazard Zones Expand, Bringing Higher Costs For Some“.

This type of study is also being considered by some in Southern Indiana.  I will talk about the higher costs in my next post.

The flood finale

A surprising number of people want a solution in their backyard, at the expense of a neighbor.  While I understand that people want immediate flood relief, sometimes a fix takes some time by local government.  Conveying that message to the disappointed public is a huge challenge. Take the extra time to meet with them and keep them in the loop about the plans you have to help the community recover and move forward.

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Harmful Algal Bloom Cruising Down the Ohio River

An algal bloom is slowly moving down the Ohio River and a Harmful Algal Bloom Recreational Advisory has been issued.  The Indiana advisory was issued by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, in coordination with neighboring states, on 9-18-15.  The bloom consists of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.  It has the appearance of blue-green paint or scum in the water and can be toxic.  Due to the toxins, avoid contact with the water (this includes pets)!

The Louisville WFPL website has an excellent article on this issue, with a map of the affected sections of the Ohio River and brief description about why the algal bloom is occurring.

This advisory is a recreational contact advisory only, with finished drinking water reported as being safe.  The Louisville Water Company is taking extra measures to protect the drinking water supply that comes from the Ohio River.

This event is being reported as the worst toxic bloom in the history of the Ohio River.

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General Public to the 100-Year Storm: Get Lost!

With the late summer upon us, it is practically a bad dream that we received so much rain earlier this summer and spring.  The Southern Indiana area received several ‘100-year’ rain events in May, along with two storms that were at least a ‘500-year’ rain event level (or greater) in June / July.   At several public meetings, people stated that the term ‘100-year’ storm should be thrown out the window…they were sick of hearing about it and just wanted answers about solving the flood problems!  I can hardly blame them.  I was tired of it too.

Public Meeting about Drainage

The general public demands that the 100-year flood be banished…Begone!

It was not a dream.

Unfortunately, the major storms that repeatedly rolled through this area caused a significant amount of loss to homes and property.    While many of us can go on and forget about what happened, people are still dealing with the aftermath.  I am not sure about the conclusion for many of the people I spoke with earlier this year, but I am sure that several of them had to spend thousands of dollars fixing their homes since they did not have flood insurance.

Meanwhile in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the Louisville area, there were numerous homes that were significantly damaged and not allowed to be reconstructed due to the local floodplain ordinance.  This caused an outcry by the general public, so Louisville has made some exceptions to their policy. The Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is actually going through the process to buyout some of these properties.  Check out that link for a quick update on the process by the Louisville NPR politics reporter, Ashley Lopez.  Louisville MSD is looking to spend about $1 million dollars…wow.

The flood finale

This post is short.  There has not been much rain lately, which has been great for property owners.  Some of the heavy rains damaged the crops in various areas, but let us hope the farmers purchased crop insurance, just like I hope people who live next to streams and creeks purchased flood insurance.  With the storms that happened, I am sure that many home owners have asked their insurance agent for information about flood insurance.  Not everyone was lucky enough to live in a place that has the funds available to purchase flooded structures.

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Enter into an Exciting Conversation with Property Owners Called “Who Owns That Tree”

As I discussed in a previous blog post, there are some aspects of property ownership that are commonly misunderstood.  One of those items definitely involve easements.  Another is something that may be in the easement, known as the mighty Tree.  Let us recap what we have learned about easements and then talk about the tree issue.

Dead Tree

If a tree falls in an urban area, does anyone hear it? The answer is Yes!

What is an easement?

Actually, the large majority of people I speak with have heard the words “easement” and “right of way”.  They tend to understand there is an area, usually in the rear of their lot, where utilities and drains are located.  If those utilities or drains are damaged, then someone will have to go back there and fix them.  The easement gives a utility company or government entity the ‘right to enter’ (this is important to remember) the property to make a repair. The size and location of the easement are on the plat of the property / subdivision.  This is how you know if there is an easement on a property.

Who owns the easement?

This is where things become confusing.  People are eager to tell me the owner of that weedy place behind their house that contains the easement (in order of popularity):

  • The County (the definite winner!);
  • The City (a very popular answer);
  • A utility company, most likely the power company;
  • A neighbor (this can be true, but it is rare because I did my homework before I went out there);
  • No one (I hear this every so often);
  • Me, the property owner and my neighbor (not a popular answer).

Usually, the correct answer is the last one, which tends to leave some people shocked.  A property owner still owns the ground where the easement is located.

Remember, an easement only provides the ‘right to enter‘…it does not imply ownership.

My fence was damaged by a fallen tree

In many neighborhoods, the easements are full of trees, fences, sheds, landscaping, and pools.  But when a tree falls after a storm, it almost always damages a fence. So the question becomes:  Who is going to pay for repairing my fence?  Who owns that tree in the easement?!

Fence over Stream

This chain link fence is in a terrible spot.

And the answer is…

It fully depends on whose property the tree is located.  In this instance, pretend that an easement does not exist.  The tree may be on private property, or perhaps a governmental entity, such as a school or community, owns the property.  The property owner is the responsible party.

Sometimes a governmental entity may have to go onto the private property to remove the tree because it is blocking a drainage ditch.  This is where the easement comes into play.  It gives a crew the right to go onto the private property and perform a necessary function, keeping water flowing so it does not flood properties.  However, the crew does not own the property.

The utility company cut a bunch of limbs in my backyard and left them!

This happens a lot in backyards across the area.  The power company will come through and trim the trees so they are not touching the electric lines.  Seems like a great maintenance idea.  But they usually leave the limbs behind and quickly move on.  This is because they do not own the trees.   They just have the ‘right to enter‘ the easement and keep their stuff properly working.  If you call and ask nicely, they sometimes will come back and pick up the limbs.

The flood finale

No matter how hard you try, there will always be some people who are not happy when the word “easement” is brought up. Unfortunately, this is something that is not well understood, so outreach is critical before working in a backyard.  If there are trees that must be cut down or have fallen during a storm (and possibly damaged something), be prepared to have a conversation about easements, private property, and ownership of a tree.

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Do People Purchase Less Flood Insurance Because of Government Disaster Assistance?

Nature appears to be taking a brief break from the rain and it now pouring on some heat.  Since I do not have any ridiculous photos of flooding to post, this seems to be great opportunity to start sharing some resources, white papers, etc. that are out there and are quick / easy to read.

Denver Sun

It was nearly 90 degrees in Denver last week and it barely felt warm. It’s that hot in Southern Indiana and it is miserable outside!

Today’s blog post is a paper (I only have access to the issue brief) that I found on the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) website in their “What’s New” Section.  The paper is titled:

Does Federal Disaster Assistance Reduce the Demand for Insurance Protection? Empirical Evidence.

The premise of the paper is an attempt to start answering a question:  Does the possible availability of federal disaster relief after a natural disaster, such as a flood, cause people to purchase less insurance?  Meaning that some people are under-insured and treat the disaster relief as a substitute for insurance.  Which in turn may imply that the federal government spends more money on each disaster since people are not covered to the proper levels.

While I could not access the full paper (the link at the end would not work for me), I found it to be very interesting concept. Let me know what you think in the comments below.  Enjoy the sun!

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Epic Rains Continue. Angry People Say “Someone will be Responsible!”

People are experiencing incredible rain all around the Midwest.  Each week, there are new images of submerged cars, courageous rescues, flooded intersections, and houses with water pouring in the windows.  A picture on Twitter showed a Jacuzzi floating down the road.  I think we have had two 500-year rain events in a month in the Jeffersonville area.  Amazing!

Flooded Park and Road

A regular picture these days.  #Boring

Someone will be responsible!

With these extreme rain events, hundreds of emails and phone calls are ‘flooding’ in from all parts of the community. Most people are asking the same question either in-person or online (mostly Facebook):

  • My car / house / shed / fence was underwater.  Who will pay for my damage?

People ask the question in various ways.  Some demand payment, others threaten lawsuit, a few ask for basic assistance (could we please check out the drains), others ask questions about where to purchase sandbags or cleaning supplies.  Some are furious, while others just want to get back to their normal routine.

However, there is one quote that is gets casually tossed around by the angry folks:

“Someone will be responsible!”

“Someone will pay!”

Who is this “Someone” person?!  I have yet to meet anyone with this name, but they sure do have a lot to answer for…perhaps they are referring to Mother Nature?

Flooded Road

Mother Nature says, “Enjoy!”…

An unpopular answer

If you have a flood insurance policy, then your insurance company will be responsible to help you with your loss. Otherwise, 9 times out of 10, the property owner is responsible for their private loss.  Unless someone can show some type of negligence by a community (perhaps the Drainage Department or Street Department failed to remove some crazy logjam), I think there is little chance that a community will reimburse people for their loss.  However, I am not an attorney.  I could be wrong.

Overall, I think it seems unreasonable for people to assume that anyone can plan to handle that amount of water.  Most communities only have building standards for the 100-year rain event.  Installing a bigger pipe will definitely not solve the problem.

The probability is what?

There are many statistics floating around out there, but there is one that people do not hear enough about.  A house with a 30 year mortgage in the 100-year floodplain has a 26% chance of experiencing a flood and only a 9% chance of a fire.  People usually have insurance for a fire, but very rarely for a flood.

FEMA considers everyone to live in a flood zone, with a low, moderate, or high level of risk. According to Floodsmart.gov, the official site of the National Flood Insurance Program, floods are the #1 natural disaster in the United States.  Approximately 25% of flood insurance claims are made for structures in a low to moderate risk area.

You just don’t understand

Yes, I get it.  Flooding is a real bummer.  During the severe rain event we had last weekend, I lost power twice, once in the evening for three hours and again at 3 a.m. for six hours.  During those times, water was pouring into my basement sump pit and in a window well, so I ran two sump pumps off my battery backup system I have ready in the basement.  I had to go outside and bail water out of the window well several times during the lightning storm before I could get my backup sump pump installed in it.  I stayed up most the night so I could manage the massive amount of water hammering my sump pump system.  I was super tired.

Was it fun?  No.  Was I prepared for an emergency?  Yes.  Would anyone have paid me for any damages that occurred?  No.  I do not have flood insurance.  It is my personal decision not to carry flood insurance for my home.

Battery Backup System

My battery backup system consists of a 1600 watt power inverter, a Schumacher microprocessor controlled automatic battery charger, and two 6V G2 golf cart batteries. It looks cluttered, but it was an emergency!

The flood finale

It has been an epic summer.  I think it rained 5 days straight last week, took a day off, and rained again the following day.  We are easily on track to have the wettest July and summer on record.  While I completely understand and have empathy for everyone that is suffering property damage, I am not sure that the local government entities are responsible for everyone’s loss.  Natural disasters happen, and local government is part of the team that helps rebuild so everyone can get back to their regular daily routine.

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A Plain and Simple Floodplain Formula Revisited

With the repeated heavy rains that we are experiencing during this wild summer, there are tons of questions from people on Facebook wanting to know why we (the City) are not stopping the flooding from occurring.  This morning, the news was reporting that the Jeffersonville area was receiving rainfall at an approximate rate of 5 inches per hour.  Recently, on June 26th, we received around 3 inches of rain in 45 minutes. The installed drainage infrastructure is not designed to handle this amount of water.

Flooded Intersection

This intersection is heavily flooded since the creek is only a few hundred feet away on three sides (it loops around the intersection).

Flooded Road

Turn Around, Don’t Drown…it is not worth it!  Yes, there are people in the car trying to drive through.

Since we can easily see some flooding right now, let’s quickly dissect the floodplain and learn some stuff.

100-year floodplain = floodway + flood fringe

There are two parts of a floodplain:

  • The floodway is the part of the stream that is basically in the middle (where the water velocity is the highest).  This is where the channel of the river or stream exists.   The floodway also includes the area just prior to water moving into the flood fringe.  Check out the 23 second video I posted to YouTube that shows the Ohio River floodway (from earlier this spring).  The water is cruising!
  • The flood fringe is the area where the water is slowest, or even just standing (no movement at all). In the picture below, you can see that the water is not moving near the shore.  The water near the shore is in the flood fringe.

    Duffy's Landing Flooding

    The water is barely moving in this area because it is in the flood fringe.

When you combine the floodway and the flood fringe, you get the 100-year floodplain.  The City of Ann Arbor, Michigan has a great illustration of the floodplain on their website.

Everyone lives in a floodplain

Now that you have a better understanding of what the 100-year floodplain means, you should recognize that structures can still take flood damage even if they are out of this magical zone.  Many people do not realize that FEMA considers everyone to live in a floodplain, with a low, moderate, or high risk of flooding.

Flooded Subdivision

This neighborhood is NOT shown as being in the 100-year floodplain, but a creek is next to the tall tree in the middle of the pic.  You can see the water moving more quickly on the left site of the pic…this is the floodway.  See the still water on the right…that is the flood fringe.

Flooded Subdivision

The same neighborhood as shown in the image above. Again, these structures are NOT in the 100-year floodplain! The Fire Department had to evacuate people to safety.

As you can see from the pictures, there were some upset homeowners (which I get). Unfortunately, there is little that the City can do for them, other than provide technical advice about how to flood proof, acquire insurance, and so forth.  Most of them will probably purchase a Preferred Risk Flood Insurance Policy after this extreme rain event (estimated at approximately a 150-year event).  As you can also see in the above picture of the cul-de-sac (with the truck), the water is not moving…it is in the flood fringe.

The flood finale

The floodway is the risky part of the floodplain, where the water moves fast and can destroy structures and injure people (do not be the person that drives through the quickly moving water that is over the road because it is in the floodway)!  The flood fringe has the still or slow-moving water, but can still be dangerous.   Be safe, watch from a distance, and let the water move on through.

As people are seeing from today and the other week, extreme flooding can result in numerous water rescues.  Also, there are many homes and vehicles that were damaged over the weekend.  Think ahead by purchasing a low-cost flood insurance policy and making emergency plans with your family…these types of rain events will most likely continue to occur.

If you experienced the heavy rains this weekend, let me know how you did in the comments section.

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Quick and Surprising Highlights About Flood Insurance

When I speak to people in the real estate industry, nearly everyone understands that flood insurance is required after some magical boundary is crossed (the 100-yr floodplain).  However, few people know much about the intricate details about the actual insurance itself.  I am going to talk about a few quick highlights of a flood insurance policy in this post.  If this is a super boring post to you, check out my previous, much more exciting post about a mole that terrorized a home and other strange tales of horror!

Bryan Speaking

When I asked the question, “Who here knows about flood insurance?”, I only heard crickets chirping.

After sitting through a multi-hour webinar on flood insurance, I think I can help you with the absolute basics. However, I must mention that I was in a FEMA NFIP Agent Training Program.  I cannot recall exactly which people spoke, but everyone that instructed did an excellent job.  Below are the some statements that they felt were most important.

Every building is in a flood zone

While the majority of people think about the structure that will flood because it is near a waterway, the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) that are published by FEMA have a designation for areas that are at a lower risk, which is Zone X (or B and C in older maps).  These zones simply means that the risk, or chance of loss, of the structure is less than that of a structure closer to a body of water.

FIRM Zone X

As you can see, there are two different zones on this FIRM. Zone X takes the high ground!

You can purchase flood insurance for any zone

If your structure is located in a Zone B, C, or X, a preferred risk policy is a lower cost option for low and moderate risk sites.  This type of policy is available for individual condo owners, residential, and non-residential risks.

You need to purchase coverage separately for a building and for its contents

There are four types of coverage available in the standard flood insurance policy:

  • Coverage A: Building Property;
  • Coverage B: Personal Property;
  • Coverage C: Other Coverages;
  • Coverage D:  Increased Cost of Compliance.

For this post, just understand that Coverages A & B must both be acquired if you really want to protect what you own.

You can file a claim without a federal declaration of disaster

Flood insurance claims are paid even if a disaster is not declared by the President. Additionally, there is no payback requirement.  If a disaster is declared, the most common form of federal disaster assistance is a loan, which must be paid back with interest.

A flood insurance policy provides limited coverage for basements

This makes sense because guess where the water is going to go…

A basement refers to any area with its floor below ground level on all sides.  This includes sunken rooms, such as a living room.  In a basement, some items are covered, while others are not (it is a long list!).

A flood insurance policy excludes “time-element exposures”

Property insurance has many terms, but what applies here involves tangible business property.  It has two types of value: that of the object and that of producing revenue.  The standard flood insurance policy does not provide for:

  • Loss of revenue or profits;
  • Loss of access or use;
  • Loss from interruption of business;
  • Additional living expenses.

The flood finale

While these items are just a tiny piece of the matrix that creates flood insurance, just be aware of them.  A qualified insurance agent can step you through the details.  Keep in mind to stress to property owners, or those looking to buy, that flood insurance should be acquired for both the structure and their property.

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A Fear of Moles and Other Strange Stormwater Tales

While working with the public each day to try to solve water quality and flooding issues, you meet people who have varying levels of knowledge about stormwater and how water works.  With this comes the opportunity to have some strange conversations and find some odd stuff.  Additionally, being responsible for drainage infrastructure means that you are constantly in someone’s backyard.

Let us journey into the world of stormwater and hear some stories!

Afraid of moles

I had received a call from a property owner about some holes in their yard.  Upon investigation, I found that the storm sewer pipe was failing in several spots and would need completely replaced.  I met with the property owner the next day to schedule the project and after describing what we would do, I was asked to check out something else in their yard…

As the property owner showed me the tracks of pushed up dirt throughout the yard, I knew a mole was the culprit (as a kid, I grew up with a beagle dog that was always digging holes in the yard chasing the elusive mole).  The person had no idea what a mole was, so I looked up a picture on my Blackberry (yes, a blast from the past) and that individual freaked out; they thought it was the size of a small dog!   They also thought it would attack them, but I explained they moved at the speed of a snail.  The person then requested that I dig up their entire backyard while I was there with equipment to get rid of the mole…sorry but that is not what we do…

Mole

The highly skilled and dangerous worm assassin…the mole!

A place to burn their trash

While out checking some drainage pipes for any failures, I came across a storm sewer catch basin in the back of several lots (where 4 properties came together).  This catch basin had a huge mound of burned debris on it and the grass all around it was burnt.  I spoke with a property owner and they stated that a neighbor was using the catch basin as a burn pit for their trash, newspapers, etc.  I ended up speaking with that neighbor and they informed me that they had always burned their garbage in the country and had thought it was allowed in the City…nope…not allowed.

Catch Basin

Not a place to burn trash or dump your left over charcoal from the BBQ!

Somebody is watching

On a pleasant day, during the spring season at about 1:00 p.m., I was out checking several storm sewer catch basins along the curb (we had recently received complaints that the street flooded) looking for a blockage.  I had walked down the road, so my vehicle was about a block away.  When I arrived at one catch basin, it was in front of a house where four guys were playing cards at a table in front of the garage.  I was looking in the catch basin when they came over and asked what I was doing.  After I got finished explaining about the flooding, they agreed it was a problem and were glad I was out there trying to fix it.  Then one of them said, “We thought you worked for the Police Department and were putting out cameras”.

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to let them know that I was not putting out cameras…

Storm Sewer Catch Basin

I have yet to see a camera installed in a catch basin.  I suppose it could work.

The flood finale

During my time out in the field working on drainage and flooding issues, I have come across:

  • Drug users, needles on the ground, possible meth containers;
  • Happy people;
  • Sad people;
  • Angry people;
  • Drunk people.

Obviously, there are a number of situations and conversations that occur while working with the public.   Sometimes it can be fun, while other times it can be dangerous.  You never know what you will run into each day!   If you have met some neat people, let me know in the comments section.

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Get Lucky and Escape Paying for Floodplain Insurance…Maybe!

During a recent training for a group of realtors, we had a solid discussion regarding the Letter of Map Amendment, also known as a LOMA.  The LOMA, issued by FEMA, is an “official amendment, by letter” to a Flood Insurance Rate Map. This letter is provided to the property owner and the community and states that the structure in question is out of the 100-year floodplain and does not require the full risk flood insurance policy.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have had a few instances of realtors calling me the day they are helping their client close on a property and ask for help with the flood insurance problem.   Trying to get out of paying flood insurance can take a while, so let us learn how it is done.

Woodland Court in Jeffersonville

Unfortunately, these structures are definitely not eligible for a LOMA 🙁

It’s all about that structure

If you have checked the floodplain maps for your client and found no issue, stop reading this post and move on to something more important. However, if you check the maps and find your property surrounded by a sea of colors, it is probably in the floodplain. Sometimes, the property is on the edge of all the colors on the map and / or the colors split the property in half. The primary concern is the location of the structure.  If the mapped 100-year floodplain is touching the structure, even a tiny corner, then there will be a requirement to purchase the full risk policy.  This is where the Letter of Map Amendment can help save the day.

LOMA time

As with any government program…there is a form to be filled out. The highly descriptive “LOMA application form” must be filled out and submitted to FEMA by a licensed surveyor.  The applicant must show:

  • that the lowest ground touching the structure (also known as the Lowest Adjacent Grade, or LAG) is at or above the Base Flood Elevation;
  • or the structure is completely out of the Special Flood Hazard Area.

Basically, the form is stating that an error has been made in the floodplain modeling and the structure is naturally higher in elevation than the floodplain.

The important part of this application is that it must be completed by a licensed surveyor; otherwise it will not be deemed acceptable.  The surveyor will take a few elevation shots of the LAG and compare it to the Base Flood Elevation.  If the LAG is higher, then you win!  Finally, the surveyor will create an elevation certificate that describes their findings.

Now you wait…

Once the LOMA application form is submitted, a letter will be sent to the applicant notifying them of its acceptance. This process can take a bit of time, perhaps even a few months before you get notification from FEMA.  This is because they are busy receiving floodplain related requests from many places.

In the community where the structure is located, the appropriate department (such as the Jeffersonville Building Commissioner’s office), receives a notice of the LOMA.  Every so often, the City receives a notice from FEMA with all the new LOMA’s that have been added in our area.

The flood finale

If you plan to start the process as soon as possible, you can potentially save your client thousands of dollars through the acquisition of a LOMA.  While this is not always possible, it is worth taking a few extra minutes to check into…you might make your client very happy!

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