Recovery

Tens of Thousands of Floridians Still Face Insurance 'Nightmares' After Hurricane Irma

'There weren’t enough people to work and some of the ones that did didn’t know what they were doing.'

by Alex Harris, Miami Herald / September 7, 2018

(TNS) - As Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida last year, insurance companies knew they weren’t ready. Hurricane Harvey’s ruin had drawn most of the roving population of adjusters tasked with chronicling a storm’s damage to Texas.

Facing the prospect of sending inexperienced workers to count up the toll of ripped up roofs and moldy walls or sending no one at all, the companies pushed the state to relax hiring standards. Under an emergency declaration signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the state loosened regulations on who could serve as an adjuster. That freed insurance companies to hire everyone they could to get out there and start tallying up the wreckage.

The result, one year after Irma: Tens of thousands of Floridians are still waiting on money to fix their homes, and thousands more have sued their insurance companies, including state-run Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation. Much of the blame, say many industry experts, falls on those teams of unseasoned adjusters, who botched, complicated and delayed the claims process.

“There weren’t enough people to work and some of the ones that did didn’t know what they were doing,” said Nancy Dominguez, manager of the Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. “I understand they had to get boots on the ground. You can’t wait six months to get to someone’s house. But at the same time, that was detrimental to policyholders.”

Citizen’s, the state’s largest windstorm insurer, acknowledged hiring less-qualified adjusters, but spokesman Michael Peltier pushed back on the idea that the last-minute rush of hiring posed a major problem in settling claims. In the Lower Florida Keys, landfall for Irma, he pointed to the onerous cost of construction and lack of skilled labor as the biggest hurdles to rebuilding and repairing homes.

Homeowners in the hard-hit Keys agree those are contributing factors but reserve more anger for the insurers who are supposed to help them recover from natural disasters. Instead, many complain of frustrating, expensive and time-consuming fights that have delayed or prevented them from living at home again.

Dr. Doug Mader, a Marathon veterinarian, expects it’ll be more than a year before he and his wife can move back into their home on Long Beach Drive on Big Pine Key, thanks to what he calls “one of those nightmares with the insurance company.”

Irma stripped the doors and windows from the ground floor home and ran wild inside. Everything was ruined, even the foundation. The couple now lives in a neighbor’s vacation home across the street.

“It’s just an empty lot that we stare at every morning when we wake up,” he said.

It took five separate visits from insurance adjusters and a judge’s order to get to that point. And the demolition earned Mader, 61, a letter from his insurer, Homeowner’s Choice, threatening criminal charges, even though he got a court’s permission for the tear down.

Now Mader, like thousands of other Floridians, is locked in a court battle against his insurance company. His claim is “open,” which means the insurance company is adding new information about the property and could pay out more money. A closed claim means the insurance company is done paying out for repairs.

According to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, more than 90 percent of Irma claims are closed. Nearly a million claims covering more than $10.4 billion in losses were filed since the September 2017 storm, which means about 100,000 remain unresolved a year after the hurricane.

Dominguez said the number of homeowners still dealing with insurance issues is likely even higher. In her decades of experience as a public adjuster (the third party consultant property owners call for an independent damage assessment) she said she’s seen insurance companies classify claims as closed before all the checks are sent to policyholders.

“The moment they make that first payment then boom the claim is closed,” she said. ”Unfortunately it’s something we’re seeing more often. It’s been going on for years.”

The state’s biggest windstorm insurers, Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation, has reopened almost half of its 70,000 Irma claims, and nearly 10,000 cases remain open and unresolved. Citizens spokesman Peltier said reopening cases isn’t unusual, even at that volume, but advocates like Dominguez said the closing out process can cause delays and confusion with homeowners.

Some policyholders notice their claim is closed and assume they have no other options, she said. Others turn to public adjusters or lawyers to re-open the claim, which usually means the claim is reassigned to a new insurance company employee — another delay.

Other times, the insurance company just doesn’t respond at all.

“You send four to five certified letters, they go unanswered. You send a couple hundred emails, they go unanswered,” said Joseph Charrier, a senior professional public adjuster with National Fire Adjustment. “You’re just making a case for the lawyers down the road. You hand ‘em the box of records and say ‘go get ‘em’.”

The labyrinthine insurance claims process is particularly bewildering for residents filing a claim for the first time. Melinda Goodro, 38, and her wife bought their Key Largo home nine months before Irma. The storm ripped off a chunk of their roof and sent rainwater cascading down all three stories.

Goodro, who carried an insurance policy with Citizens, assumed the process would be straightforward. One year later, the couple and their 4-year-old German Shepherd Qynn are still living in an Alpha Wolf RV trailer in front of their home. They don’t think they’ll be able to live in their home again for at least another year.

“Just to get dressed and go to work it’s like ‘where’s this, is there mold on that’,” she said. “It’s eternal camping.”

The first adjuster from Citizens told the couple he couldn’t get an accurate read on their damages until someone came in and treated the home for mold damage. After the treatment, Citizens never sent a second adjuster. The company informed the couple it would pay for $53,000 of damage.

The Goodros finally found a contractor (no small feat on an island chain where most contractors have years long waiting lists for Irma repairs), who said the house needed $85,000 of repairs. He wanted an $18,000 deposit to get started.

The $53,000 from Citizens went to Wells Fargo, which owns the home. The bank told the Goodros it would only release an initial $10,000 check, not the $18,000 the contractors wanted. Nobody would budge on those numbers — not the bank, not the contractor and not Citizens.

Meanwhile, the Goodros kept paying their insurance premium, their mortgage and permit fees for their trailer with no end in sight. Eventually their contractor’s company folded, taking the $10,000 with them. A new contractor said they actually have $211,000 worth of damage, and Wells Fargo won’t release the next $30,000 of the Citizens payment until the house is at least 50 percent repaired.

They’ve turned to a lawyer, becoming one of more than 5,400 lawsuits filed against the company over Irma claims. But depositions won’t start until at least October. That means another year in the RV, watching their savings dwindle while they wait for enough money to pay a contractor to start working.

“It’s basically putting people in the position where they’re saying ‘how many more months can we afford all these extra expenses just to live? When will we have to consider bankruptcy?” she said. “Every day puts us closer and closer.”

Mader, the veterinarian, said he had dozens of his older clients caught in the same limbo.

“They don’t have the chronological time in their life to fight these insurance companies, much less the bank account. And they’re leaving,” he said. “I’m worried about the Keys.”

While thousands of Floridians — mostly in Broward and Miami-Dade — wait on checks from their insurance companies one year out from the hurricane, there isn’t a solution to the delays in sight.

It isn’t the first time the state has dealt with a shortage of experienced adjusters. Part of that is due to the boom and bust nature of the business. It isn’t practical for insurance companies to keep a huge roster of adjusters on staff year round if storms only come every few years, so most rely on independent adjusters that show up whenever a storm hits, said Paul Handerhan, senior vice president of public policy at the Florida Association for Insurance Reform.

He said independent adjusters often contract with national firms and list themselves as active in multiple regions simultaneously.

That’s a problem when multiple storms hit in a row, like the spate of hurricanes in Florida in 2004 and 2005. After Hurricane Harvey last year, adjusters were in short supply for Irma damage, so the state made it easier for insurance companies to hire inspectors and adjusters. Florida’s chief financial officer told insurance companies they could use insurance agents to inspect properties.

After Irma, “you had this whole troop of people who really didn’t have that experience level,” Handerhan said. “You can see the pattern of multiple adjusters going out for losses. That has a tendency to confuse and frustrate policyholders.”

Citizens spokesperson Peltier said the firm took steps to address concerns. It sent its new crop of inspectors to areas with less severe damage and walked them through the process with step-by-step software to take photos and assess damage. Their work was confirmed by a licensed adjuster before the final check was written, Peltier said. He said he wasn’t aware of complaints of inexperienced or ineffective field adjusters.

The company has readjusted its contracts with national firms and is “comfortable” it’s prepared for the next disaster, Peltier said.

Incompetent adjusters muck up the process for everyone and raise the final bill insurance companies have to pay, Handerhan said, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a stable of qualified and competent adjusters ready to go whenever there’s a storm. Especially when scientists have shown that climate change is linked to more intense hurricanes.

“They’re only saying that these storms are increasing in severity in the future,” Handerhan said.

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