Adjusting Expectations for Hurricane Michael Insurance Claims
by Rick Tutwiler on 1/24/2019
It’s been just over three (3) months since Hurricane Michael decimated Panama City, Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe causing billions of dollars in damage in just those areas alone. Michael was the strongest hurricane to ever strike the Florida Panhandle, reaching back to the beginning of even fragmentary historical records in 1851.
Let’s not forget the thousands of people affected in northern areas of Florida such as Blountstown, Marianna and the many other towns throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina where it pummeled thousands trying to recover from Hurricane Florence a month earlier, not to mention Virginia where the remnants of Michael caused 5 deaths.
The 2018 hurricane season showed no mercy for the insurance claims industry and the thousands of professionals still trying to help policyholders recover from the historic 2017 Hurricane Season that caused so much widespread destruction and death.
When it comes to the insurance claim side of the equation, it’s no surprise that property owners are reaching that “critical point” that we so often see following a catastrophic loss to their property, especially if that property was their primary residence or a business that generated income for communities not to mention dollars lost for sales tax.
The policyholder “critical point,” I speak of is that awkward feeling of sheer frustration and anger that soon turns into retribution as people who have faithfully paid their insurance premiums year after year without ever filing a claim before receive their initial settlement checks that are a mere fraction of what the true cost of repairs will actually be. Those who elected to choose that big 5% deductible may be receiving denial claims stating that their damage estimates and cost of repairs fall under their hurricane deductible.
Then there are those who call their insurance company daily while living under a tarp in destitute, only to wait for hours for a live person, passed around from person to person or better yet hung up on after waiting all that time. I had a so called “Customer Service Rep” hang up on me 3 different times until I finally figured out he was doing it intentionally.
For many, the painstaking insurance claim process will literally consume part of their life during the next few years as they attempt to recover their most valuable assets or businesses. Believe me, it is the most painful process one might ever endure and also one that nearly half of all businesses will never recover from.
Following Hurricane Irma, my wife and I endured an insurance claims process that involved 6 different representatives hired by our insurance company spanning over 8 ½ months until our claim was finally settled. To this day, we have not been able to rebuild given the supply and demand for contractor services.
But there is blame to go around everywhere and it’s important to note the distinction between those who are educating the public about the claims process versus those who are setting unrealistic expectations to innocent and unknowing consumers via advertising, aggressive solicitation and seminars. Never before have I witnessed so many attorneys advertising to sue insurance companies for “Bad Faith,” especially when the insurance carriers were within the 90 day statute to properly investigate and pay a claim.
There are also droves of Public Adjusters who swarmed the Panhandle region from each State in the continental U.S. disparaging insurance companies, contractors, and even other Public Adjusters in their futile attempts to get ink on paper. I met with a person who ran the school systems who said he literally felt unsafe because of all the Public Adjusters who were waiting for him in the parking lot just a few days post-Michael. Add to the mix all the contractors sending mixed messages to folks by stating all you need to do is sign our Assignment of Benefits (AOB) contract and we’ll just sue them if they don’t pay. These are just a few examples of many, but it serves to confirm that surviving the storm is the easy part. Surviving the post-loss recovery process is where the rubber meets the road.
Adding to the confusion is the 90-day moratorium that is still in effect while local building departments adjust to the current Florida Building Codes and also address the outdated FEMA flood maps.
While I agree that it is human nature for folks to want to get their lives back to normal and properly repair their most valuable assets, it is confusing to me how people can overpromise or set unrealistic expectations for thousands of people trying to get their claims settled, especially when we do not yet know the outcome of what the local building departments are going to decide.
To provide a recent example, I received a call from a client of our firm who called me to complain about their claim. This particular person was unsatisfied with their insurance company’s initial offer so our firm was retained on a “new money” basis so as to comply with Florida Statutes regulating public adjusters following a Declared State of Emergency. Specifically, the client stated that it had been 26 days since she hired our firm and that the claim was moving “too slow.” Obviously, our firm takes complaints such as this very serious, so I drop all that I was doing to investigate the allegations. After speaking with the adjuster handling the claim on behalf of our firm, I learned that he arranged to have an engineer inspect the property, coordinated to have a local contractor provide a detailed Moisture Analysis Report, in addition to the adjuster completing a detailed and comprehensive loss and damage repair estimate all within those 26 days of his being retained. Our firm’s adjuster had even assisted the client with their mortgage company, which is not something we typically get involved with. All in all the adjuster’s progress far exceeded my expectations under the circumstances and was contrary of what the client had told me. After explaining this to the client along with the fact that we have no control over the fact that people have been overworked and do not control the response of any insurance company who gives time-off for Thanksgiving, Christmas Holidays or over the New Year. However, in the business world, I was always taught that the customer is always right. So we respected the client’s wishes to part company and I hope they do not fall for a sales gimmick or misleading advertisement that their claim will be settled for lots of money overnight.
So my advice to the thousands of frustrated policyholders out there is to be patient but be persistent. There is an old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and it’s pretty darn accurate. But be mindful with the tone of your squeak and know that the person on the other end is getting barraged by countless frustrated policyholders just like you who are yelling at them, making threats and more. So try using a little more honey than vinegar. Ask them how their day is. Acknowledge that they may be very busy too. In other words you can express your frustration and be civil at the same time.
Bottom line, adjust your expectations accordingly - whether you may be handling your own claim or working with a professional representative of your own.
The claims process can move slowly. If you are not getting answers or return calls start keeping a journal. The other thing you can do is send your insurance company a Certified Letter requesting a simple status update of your claim. Per Florida Statute, they have 14-days to respond to your inquiry and request for information. If you have not already done so, ask for a “Certified & True Copy of your Insurance Policy to include ALL Forms and Endorsements.” This is the entire policy specific to you and it may have additional coverages that you may be entitled to receive.
Ask your insurance company or adjusting professional to explain the claim process to you in writing. Whether it be in a letter or email format, ask them to explain the process to you, next steps and/or phase of completion. Doing so instills a sense of accountability for everyone and when/if someone does not live up to their end of the bargain there is a record of it.
Also, do not be afraid to take the bull by the horns. Many people feel intimidated by their insurance companies and for good reason. Their marketing messages are comforting and yes, they are a giant powerhouse with a lot of money. However, you are their customer and without your hard-earned premium dollars they would not be in business. Don’t be afraid to hold them accountable. Place some time constraints on them. Tell them you want a response within 5-7 business days or by the close of the business week. Certainly, they must respond to you within the 14-days, but there is plenty of time to answer simple questions well before that time period.
Finally keep in mind that “the best claim is a closed claim.” Sometimes there has to be a compromise by all parties concerned. But be mindful not to let the claims process consume your life to the point where you cannot release yourself from all the emotions that have built up during the life of the claim. Adjusting professionals who are doing their job right should be the ones taking on some of this stress for you.
Hopefully you will reach this point sooner rather than later, but remember the goal is to “win the battle and not lose the war.”
If you have questions regarding any property insurance related issue caused by Hurricane Michael please call 800-321-4488 or contact a licensed Florida Public Adjuster to submit a question to one of our insurance claim experts.