About 12% of Michael sur­vivors still have open claims

In­sur­ance mat­ters are slow­ing the cleanup

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Joe Mario Ped­er­sen

It’s been a year since Cat­e­gory 5 Hur­ri­cane Michael stormed the Florida Pan­han­dle, and res­i­dents are still clean­ing up the mess.

Many are still wait­ing to close their in­sur­ance claims, lead­ing them to won­der — what’s tak­ing so long?

Florida’s Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Jimmy Pa­tro­nis pointed his fin­ger last month at a group many hadn’t bat­ted an eye to­ward: pub­lic ad­justers — state-li­censed pro­fes­sion­als who ne­go­ti­ate and ap­praise in­sur­ance claims for pol­icy hold­ers.

Pa­tro­nis told re­porters dur­ing a news con­fer­ence that pub­lic ad­justers are the rea­son the process is tak­ing so long, specif­i­cally stat­ing he’s seen ad­justers sit­ting back at theirs desks on Face­book in­stead of see­ing to client con­tracts,

ac­cord­ing to a Tampa Bay Times ar­ti­cle.

Pa­tro­nis’ com­ments con­fused many, but none more so than per­haps pub­lic ad­justers them­selves.

“I do not know where the CFO got his facts to sup­port this pro­nounce­ment,” said Dick Tutwiler, pres­i­dent of Tutwiler Pub­lic Ad­justers in a blog post. “But given the grav­ity of his words, I think he should have en­light­ened folks with some cred­i­ble facts and fig­ures.”

Hur­ri­cane Michael made land­fall Oct. 10, 2018, near Tyn­dall Air Force Base with max­i­mum sus­tained winds of 161 mph.

The dam­age was cat­a­strophic. U.S. High­way 98 only just be­came pass­able a year af­ter Michael, said Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey. The west part of town, closer to the land­fall zone, didn’t have an op­er­at­ing sewer sys­tem un­til 11 months later.

Michael lev­eled the coastal town and brought a re­ported storm surge of 9 feet, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. It also dev­as­tated towns far from the coast, like Blountstow­n in Cal­houn County, which needed an en­tire re­place­ment of its elec­tri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to City Man­ager Traci Hall.

Al­to­gether Michael was re­spon­si­ble for $25 bil­lion worth of dam­age in the United States, the NOAA said.

Im­prove­ments have been made, but to­tal re­cov­ery is still at least two years away, area lead­ers spec­u­late.

Af­ter Michael dis­si­pated a dif­fer­ent storm brewed on the pan­han­dle where in­sur­ance com­pa­nies were flooded by nearly 150,000 claims - the ma­jor­ity be­ing home­own­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Florida Of­fice of In­sur­ance Reg­u­la­tion.

To­tal in­sured losses ex­ceeded $7 bil­lion, FOIR data showed.

Most claims have been pro­cessed, how­ever 12% of in­sur­ance claims re­main open as of Septem­ber, leav­ing many to ask the ques­tion, why?

“We knew we were in over our heads”

Buddy Boyett, a life­long res­i­dent of Mexico Beach, owned three prop­er­ties in town that were each dec­i­mated af­ter 2018’s storm. Two of his prop­er­ties, a house and an apartment, were on the beach.

“When we were able to see the ex­ten­sive dam­age, we knew we were in over our heads,” Boyett said.

Boyett has been the busi­ness owner of the glass com­pany Win­dow Wall Sys­tems Inc. for 47 years, and has worked with in­sur­ance com­pa­nies be­fore, but he knew this was dif­fer­ent.

“I’m a good glass man, but I’m not a good in­sur­ance man,” he said.

Which is why he de­cided to look into hir­ing a pub­lic ad­juster and came across Tutwiler & As­so­ciates Pub­lic Ad­justers in neigh­bor­ing Panama City.

Tutwiler met with Boyett and walked through the prop­erty as­sess­ing what was lost at his house with a beach­side view. Tutwiler metic­u­lously made note of the loss of fur­ni­ture and other small items Boyett hadn’t con­sid­ered such as food and toi­letries. It also helped that Boyett and his wife, Pat, had the fore­sight to take pho­tos of their home be­fore the storm.

“[Tutwiler] helped us get back 100% of ev­ery­thing we were owed. That was a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence,” Boyett said.

It should be noted that many poli­cies re­quire claimants to first pay for dam­ages and losses them­selves; in­sur­ance com­pa­nies will cover those costs af­ter they have been payed for.

In­sur­ance com­pa­nies orig­i­nally of­fered Boyett $50,000 for his losses, but af­ter work­ing with Tutwiler he was able to re­ceive $160,000, Boyett said.

He did not have the same ex­pe­ri­ence with his condo ex­pe­ri­ence which is part of a condo as­so­ci­a­tion, Boyett said. Mem­bers of the board de­cided not to hire a pub­lic ad­juster de­spite Boyett’s ad­vice. It has been a year and mem­bers of the board are still ar­gu­ing with in­sur­ance com­pa­nies about what’s cov­ered and what was dam­aged by what.

“Was it dam­aged by a Cat. 5 wind or a Cat. 5 surge? Those de­tails mat­ter, and if it’s not straight it slows the process,” Boyett said. “It’s been a night­mare for those of us who are not ex­perts; which is most of us.”

“The prob­lem is … we’re small”

Traci Hall still sees tarped roofs a year af­ter Michael struck Blountstow­n, pop­u­lated by 2,500 peo­ple.

The po­lice sta­tion had its roof blown off dur­ing the storm and is still heav­ily dam­aged.

Acres of res­i­dent owned prop­erty are still cov­ered with tree de­bris.

“The prob­lem is get­ting a pub­lic ad­juster or at­tor­ney to help these folks out, but I think the other is­sue we have is find­ing con­trac­tors to do the work. We’re small,” Hall said. “Lo­cal con­trac­tors aren’t hun­gry for jobs here. They’re not price goug­ing us or any­thing. They’re just in high de­mand. They say, ‘Here’s the price.’ It’s a take-itor-leave-it kind of thing.”

Out­sourc­ing to other nearby county con­trac­tors has been in­ef­fec­tive as well as the sur­round­ing coun­ties of Bay, Jack­son, Gads­den, Lib­erty and Gulf are each fac­ing their own sim­i­lar prob­lems and are backed up with high de­mand for con­trac­tor work.

Bracewells Floor­ing and Fenc­ing store in Bloun­stown is up to its roof on re­pair work de­mand around town.

The process to get a new fence or have one re­paired can take a long time, said Angie VanLierop, a Bracewells show­room man­ager.

“There’s a lot of work,” VanLierop said. “We’re go­ing to be putting floor­ing in peo­ple’s homes for the next two years be­cause so many peo­ple have to re­build.”

The process for get­ting a new fence in­cludes in­quir­ing about dam­aged ar­eas, mak­ing mea­sure­ments and then of­fer­ing a quote. In­stal­la­tion is es­ti­mated to be­gin as early as two months later, she said.

De­spite the load of work that needs to be fin­ished, Blountstow­n has re­cov­ered in big ways. The town was able to re­place its elec­tri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem and was able to re­move de­bris that made parts of the town im­pass­able. The lat­ter of which was a $9.5 mil­lion ef­fort, Hall said. Blountstow­n is still wait­ing for FEMA re­im­burse­ments while it pro­ceeds with ma­jor repairs.

“You’re never pre­pared for some­thing like this. Luck­ily we were very good stew­ards of our pub­lic funds and we’re manag­ing, we’re one storm away from be­ing des­ti­tute,” Hall said. “I want say that there would be an end in sight, but ev­ery time you solve some­thing, an­other is­sue comes up. Ev­ery step for­ward is an­other step back.

Pub­lic ad­just­ing is not for the faint of heart

VanLierop finds that to this day ev­ery other cus­tomer com­ing into the store is fight­ing with their in­sur­ance com­pany about a claim.

“[In­sur­ance com­pa­nies] will ar­gue about ev­ery lit­tle de­tail. Like how did the wa­ter move into your house. Did it get there be­cause of flood­ing or did it leak in,” VanLierop said. “A lot of peo­ple gave up fight­ing so their claim was de­nied.”

Like her cus­tomers, VanLierop is also deal­ing with in­sur­ance claims af­ter an 80-foot-tall tree fell on her home. When asked if the process was be­ing stymied by pub­lic ad­justers, she said she wasn’t sure.

“I’ll say this, be­fore last year there weren’t many peo­ple [in Blountstow­n] who could tell you what a pub­lic ad­juster was, but I don’t think we would need them if in­sur­ance com­pa­nies would just pay what they’re sup­posed to,” she said.

Florida CFO Jimmy Pa­tro­nis ad­mit­ted in his press con­fer­ence last month that in­sur­ance com­pa­nies do shoul­der some of the blame for drag­ging out claims, but ul­ti­mately laid the blame at pub­lic ad­justers feet.

Pub­lic ad­justers are li­censed by the state to help bridge the gap be­tween pol­icy hold­ers and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, work­ing di­rectly with the claimant.

Pa­tro­nis posted a video just be­fore the an­niver­sary of Hur­ri­cane Michael ask­ing res­i­dents what it is they need help with.

None of the 100 com­ments posted ad­dressed an is­sue with pub­lic ad­justers, but many of them did speak up about is­sues they have with their in­sur­ance com­pa­nies such as Theresa Jor­dan.

“Our in­sur­ance com­pany only gave us de­pre­ci­a­tion value. Is this le­gal? We haven’t been given enough money to fix our house. We can’t af­ford the la­bor costs so we are do­ing much of the repairs our­selves,” Jor­dan wrote on Face­book.

Pa­tro­nis did ac­knowl­edge that in­sur­ance com­pa­nies have moved slow with claims but didn’t men­tion how the claims process can nat­u­rally be slowed by clear­ing hur­dles such as ac­quir­ing a ba­sic build­ing per­mit or a fi­nal cer­tifi­cate of oc­cu­pancy.

He didn’t talk about in­sur­ance com­pa­nies’ “ac­tual cash value pol­icy,” in which the pol­icy holder puts up the money for dam­ages with their own money and is com­pen­sated by in­sur­ance months and some­times years later as­sum­ing they passed the au­dit, ac­cord­ing to Tutwiler.

Nor did he ac­knowl­edge how the iso­lated ge­og­ra­phy of ru­ral towns on the pan­han­dle slows the claim process even fur­ther.

Pa­tro­nis didn’t speak about any of those rea­sons and in­stead chose to lay the blame at Face­book-junkie, ad­justers, Tutwiler said.

It’s not the first time Tutwiler has seen politi­cians throw pub­lic ad­justers un­der the bus re­call­ing sim­i­lar fin­ger point­ing af­ter Hur­ri­cane An­drew dev­as­tated South Florida in 1992.

“Let’s be re­al­is­tic. There is no way given the com­plex­ity of ma­jor catas­tro­phe ad­just­ing any one pro­fes­sional group can be blamed for claim de­lays ex­pressed by [Pa­tro­nis],” Tutwiler said. Ad­just­ing losses in these types of events where just about ev­ery rab­bit hole that you can think of has to be ad­dressed is not for the faint of heart.”

Cur­rently, there are over 17,000 claims still open, with 12,000 of them com­ing out of Bay County, ac­cord­ing to the Florida Of­fice of In­sur­ance Reg­u­la­tion.

Tutwiler ex­pects the num­ber go up for a few rea­sons. First, claims can re­open for a va­ri­ety of fac­tors in­clud­ing find­ing new dam­ages, law or­di­nance is­sues and con­struc­tion, Tutwiler said.

Sec­ond the statute of lim­i­ta­tions for fil­ing a claim in Florida is three years af­ter the events of the storm.

“We’re go­ing to have claims for a long time,” Tutwiler. “We get new claims daily, and if my ex­pe­ri­ence has shown me any­thing, the last day of the sec­ond year, we’ll see even more.”

PETER NICIEJA/AP FILE

A home is shown where the eye of Hur­ri­cane Michael hit Mexico Beach on June 2. Dam­ages have yet to be re­paired.

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