November 15, 2019 The Apex Disaster Team

A year since landfall, why do Hurricane Michael survivors still have insurance claims open?

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 press conference that public adjusters are the reason why 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 percent 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 percent 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 it or 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.”

Source: (c)2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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