Pat Groover called her insurance company on Tuesday morning, the day after a massive tree gave in to storm Sandy’s winds, ripped the front off a neighbor’s house and pulled siding and gutters off of Groover’s home. The path of destruction didn’t stop – the tree came to rest on Groover’s car in her Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., driveway.
The tree is still there. Groover is afraid to have it removed until she hears from her insurer, and that hasn’t happened yet.
“They told me they’d call me in three days. I’ve heard nothing yet and I’m sick of it,” said Groover, standing on her front porch, beside her tarp-and-tree covered car. “I called again today and waited on hold for so long I just gave up. You can’t do anything until you hear from the adjuster.”
That could take a while. Insurers up and down the east coast have already logged tens of thousands of claims. The Consumer Federation of America has estimated that there will be hundreds of thousands of claims filed before all of the basements are pumped and the roofs are replaced.
Even though thousands of extra adjusters have been out fielding those claims in the most distressed states since the storm hit, it’s going to take a long time before every homeowner and renter sees an insurance adjuster up close and in person.
“We are working as quickly as possible,” said a spokesman for The Hartford, Groover’s insurer. “Our catastrophic claims team is on the ground, working around the clock, but we are still waiting for clearance from local authorities to access some areas. This was a devastating and highly unusual storm.”
Mary Henley, 41, can’t even reach her insurance company. The line is continually busy. Her house on the Breezy Point beach front in Queens, New York is now actually part of the beach, with sand on the porch and the whole first floor flooded. More than 100 homes in the community burned to the ground and the rest of the area suffered extensive flood damage.
Henley has logged a call to the Federal Emergency Management Administration, but has yet to hear back. She and her mother are staying with relatives, but keep coming by the house to try to retrieve valuables.
How long should Sandy victims expect to wait? “It could be a week, two weeks or three weeks before somebody from the insurance company gets there,” warned Charles Richard “Dick” Tutwiler, a public insurance adjuster from Tampa, Florida, who has been representing consumers in storm-related claims for several decades.
LOGISTICS AND TRIAGE
Some customers may be forced to wait because insurance companies are slammed. In some cases, they can’t get into the most affected neighborhoods. In others, they are simply doing triage, and sending their adjusters to the most dramatically damaged homes.
“We prioritize by severity of damage to properties on a case-by-case basis,” said Nicole Alley, a spokesperson for USAA. She said her company had roughly 500 adjusters working on claims that had reached 25,000 by mid-day on Thursday. By late afternoon on Friday, that number had risen to 31,000, with 2,000 claims filed in two hours.
A State Farm spokesperson said her firm had logged more than 50,000 claims by mid-afternoon on Thursday.
USAA landed its mobile catastrophe van in a Breezy Point parking lot on Friday – right next to a trailer from MetLife and a van from Liberty Mutual.
Their top priority: homes that are uninhabitable, so that the owners can get emergency funds deposited to their bank accounts the same day (or the day after) for food and shelter.
Matthew Stewart, a total loss expert for USAA, which primarily serves members of the military, predicted that the insurer will be in the area with claims adjusters through November, and possibly into December.
Some consumers, worried that they won’t get timely or fair help from their insurance company, are hiring their own adjusters like Tutwiler. Called “public adjusters”, they represent consumers in insurance claims.
One such adjuster, Daniel Wixted, from Sewell, New Jersey, said he received over 200 calls in the first two days after Sandy crossed into New Jersey on Monday.
Public adjusters assess damage, make estimates on repairs and negotiate claims with insurers on behalf of consumers. Wixted says his clients either don’t want to be bothered with all of the work involved in a prolonged claim, or believe that they will get a better settlement if they work with their own adjuster. He charges five percent of the final settlement.
YOU HAVE TO PAY WHILE YOU WAIT
Manhattanite Timothy Braude faced mandatory evacuation from his East River-bordering apartment on Monday, and called his insurer, State Farm, to find out whether the “loss of use coverage” in his policy would kick in and pay for a hotel room.
He’s still waiting for the answer, and has been couch surfing with friends instead of checking into a hotel. “I am not going to book a room if I don’t know for sure that it will be covered,” he said. He has complained to his insurer by email along with messages on Twitter about State Farm.
“We take customers concerns seriously, but also hope they understand the devastation many families are facing and our need to get people back on their feet quickly when they’ve lost everything,” said State Farm spokesperson Holly Anderson.
Even so, while State Farm and other insurers consider the cost of hotels on a case-by-case basis, they don’t reimburse money that hasn’t been spent.
PATIENCE WILL BE A VIRTUE
Getting an adjuster out to your house is the first step of what can be a long journey. Tutwiler said he has claims from Hurricane Wilma that are working their way through the courts.
Even without legal challenges, it can easily take three months or more before a claim gets paid. With visiting adjusters coming in and out of town at holiday time, consumers may not have the kind of continuity they would expect with their claim.
“Sometimes they just send somebody out to take a picture and then it gets reassigned,” Tutwiler said. Multiple adjusters can complicate a claim, but don’t mean it won’t eventually get settled in a satisfactory way.”Accept that it’s not going to get done overnight.”