Once a proud businessman, William Dwyer sits in a New Orleans-area parking lot these days begging his insurer for money.
The 57-year-old retiree said he was quick to file claims after Hurricane Katrina severely damaged his home in suburban Slidell, La. An adjuster inspected the property about four weeks after the storm, but after four more weeks he’s heard nothing about compensation aside from a cash advance for living expenses.
“I had to beg and beg and beg,” he said as he waited outside a mobile insurance company unit set up in a shopping center parking lot. “Each time I call they refuse to say anything. They don’t return our phone calls. It’s been horrible. We lost everything we had.”
After evacuating around the country, survivors of Katrina and Hurricane Rita are on a new journey to prove their losses so they can rebuild tattered lives. Until those claims are resolved, hundreds of thousands of lives and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast are on hold.
“You can stand in my living room, or my den, and count the stars,” said Emmanuel Branch, 50, a teacher who lost his job when the school system collapsed. “What we do or won’t do will be dictated by insurance.”
But Branch can’t get an adjuster out to see the stars. Unable to get a response over the phone, he drove three hours to the state capital to get an interim payment.
Branch is dealing with Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., a state-run insurer of last resort for homeowners in high-risk areas unable to get policies from private companies.
Citizens is hiring more adjusters, billing insurers and selling bonds to help cover an expected $900 million in Katrina claims and costs.
Total insured losses caused by Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are about $34 billion, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which has more than 1,000 members.
The Louisiana Department of Insurance has received 1,367 consumer complaints since the storm concerning adjusters not showing up, an inability to reach insurers and insufficient settlements.
“What I keep telling everybody is you have to remind yourself you’re dealing with the largest natural disaster in American history,” said Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley. “It’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be fast.”
Many survivors are trying to navigate the claims process without phone service, hot water and other basics.
“I’m getting a little old for this,” said Bette Bornside, whose husband was evacuated to a nursing home in Houston. “You wait on the phone for 20 minutes and the cell phone cuts off.”
Bornside has claims pending for her residence and the knitting business she’d like to resume operating in New Orleans – if she could get yarn deliveries.
“It’s just waiting,” Bornside said. “All I want to do is get back to work.”
State insurance departments around the country offered to send help to respond to the complaints, but Wooley said until recently it was hard to find hotel rooms for them. Adjusters had the same problem, commuting up to three hours to assess homes, he said.
Some homes only recently became accessible. Facing a manpower shortage, some insurers are relying on independent adjusters with limited training.
“There are apparently some fairly rude independents out there,” said Wooley, who expects even more serious complaints to arise as settlement checks arrive.
Insurers say they’re processing claims as fast as they can, but evaluating the damage to each home is time-consuming.
“We have people working 15 to 16 hours per day, seven days per week,” said George Forbes, unit manager with St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc., who dealt with Dwyer’s claim this week.
Travelers, which lost more than $1 billion from the two hurricanes, has 1,000 claim specialists working throughout the South, said Jennifer Wislocki, a spokeswoman. She said the cases vary too much to say when they’ll be resolved.
“We feel the process is going well,” Wislocki said.
St. Paul Travelers was formed in a merger last year between St. Paul Companies, Inc. and the Hartford, Conn.-based Travelers Property Casualty Corp.
Dwyer’s claim will be processed after a report from an adjuster is verified, Forbes said.
In the meantime, Dwyer and his wife live in a room in the house of friends and think of leaving the area.
“Just somewhere, where they don’t have too many hurricanes,” he said.
Allstate Insurance Co., which expects to handle more than 300,000 claims from the hurricanes, said every customer who has filed a claim has been contacted by an adjuster but not all customers will require a visit to settle their claims. The volume of claims has been challenging, but company officials said a national catastrophe team with mobile response units is handle the claims.
State Farm Insurance – which claims more than 30 percent of homeowners policies in the three states affected by Katrina – said its claims force is prepared to handle more than 300,000 claims. Some claims can be resolved over the phone, while the priority is to respond to those most significantly affected first, company officials said.
Charles and Gloria Larche, who are in their 60s, thought they were set after paying off their mortgage earlier this year. But they said their insurer claimed they did not have coverage on the house as part of a policy that included a separate rental property; the Larches are disputing the claim.
“We’re in limbo. We don’t know what’s going to be decided,” said Gloria Larche, a retired schoolteacher.
“We lost the whole bottom half of our house,” she said. “It’s very frustrating. When you call you get nothing but the runaround.”
In Mississippi, homeowners and insurers are fighting over hurricane wind and water coverage in a dispute that has sparked lawsuits.
“There are a lot of people and not enough flood insurance policies,” said Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale, who has tried to mediate the dispute. “How can you prove the house was knocked down by water before the wind got there?”
Even when property owners get paid there are complications. James Cauthen, 48 and disabled, said his insurer sent the checks to his flood-ravaged house, so he never received them.
“It’s almost time for a psychiatrist,” Cauthen said, staring at the clothes in the back of his pickup truck that are his only belongings. “It’s affecting the whole family. Everybody is jumping on each other.”
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