Wilma’s Aftermath: Dade, Broward Counties Await Electricity; Agents Expect An Onslaught of Claims

October 31, 2005

Four days after Hurricane Wilma crossed southwest Florida and tore into South Florida, insurance agents told Insurance Journal they had not encountered the onslaught of claims they expected, but since a large percentage of the hurricane-stricken area was without electricity, expect claims to increase as policyholders’ power was returned. Many agents in Dade and Broward counties have also been without electricity for a week now, are having problems receiving calls, and Florida Power and Light says power will not be returned to some areas until Nov. 21.

As Wilma roared across Florida from the state’s west coast, it turned to the northeast, missing central Dade County, swinging slightly north through the northern part of the county and into Broward County, hitting Fort Lauderdale and its surrounding suburbs straight on with sustained winds of 125 mph.

Most damage was done to Broward County apartment buildings and condominiums, which had major damage. When Wilma ravaged Fort Lauderdale, many condos and apartment building roofs blew off, causing internal water damage, falling insulation and wall boards, leaving residents homeless.

Not having electricity was a major problem, homeowners did not have lights and were unable to cook or run water. Some retirees said they had purchased battery-operated portable televisions during the 2004 hurricanes and able to watch local news broadcasts. The roads were a nightmare, traffic was jammed and dangerous because signal lights on a large percentage of streets were inoperable, cars and trucks approaching intersections had to treat them as if they were four-way stops.

Several insurance agents expected to see a spike in automobile claims due to the reckless driving and drivers’ failure to yield the right-of-way at every intersection.

Coral’s claims approach 1k

Insurance agents and even Coral Insurance in Hollywood, Fla. told Insurance Journal a majority of the claims they were receiving involved blown-down fences, loose or missing roof shingles and tiles and other superficial damage. A few homeowners reported structural damage to their roofs, but nowhere near the number anticipated.

A erroneous rumor was even circulating that the building in which Coral Insurance has offices at Presidential Circle had major damage.

I visited Coral’s office on Saturday and Susan Straker, president and CEO, said the only damage to the building had been the loss of a few windows, and the building has hundreds of panes. No damage at all took place at Coral’s second floor offices.

Straker said Coral was back to “business as usual” Tuesday. The building used back-up generators Tuesday through Friday. On Friday, the generator was running low on gasoline, but Straker said electricity was restored that night. Coral subscribes to Agility’s backup system, but Straker was happy not to have to use it. She said due to the unavailability of gasoline some of her employees had been car-pooling.

Coral Insurance insures properties in three South Florida counties, but according to Straker, most policyholders reported only superficial damage. On Saturday afternoon 950 claims had been received, and of those, 50 percent had already assigned to adjusters and a lot of them had already been filed.

Coral encouraged policyholders to call in their claims, according to D. Jay Carbine, vice president of Underwriting and Claims. He said Coral expected more calls this week as customers regained their power and phone service.

Long gas lines everywhere

On Friday afternoon, in both Dade and Broward counties, very few businesses had electricity and there were only a few service stations available where motorists could find gasoline. When a service station opened up motorists scrambled to fill up their gas tanks.

Police escorts were posted at the gas stations to direct the drivers, which lined-up for blocks, and even as far as two or three miles from the stations. When driving in Miami and Fort Lauderdale the left lanes of streets were often occupied from early in the morning by cars forming gas lines, often anticipating that stations were going to open within two or three hours.

This was evident when I approached the offices of E&L Insurance Services on Miami’s busy Southwest Eighth Street. A service station two blocks from the office was one of the few places open for business and cars and even a garbage truck were backed up in front of E&L and stretched around the corner and out of sight.

E&L’s Enrique Ruiz, president of the Latin American Insurance Agents, said the only damage sustained at his office was the loss of the “L” in the sign on his building saying E&L Insurance Services.

Friday, Ruiz said many agents and policyholders in Dade and Broward counties were without electricity or phone services. On Tuesday morning, Ruiz came to his office, discovered he had electricity, and began calling local agencies and carriers offering the use of space and equipment in his office if they needed it.

Friday afternoon, 65 percent of the homes and businesses in Miami, North Miami and Broward County were without electricity. Florida Power and Light said it was attempting to return service “before Thanksgiving.”

Generators power Sol Insurance

When I visited Daniel Baptista, principal in Sol Insurance on Flagler Street in Miami, his story was totally different from E&L’s. Baptista had no electricity and his office was running on a portable generator in the parking. Even with the generator, he wasn’t receiving any incoming calls, but had his staff calling policyholders and carriers to let them know his office was open and that he was available to take claims.

Martely writes mainly commercial

Tony Martely, president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Dade County, with offices in Coral Gables, Fla. said a majority of the business he writes is for commercial properties. Friday afternoon, he said three major losses had been reported in North Dade County to his firm, Elliott, McKiever & Stowe. He also said that a lot of claims would involve business interruption policies.

“Our commercial clients are usually well informed and savvy about the insurance they are buying,” Martely explained. Every hurricane season he sends his clients a check-list outlining how they should be prepared in case a hurricane hits.

Carriers set up at DFS ‘Insurance Villages’

Florida’s Department of Financial Services established an “Insurance Village” on West Sunrise Boulevard in Plantation, just a few miles west of Fort Lauderdale; and in Naples. The Plantation Village had trailers at which claims representatives from 19 companies took damage reports and claims from policyholders.

Companies represented at the Village included: Allstate Insurance, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., Federated National Insurance, First Floridian Insurance, Florida Select Insurance, Florida Surplus Lines, Geico Insurance, Hartford Insurance, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Mercury Insurance, Met Life Insurance, Nationwide Insurance, State Farm Insurance, Tower Hill Insurance, Travelers Insurance, Unitrin Insurance, U.S. Automobile Association and Vanguard Insurance.

Henry Burke, a Department of Financial Services representative at the department’s trailer said he had a team of catastrophe experts there to answer policyholders’ questions and field claims for companies that did not have representatives at the Village.

Representatives of several of the companies participating in the Village said they had just brought in their catastrophe trailers from Mississippi and Louisiana.

Bill Woods, with Travelers said his company had six trailers and the one he was manning had just driven in from Mississippi.

Both Burke and Woods told Insurance Journal Friday had been their busiest day, with claimants 50 deep standing in line to place their claims. They said they thought a lot of people showed up because Broward County schools were out and they came with their families. One rep commented that the crowd on Friday had been “like a carnival.”

On Saturday, Wood sat in front of his trailer watching a crowd gathered in a tented area established by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. on the other side of the Village. Citizens had a steady flow of claimants throughout the day, while several other carriers had stop-and-go business.

Several reps attributed the lack of claimants on Saturday to their concerns with lack of electricity, and that they were hesitant to use the gas to drive out to the Village. They anticipated that when the power was restored a lot of claims would be called in by phone and filed electronically on the Internet.

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