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Insurers scurry to help again

Weary but resilient, insurance agencies around Florida vowed Sunday to send adjusters and money quickly to victims of the fourth hurricane of the season.

The eerie trek of Hurricane Jeanne, largely retracing the path of Hurricane Frances three weeks ago, might actually help those hardest hit find relief sooner.

That's because major insurers and state and federal agencies had established disaster relief stations along Frances' route.

About 2,000 people were working out of a disaster relief center set up in Orlando after Frances. Meanwhile, insurers had been handling Frances' claims out of mobile response units from Palm Beach to Polk counties.

Hurricane Jeanne "was very unusual in following Frances' track. But it means we are already set up," said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council, which represents insurers statewide. "Logistically, it's not like you have to start from scratch. Now we just turn around and start handling two storms at once."

Workers temporarily shut down the disaster centers as Jeanne approached.

Once reactivated, insurers' mobile units will make their top priority helping those whose homes were left uninhabitable. Most of the larger insurance companies have been cutting emergency assistance checks to policyholders of up to $5,000 apiece for temporary needs, such as lodging.

People with moderate damage might be pushed back in the waiting list no matter which storm is responsible. "You triage," Miller said. "What else can you do?"

Indeed, even before Jeanne's arrival, some victims of the first big storm of the season, Hurricane Charley, were complaining that insurance companies were slow to follow up or demanding multiple quotes from roofing contractors. The paucity of roofing workers only exacerbated their frustration.

On Sunday, insurers were again insisting those without a place to stay are most in need.

Tom Hagerty, State Farm's Florida spokesman, urged policyholders with minor damage "to be as patient as possible. We'll try to see you as soon as we can."

It's advice Hagerty has to heed himself. His Lakeland home was spared during passes by Charley and Frances, but Jeanne left a tree resting on his house and tore shingles off his roof.

Equcat Inc., which uses computer models to predict damages, said before the storm came ashore that Jeanne might cause $4-billion to $7-billion of insured damage in Florida. Hurricane Charley cost insurers in Florida an estimated $6.8-billion while Frances cost $4.1-billion, according to Property Claims Services, which analyzes claims. An official estimate is not available for Hurricane Ivan, which struck Florida's Panhandle, but the insured damage is expected to be between $3-billion and $5-billion.

None of the estimates includes flood damage, which is covered under a federal program, or uninsured losses. Economists say that could easily double the damage.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who saw some of the damage in Indian River County late Sunday, said the wind damage from the storm was "probably a little worse" than Frances.

"Our biggest request is that people be patient," said Gallagher, whose office regulates insurance issues. "Our biggest challenge is to get enough adjusters in," including some who were in Florida for previous hurricanes but left.

Insurers have been able to weather the quadruple hurricane punch of the season largely because Florida's insurance industry was overhauled after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. The overhaul included huge hikes in insurance premiums and hurricane deductibles of 2 percent to 5 percent.

Homeowners who were in the path of both Charley and Frances were upset to find they might have to pay double deductibles, with damage from each storm viewed as a separate incident.

With Jeanne, some inland residents might have the onus of paying an unprecedented third deductible. But most likely, some insurers said, another deductible payment will not apply if damage to a house from a storm left it susceptible to additional damage.

State Farm's Hagerty expected to see some of those triple-deductible cases near his home in Lakeland, which was in the path of Charley, Frances and Jeanne.

If a property owner has a claim from Frances and suffers damage from Jeanne, insurers often try to keep the same adjuster on the case. "That should make the process go a little more smoothly," said Bill Mellander, national catastrophe spokesman for Allstate.

Unlike Frances, Hurricane Jeanne took a quick tear across Florida's midsection. The storm's speed left some hopeful that flooding damage would be less severe than Frances'. But its speed meant the storm packed a bigger wind punch than Frances, which had diminished to a tropical storm by the time it passed the bay area.

Typically, flooding is not covered by homeowners' insurance. Property owners have to buy flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program.

About 40 percent of flood policies in the United States are in Florida. Yet, a large number of those polices are in coastal areas where flood insurance is required for taking out a mortgage. For inland counties now susceptible to flooding, such as Polk, flood insurance is less likely.

If flooding is responsible for damage and a homeowner doesn't have flood insurance, help is available.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a program to help pay damages in such cases, as it does to help underinsured catastrophe victims.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

WHERE TO CALL FOR COVERAGE

Policyholders with questions regarding their coverage for damage caused by Hurricane Jeanne should contact their insurance agent or company representative. To assist consumers, special toll-free numbers have been set up by insurance companies. This and other hurricane-related information can be found at the Insurance Information Institute's Web site, www.insurance.info.

Information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is available toll-free at 1-800-621-3362 or online at www.fema.gov. (The speech- or hearing-impaired may call (TTY) 1-800-462-7585.)

The following insurance companies have set up 1-800 hotlines:

Acuity: 1-800-242-7666

Allstate: 1-800-547-8676

American Federation Insurance Co.: 1-800-527-3907

American Skyline Insurance Co.: 1-888-298-5224

American International Group 1-800-433-8880 (auto & home)

Atlantic Mutual: 1-800-945-7461

AXA Re Property and Casualty: 1-800-216-3711

Bankers Insurance Co./Bankers Security Insurance Co.: 1-800-765-9700

Bituminous: 1-800-822-2905

Church Mutual: 1-800-554-2642

Citizens Property Insurance Corp.: 1-866-411-2742

CHUBB: 1-800-252-4670

Clarendon Insurance Co: 1-800-216-3711

CNA: 1-877-733-4250

CUNA Mutual: 1-800-637-2676

Erie Insurance Group: 1-800-367-3743

Farmers: 1-800-435-7764

Fireman's Fund: 1-888-347-3428

First Floridian: 1-800-252-4633

Foremost Insurance Co./Property Casualty: 1-800-527-3907

GE Employers Re: 1-866-413-8978

GEICO: 1-800-841-3000

Harbor National Insurance Co.: 1-800-216-3711

The Hartford: 1-800-243-5860

Holyoke Mutual: 1-800-225-2533

Industrial Risk Insurers: 1-860-520-7347 (commercial claims)

Liberty Mutual: 1-800-225-2467

Louisiana Farm Bureau: 1-866-275-7322

Mercury Insurance Group: 1-800-987-6000

Metropolitan Auto & Home: 1-800-854-6011

National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP): 1-800-427-4661

Nationwide: 1-800-421-3535

Omega Insurance Co.: 1-800-216-3711

OneBeacon: 1-877-248-4968

Royal & Sun Alliance: 1-800-847-6925

SAFECO: 1-800-332-3226

Selective: 1-866-455-9969

Shelter Insurance Group: 1-800-743-5837

St. Paul Travelers: 1-800-252-4633

St. Paul Travelers business claims: 1-800-238-6225

State Farm Insurance: 1-800-732-5246

Texas Farm Bureau: 1-800-772-6535

Tower Hill Insurance Cos.: 1-800-216-3711

Travelers flood claims: 1-800-356-6663

USAA: 1-800-531-8222

Zurich: 1-800-987-3373

SCORECARD

OF DAMAGE

The estimated insured damage in Florida since Aug. 13 from four hurricanes could total as much as $23-billion. This does not include flood damage and uninsured losses, which economists say could double the total damage.

Charley: $6.8-billion

Frances: $4.1-billion

Ivan: $3-billion to $5-billion

Jeanne: $4-billion to $7-billion

HANDLING

DAMAGE

If your home or business has suffered damage from Hurricane Jeanne, here are some steps suggested by insurance companies to make the recovery process smoother:

+ Contact your insurance carrier via phone or the Internet after you and your family are in a safe place. Have your policy information handy and a preliminary inventory of damage.

+ Be careful of debris in your home.

+ If your home is unlivable or you've been told by authorities to stay out, stay out.

+ Make temporary repairs to prevent further damage or alleviate an emergency but keep records of expenses.

+ Keep track of your living expenses if you cannot return home. Such expenses are typically covered to a degree.

+ Tell creditors if your bills have been lost or you don't have access to mail.

+ Tell your utility company to stop billing your address if the home is unlivable.

+ Check with a tax expert to see if you are eligible for tax breaks.

+ Contact your auto insurance carrier separately to report damage to vehicles.

_ JEFF HARRINGTON

Up next:CLOSINGS

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