The answer to insurance frustrations after Hurricane Ian won’t come “from a knock on the door.”
Those are the words of warning from Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whose office regulates insurance carriers in Florida.
As homeowners and businesses scramble to piece together their lives in the face of destruction from the monster storm, state insurance officials say help is on the way. But they are also warning people to be wary of some disreputable claims adjusters, lawyers and roofing contractors who are poised to exploit the vulnerable.
“The predators are going to come,’’ Patronis said, suggesting they could be individuals who say they are construction management contractors or public adjusters. “They’re going to come up like a bunch of locusts and hit the neighborhoods, and people are vulnerable right now.”
For victims of hurricane damage, experts say, patience will be key.
It’s important to remain calm and set realistic expectations for what will be a long and complicated process of cleaning up, hiring help and navigating insurance claims. In a catastrophic situation, it might be a week or two before the insurance company even gets around to inspecting your property.
While waiting, there are some critical measures victims can take to help themselves and move the process along: Document property damage now and file a claim as soon as possible, but don’t hound your insurer if you don’t have life-threatening damage, and don’t hire a public adjuster just yet — give your insurer time to respond. Do what you can to prevent further damage. Save all receipts for any mitigation and repair work, as well as for all living expenses if your home is uninhabitable and you move to temporary quarters.
“You’re going to get through this, no matter how dire it appears,” said Bob Reynolds of Miami-based Morris & Reynolds Insurance, who lost his home and office building to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “And, you’re not alone. Your whole community is going to be in the same boat, including the need for supplies, repairs and insurance adjusters. It’s a demand surge, and it will take some patience.”
In the meantime, the state of Florida is deploying personnel to help with claims.
Patronis has said that the Florida Department of Financial Services will establish “insurance villages,” one-stop mobile units where homeowners and automobile insurance policyholders can go to get assistance in filing damage claims. Until then, he said he expects insurance companies to start setting up their own mobile units in the affected areas “and they will start writing checks.” Initially, the first payments will be for living expenses, he said.
The next step will be for adjusters to be assigned a claim, and they will arrange to inspect the damage.
Even before the storm made landfall in Southwest Florida on Wednesday, solicitations were circulating from roofing companies vowing to make available to homeowners their “dedicated staff for Insurance Consulting,” and from law firms offering “free case reviews for those who suffered property damage during Hurricane Ian,” according to emails received by the Herald/Times.
Be leery of such offers, Patronis said.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it is,’’ he said.
To avoid being exploited by scammers, people should first call their insurance agent, their insurance carrier or Patronis’ office, he said. The number is 1-877-MyFLCFO (1-877-693-5236.)
Lisa Miller, a former deputy director of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation who now consults for the industry, was more blunt.
“Do not answer your front door,’’ she said. “People you know come to your back door. People you don’t know come to your front door.”
She also urges people to be patient with their insurance companies.
“You have two years to report the claim,’’ Miller said. “Allow those who do have life-threatening damage to be calling these phone lines. There is a limited number of people to take these calls.”
But don’t wait too long, said Reynolds, of Miami’s Morris & Reynolds.
“They’ll be overwhelmed,” Reynolds said of insurance company personnel, “possibly with thousands or tens of thousands of claims, but the sooner you report yours, the closer you get to the front of the line.”
The state has taken some emergency precautions to protect property owners in the short term.
Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier barred insurance companies from canceling or declining to renew policies until after Nov. 28. Insurers may not cancel residential policies on damaged homes in Florida until 90 days after the dwelling has been repaired. Altmaier also issued an emergency order requiring insurance companies that have required policyholders to provide information by Sept. 28 to now give those policyholders until Nov. 28.
But there may be a gaping coverage hole across the state that could make the chance for recovery for many victims uncertain at best.
Preliminary estimates suggest much if not most property damage was caused by flooding, not wind. RMS, a company that provides climate and natural disaster risk modeling and analytics, said in a statement that “flooding will be the main driver of losses for Hurricane Ian.”
But standard homeowners’ policies do not cover flooding. That’s covered by a separate policy, typically offered under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance company. People living in designated federal flood zones are usually required by lenders to carry flood insurance.
But most people outside those zones don’t.
In that case, and for those who are otherwise uninsured, FEMA emergency aid may be the only available aid. But you will have to wait for FEMA emergency grants to be issued, and coverage is limited.
“Insurance is going to be one of the primary mechanisms, but FEMA funding can support things like some damages to your homes as well as property that has been lost or personal property that has been lost,’’ said Deanne Criswell, FEMA director at a news conference Friday on Pine Island, in hard-hit Lee County.
But, she added: “We do have some limits in what we can do. But we will bring in all of our federal agencies to try to identify what those unmet needs are” to help provide as much support as possible to recovery efforts.
President Biden said his designation of Florida as a major disaster area will allow residents of affected areas to ask for up to $37,900 toward home repairs and another $37,900 for loss of cars or other personal property. To file a claim with FEMA, go to DisasterAssistance.gov or call 800-621-3362.
But getting a FEMA grant can be a “very complex process,” said Mark Friedlander, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, and the average grant is only about $10,000.
State and insurance industry officials say insurers should be able to cover losses, which they expect will be massive. There are 7.5 million property insurance policies in Florida, the third largest total in the country, and Citizens Property Insurance Corp. — the state’s insurer of last resort — has more than 1.1. million of them, making it the largest carrier in Florida.
Under state law, if Citizens’ losses exceed the company’s reinsurance coverage, Citizens policyholders could see a 15% surcharge on their policies.
Whatever the final damage, it is likely to reshape Florida’s insurance market in a significant way. Hurricane Ian came ashore at a time when the Florida insurance market was in the worst shape it has been in decades.
In 2021, a year in which no hurricane struck the state, insurance companies collectively lost $1.5 billion on their Florida business. Seven companies have gone bankrupt while at least six others have decided to stop writing property insurance in Florida.
Here’s what you need to know:
- File an insurance claim: Contact your insurance company as soon as possible. It can usually be done via a 1-800 number, but you may find yourself on hold. Some companies have online portals or apps for making a report.
- Prevent further damage: Put tarps on damaged roofs and cover broken windows, but only if it’s safe to do so. Failing to mitigate additional damage to your property may result in a claim being denied. If you’re spending money to prevent damage, whether it’s supplies or hiring help, keep detailed records for the insurance company. Every policy is different, but many policies cover around $3,000 of damage mitigation.
- Document your damage: Take pictures of the water level and damage in your home—it will help provide faster assistance for FEMA reimbursements. “Take photos of everything,” said Rick Tutwiler, a public insurance adjuster and president of Tampa-based Tutwiler & Associates, which helps policyholders navigate homeowners insurance claims. “The roof, the outside, inside, the flood line that shows how high the water went.”
- Save receipts if you relocate: Most homeowners insurance policies will cover some additional living expenses for “loss of use” of a property, meaning it’s uninhabitable until it’s repaired or completely rebuilt. This could include the cost of a hotel, or even rent on an apartment if it takes longer. It may also cover things like the cost of dining out because you don’t have a home kitchen. Don’t use cash if possible. It’s best to pay for all of this with one credit card to keep it organized, and to keep detailed records and receipts for the insurance company.
- You have two years to file your claim: Florida law requires that all hurricane damage claims be filed within two years of the date of loss. Supplemental claims are limited to three years from the date of loss.
- Work only with professionals: If you run into trouble, then you can work with a public adjuster or lawyer — the only people authorized by Florida law to negotiate a claim with your insurance company. Anyone else who wants you to hire them to do it may be committing a felony. To verify whether you are working with a licensed professional, go to www.beclaimsmart.com.
- Be wary of contracts with Assignment of Benefits language: Florida law allows a property owner to sign over management of their insurance claim to a third party but often contractors offer to do this as a sales tactic. It is promoted as a way to allow someone else to shoulder the hassle of dealing with a difficult insurance carrier but it can also lead to higher costs, lawsuits and potentially more delays.
- Car insurance can cover storm damage: Comprehensive car insurance covers storm-related damage to your vehicle, such as if a tree falls on your car or it is affected by flooding. It can also cover a garage collapsing on your vehicle if your home is severely damaged.
This report includes information from Tampa Bay Times reporter Christopher Spata.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.