Stop giving hurricane victims the insurance run around | Editorial

Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael roared ashore.  DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times
Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael roared ashore. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published July 5, 2019

Hurricane Michael is replaying a familiar post-disaster ritual. Homeowners submit insurance claims, and their providers too often counter with low-ball offers. Months pass, lawyers get involved, mediation ensues. The loathsome merry-go-round starts up after every major hurricane. There has to be a better way.

Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle in September, packing Category 5 winds and devastating flooding. The storm prompted 147,000 insurance claims. Nine months later, 23,000 claims remain open. Of the others, almost 20,000 were denied and another 104,000 were paid out. There's no way of knowing exactly how many residents and business owners feel like they got what they were owed, though it isn't hard to find people who feel short-changed or jerked around.

One outrageous practice that is all too common: Flood and wind insurance providers who conveniently point the finger at each other, saying the other one should pay the claim. Florida law requires homeowners be paid if either wind or flooding could have destroyed a property. No matter, the obfuscation forces some homeowners to give up, take what they can get and move on, exactly what the insurance companies hope will happen. Other policyholders hire lawyers, engineers or public adjusters to help fight their cases, all of which cost money.

Another common tactic: Absurdly low offers. Just ask Bill Champion. Michael ruined the Mexico Beach triplex in which he owned a unit, leaving nothing but rubble and a concrete slab. The Tampa Bay Times' Zachary T. Sampson reported that Champion's wind carrier gave him $12,000 for the building, contents and lost rental income. Champion's neighbor in the triplex told Champion that the same insurance company had paid him $285,000. Champion ended up in mediation, with a lawyer on his side. Five hours later, he was awarded $225,000. The $12,000 offer was an obvious — and shameful — ploy to pad the insurance company's bottom line. Champion had the sense not to fall for it. Not everyone is so savvy.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which provides nearly all of the residential flood policies in the United States, is in dire financial shape. No one wants it to pay out bogus claims. The agency must be diligent with its finances. Same goes for private insurance companies, many of which make fair and timely payouts. But when policyholders buy insurance and make the required payments, they shouldn't get jerked around by one of the industry's bad actors.

Florida's lawmakers have said repeatedly that they will do all they can to help Panhandle residents recover from Hurricane Michael. The victims need more than lip service. They need their lawmakers to crack down on shady insurance practices. Start with upholding the existing laws. After that, hold hearings, listen to testimony, and figure out a way to ensure that consumers aren't left wondering why they bought insurance in the first place. Otherwise, Floridians will be right back here after the next storm hits.