At least 100,000 insurance claims stemming from damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew are anticipated to be filed with payouts expected to exceed $7.5 billion, reported by the Consumer Federation of America.
Damage from wind is forecast to lead the claim list, despite the number of homes that experienced flooding, especially in North Carolina.
"Families will have to dig deeper into their pockets because insurers have been steadily increasing hurricane wind coverage deductibles and imposing other policy limitations," said J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for CFA and former federal insurance administrator and Texas insurance commissioner in a statement.
"This liability shift to consumers may take some by surprise, since disclosures are often buried in renewal paperwork that consumers may not understand or even read," he added. "Because so many consumers experienced claims problems in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, we urge homeowners dealing with losses caused by Hurricane Matthew to be vigilant with their insurance companies to ensure that that they receive a full and fair settlement."
Hurricane Matthew was anticipated to be more of a wind event, taking residents in North Carolina off guard when more than a foot of rain fell primarily in the state, creating disastrous and dangerous flooding.
"Flood insurance is the only way to protect yourself against disasters like what we are seeing right now," says Rafael Lemaitre, director of public affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). "Even if flood insurance isn't required for your property because you don't live in a high risk zone, every homeowner should explore and seriously consider adding this protection."
An estimated 19% of Floridians have flood insurance and only 5% have flood coverage in North Carolina, says FEMA. Some residents may be wary to add extra protection after seeing what happened to residents who filed flood claims post Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. The CFA says insurers treated many people poorly who filed claims for damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, even discontinuing coverage for homeowners in coastal communities and pooling residents into steeply priced, state-run insurance pools. Rates also rose and coverage was thin as many Hurricane Sandy claims are still in the process of settlement.
However, the CFA insists history of bad insurance practices should not deter residents from obtaining the best coverage possible. "Not all insurance companies handle claims badly, so go into the claims process with an open mind," said Hunter. "Be vigilant though, or you run the real risk of being shortchanged."
What to Do Before, During and After Disaster Hits
One of the arduous chores of hurricane preparation is installing hurricane shutters before the storm hits.
"Putting up these heavy hurricane shutters was awful," says Angie Bramlett from Davie, Fla. "It took almost two days hang them before the hurricane was supposed to hit and nearly an entire weekend to take them down. Even though we were lucky and didn't bear the brunt of the storm, I know not taking the steps to prepare could put my family in danger, plus could lessen the amount of coverage I could receive if I had to file an insurance claim."
While heavy hurricane shutters (or using plywood) are one of the more inexpensive ways to protect vulnerable homes from wind damage, sliding accordion shutters and storm-rated impact glass are options, but those can be costly. Any home protection affords the homeowner an insurance discount, however failure to install the shutters to protect the home during a storm may result in a compromised claim should the resident's home sustain storm related damage, according to Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.
Shutter installation and amassing enough non perishable food and water is key to preparation, but so is locating homeowner's policies, knowing where to report a claim and photographing or taking a video of items throughout the home to support insurance claims.
Post-storm, the CFA says residents should file a claim as soon as possible in order to getting the ball rolling since claims are typically handled on a first come, first served basis. Additionally, maintaining the insurance claim number, notes on communications with the insurance company and keeping all receipts for living expenses will help make for a smoother interaction with the insurance claim process.
Homeowners who feel their insurance company is giving them a lowball payout should demand the insurance company specify language in the policy that backs up their offer, the CFA says. The insurance company may be able to identify the area in the policy that backs up their offer, but the homeowner may not have been aware of the area or not sufficiently notified of any updates or changes to the policy. Homeowners who believe they weren't informed of policy changes should consult with an attorney.
Once the insurance company provides a reason for payment amount to the homeowner, the company can no longer produce new reasons for denying or making a low offer on the claim at a later date. The CFA says if the homeowner has a valid reason for rejecting a low (or no) offer of payment, to complain first to a senior staff member of the insurance company, followed by lodging a complaint with the state insurance department and finally retaining a lawyer.
FEMA's Role for Homeowners and Residents
During a disaster, FEMA's role is not to replace coverage homeowners and residents will receive from their insurance company but rather address the immediate needs for basic life, Lemaitre says.
"FEMA assistance is not designed to restore all aspects of daily living because that is what your insurance coverage will address," Lemaitre says. "But rather to ensure you have temporary housing, shelter, money for emergency repairs and necessary basic items."
Once an area is declared to be in need of assistance, residents can apply for FEMA aid by visiting a FEMA established location within the area, registering online at www.disasterassistance.gov or calling 800-621-3362. FEMA says when applying for aid, residents should have their social security number on hand, as well as the address of the damaged property, damage description, insurance coverage information, along with phone number and bank account routing numbers for funds deposit.
Applicants can expect a call from a FEMA home inspector within approximately 10 days and a 10- to 20-minute home visit from the inspector. FEMA notes inspectors will not ask for money and will be wearing a FEMA badge during a home visit. Following the visit, residents will receive a decision letter.
"Once aid is approved, money flows quickly, often it only takes about 24 hours for money to be deposited either electronically into your bank account or sent by mail," Lemaitre adds.
To date, FEMA reports having 2,700 staff on the ground at impacted sites distributing 5.9 million meals, 4.3 million liter of water, 87,00 blankets and 500 generators.