After the Destruction...the Insurance

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

A fire burns on an unattended property near Del Dios Highway in the Rancho Santa Fe area of San Diego, California October 23, 2007.

When catastrophic damage is done and family photos, televisions and toothbrushes are gone, homeowners turn to their insurance companies. That is what the people of southern California will be doing in the days and weeks to come. But it doesn't promise to be easy — or pretty. As Time's Gary Warth noted in another story, following the 2003 fires, hundreds of lawsuits were filed by homeowners who claimed they did not have enough coverage to rebuild after they lost their homes. In April of this year, the first trial involving the dispute ended with a jury determining the insurance company was not at fault.

In the wake of this year's wildfires — and with the lessons of Katrina firmly in mind — insurance companies from all over the world are channeling immediate emergency support into the Southern California area to envelope their clients in, at the very least, the appearance of care. Liberty Mutual deployed mobile catastrophe units, which are virtual offices made up of claims adjusters in RVs, to both San Diego and Los Angeles. Other companies have both 24-hour telephone support and on-site assistance — safety restrictions permitting. "We had a team in San Diego by Monday," says Bob Courtemanche, president of Fireman's Fund Insurance. "Some of the agents on the ground were evacuated, so they have been working off site. That was the issue with Hurricane Katrina too."

Right away agents are able to help those affected with the vitals: a place to stay, clothing, toiletries, even personal computers, a somewhat surprising necessity. "Let's face it, we're the baby boomers. Everybody has a computer or two in their home," explains White. "As you're going through this horrific event, having a home computer so we can send you spreadsheets to start listing your belongings is going to speed up your process." It is going to be a long process: some one million Californians have been evacuated and the fires are far from finished. Some insurance executives are saying this is already one of the worst fires on record — and the damage has yet to be assessed. "It's too hard to estimate the exact damage, but we already have more total losses today than we had a few years ago with the 2003 wildfires," says Sue White, vice president and manager of Homeowner Claims at Liberty Mutual

Right now, a homeowners best bet is to have a solid policy in place, in addition to a record of what's in their home stowed in a fireproof safe. But this is clear only in hindsight to some Californians. "They don't think it will happen to them," says Courtemanche. "And now their lives are totally disrupted at a moment's notice and they have to rebuild." In the aftermath of the fires, insurance companies will help clients figure out how to rebuild what they had. "If they've had friends over recently, they might have pictures of the living room, which we can utilize to help rebuild," says White. "The architectural plans could be sitting with the architect or in the town planning office. We can start looking for those."

But with rebuilding comes several critical concerns. The first is cost. The price of building materials skyrockets in the construction boom that results from a catastrophe. Even top-notch builders can't bypass heavy material prices, which often double following a major natural disaster. Then come scams. Often insurers refer to trusted networks of building contractors whose work they have previously screened and approved. Still, scam artists are aplenty in times of disaster relief. To cut costs, disaster victims often opt for a good deal over a good builder reputation. "People will send them fliers and come knocking on their doors," explains White. "They'll try to get them to sign on the dotted line, then they'll take their cash and disappear."

If all that hassle and heartache weren't enough, the threat of mudslides looms large following major wildfires. While most homeowners have insurance that covers fire damage, mudslides usually aren't covered. So while those who lost major portions of their homes can stake their insurance claims, Californians who sustain only minor smoke or water damage, and then have their homes wiped out by mudslides, are often on their own. "In a lot of ways, mudslides are worse than fires," O'Shea says. "Some people have lost their homes due to them, and that's not covered."

Indeed, those who sustained more minor damage to their personal property may face an entirely different scenario from those who have lost their houses completely. They may have to wait their turn. "Homes lost are the first priority," says Christian Rataj, Western State Affairs Manager for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC). "It's just common sense that you will take care of the people who lost their homes and have nowhere to sleep." After learning from the Katrina relief process, some companies, though, have triage programs in place so that the little guy isn't lost among the larger claims. "We've got people located all over the U.S. to handle the smaller claims. These people don't need to have us on site," says Liberty Mutual's White.

The insurers point to other potential sources of complication: building codes, for example, can vary from town to town and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, making them incompatible, at times, with insurance requirements. "We need stronger codes to make homes more wind resistant and fire resistant, which makes a big differences in how homes can respond to these disasters. It can save lives," says Courtemanche. "There is difficulty in getting the right codes in place from a political standpoint. The construction lobby can be quite obstinate about that." White says the key is for legislators, lobbyists and insurance companies to work together. "Red tape isn't always the best."

Still, insurers are often the ones to take the blame for bad disaster relief, says White, and they are sick of being the bad guys. "I don't consider myself to be a bad person," she says. "We're looking for one thing: to help get people back on their feet again as quickly as possible. That's what we do everyday." As she and her colleagues know, that is a job that goes beyond numbers. "We're going to be having people out there that aren't handling claims but will sit there and talk and cry," says White. "Everything these people own is gone." Waiting for the calls to come into her office in Malibu, on the fringe of the fire's path, State Farm Agent Shelly O'Shea says, "It's very gloomy and eerie here today. The only things going up and down the street are fire trucks."