September 15, 2004

September 13, 2004

By Brian Johnson

WINK News has uncovered more potential insurance problems for florida's hurricane victims.

Long before Charley charged into Florida, Hurricane Isabel flooded out the futures of thousands of people in North Carolina and Maryland.

Fred Gentry is one of them: "My house was hit by a 20 foot wave. It destroyed three structural walls. The insurance company said it was cosmetic damage."

Maryland's former insurance commissioner, Steve Larsen, says problems like Gentry's are common: "So many people have lost so much and have been so misled and are really suffering."

Our investigation found, victims of hurricanes Charley and Frances are starting to have the same problems.

"We had three feet of water on the main floor," Rachel Zammit told WINK News.

She fought back when her insurance company offered $1,000 to fix all the damage to her Fort Myers Beach home.

"The claims adjuster called me back and said that somebody misread my policy.. and i'm entitled to $22,000," Zammit says.

But, flood insurance policies are the same nationwide. There's nothing to "mis-read" from one policy to the next.

Steve Kanstoroom says, Isabel victims have been fighting this fight for almost a year: "I got started when i found out they were receiving pennies on the dollar for their claim and i thought something was dreadfully wrong."

One insurance adjuster, who wanted his identity hidden, says it's no accident: "my professional opinion is.. they're price fixing."

Dan Montgomery, who has been adjusting disaster claims since before Hurricane Andrew, says one problem is people think insurance adjusters are there to help: "It's exactly the opposite. The information they give to the insurance adjuster is typically used by the insurance adjuster to make a minimum claim settlement to get the insurance company out of that contract as quickly and as cheaply as possible."

With help from Kanstoroom, and the people he's worked with, we pieced together how insurance customers often end up being offered shockingly low settlements.

Insurance companies use databases to determine what the repairs on your house will cost.

Our investigation found, adjusters often use databases of new construction prices..

"New construction costs are way way less than remodeling construction costs," Montgomery told WINK News.

Florida contractor Ron Hill says he can't help people fix their homes after Charley for what insurance companies want to pay: "Just based on the numbers they're using, the database is probably about ten years old."

Even the company that publishes one of the databases used to settle Isabel claims calls some of the methods used "indefensible."

And Isabel's victims say low-ball settlements are only part of their problem.

"They will pound you, and say, 'you either sign this proof of loss.. or you will get nothing.' That is not true, don't fall for that," Gentry told WINK News.

Here's why that happens.

Wink News has obtained video of an adjuster briefing, held in Fort Myers, right after Charley hit.

On it, you can hear adjusters being told they'll do better if they settle claims fast: "If you can close in 15 days.. that's an even better score," a trainer says on the tape.

That may sound good for customers, too.

But most adjusters don't get paid until you settle.

So we found victims getting letters from an adjuster saying things like "the prices I am allowed to use are regulated by the federal government."

Not true.

The President, a US Senator, the Inspector General, and Baltimore County have all called for investigations.

Despite all that, FEMA says it's doing fine.

In fact, David Maurstad, a high-ranking FEMA official, told us, the flood insurance program is working like it's supposed to: "The National Flood Insurance Program is intended to provide some financial assistance to get people back on the road to recovery. It's not designed to make them exactly as they were prior to the loss."

But the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004, signed into law by the President in June, says the exact opposite.

The law says, the program's goal is "that flood victims be restored to their pre-flood conditions."

That conflict may explain why victims are having to fight so hard.

We arranged for Steve Kanstoroom to show Governor Jeb Bush the results of his investigation.

And we took those results to Florida's Chief Financial Officer, Tom Gallagher. Gallagher told us, his office will take on any adjuster who underpays a claim "we will investigate every single case you give us."

Isabel victims have also filed a class action lawsuit against FEMA, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program.

So, if you have an insurance adjuster coming out, keep these things in mind:

Don't agree to a settlement until you either get a contractor's estimate, or you make sure what the insurance company is offering will actually cover your repair costs.

And if you feel you're not getting a fair offer, call the State's Insurance Hotline 800-22-STORM.

You eventually have to sign a "proof of loss" that identifies what is damaged, but don't let anyone tell you, you have to accept a dollar amount for your damages immediately.

There will ultimately be a deadline, but it's not anytime soon.

FEMA Information

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