Hurricanes: Lessons from Katrina

By Tom D'Antoni, guest columnist

We know by now that the Katrina disaster was storm-driven, but the flood was caused by faulty levees. Since the water left town, the people in New Orleans have learned more than they wanted to know about dealing with insurance companies. Here are their stories...

Choosing the Right Insurance

Jazz pianist Amasa Miller got off easy compared to many. His house had only three feet of water in his basement. Along with escaping the damaging path of Hurricane Katrina, Miller was fortunate to have adequate insurance coverage.

“It’s important to choose the right insurance company to begin with,” Miller said. “When they’re buying insurance, they’re not thinking about what would happen if they actually had a claim. Sometimes the cheapest insurance is not the best insurance.

“Try to make a smart choice about what you buy. Buy the best insurance that you can afford from the best company that will take you.” Miller also recommended checking on the insurance company’s reputation in regards to customer service. “I’m not saying I did that. I went with whatever I could get,” he said.

Purchasing flood insurance is also very important since your homeowner’s insurance may not cover flood damage. “Buy flood insurance, even if your bank says you don’t have to have it, even if your insurance company says you don’t have to have it,” said Miller. “Anybody who lives below sea level and doesn’t buy flood insurance has a screw loose.”

Document the Damage

“If you’re filing a claim, do it as quickly as possible,” Miller said.

What can help speed up the claim process is a home inventory list of all your lost, damaged or missing belongings.

“It’s awful work to catalogue everything that was lost. It took weeks,” Miller said. “But that work was worth a lot of money. The better your list is… the more chance you’ll have of getting a good claim. You have to look at that labor like it’s earning you more money per hour than anything else you’ll ever do in your life.”

Like Miller, Deborah Edwards also learned that “the most important thing is making sure you have documentation. If you don’t have a copy of your house note or mortgage…secure that and put those numbers in a safe place. You don’t think about that until something like that happens.”

Edwards and her husband Rev. Richmond Edwards, who lived on the Westbank of New Orleans, only sustained wind damage to their home. Many of their church members, however, were flooded out.

Churches and New Orleans residents have formed coalitions to help each other with documenting the damage, Edwards said. “That’s happening in many neighborhoods in New Orleans. Be proactive. You can’t wait for FEMA or government.”

Even people who evacuated to areas some thousands of miles away are returning to take pictures of their destroyed homes and property for their insurance claims.

“You need to take pictures immediately, and make a double set because those pictures tell the story of what your needs are,” said Edwards.

Negotiate with the Insurance Adjusters

When a claim is filed with the insurance company, often the company will send out an agent or an “adjuster” to assess the damage. Due to high number of claims, Edwards had to wait to meet with her adjuster.

“We got back in mid-September 2005, I called them in October 2005,” she said. “They did not get to us until January 2006 because we had some roof damage but the water did not come through our house as badly as it did most folks. I said, ‘Get to us as soon as you can, but I know you have priorities.’”

When the time comes to deal face-to-face with adjusters she recommends, “If you’re a single woman, it’s good to have a male family member present. They tend not to think that women have good sense. My husband is a pastor and he has had to go and be present with a number of women in our congregation when adjusters call because they will not be as honest with the women as they will be with a man present.

The most important lesson learned, however, is “perseverance,” she says. “[Adjusters have] given a lot of folks the run-around. Suits have been filed. There is an office here providing some free services, the equivalent of a public defender’s office. If they have not been able to come to an agreement on what the settlement should be, they should definitely go there and file with the Attorney General’s office as well.”

Check Your Coverage...Even After The Disaster

Singer and band leader Charmaine Neville, daughter of saxophonist Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, found her house in the Upper Ninth Ward severely flooded but not destroyed. Neville was indeed luckier than most. Unlike many Hurricane Katrina victims, Neville was able to retain her insurance coverage.

“[After a disaster] a lot of insurance companies cut you off,” said Neville. “[They may say,] ‘You may have been paying for thirty years, but now that you’ve made this claim, we’re going to cut you off.’

“If they do cut you off, lawyers are the number one thing to help you to fight them. If you don’t hear from them, be in touch with government officials, Better Business Bureau, someone in an official capacity, an insurance commissioner, someone to make sure you don’t get stiffed, robbed, deserted. Those agencies will definitely help you,” Neville said.

And if you can, “make sure that you have more coverage than you had before,” she said.

Take Caution When Rebuilding

Although she was not a victim of unscrupulous contractors, Neville knows many who were. “Be very wary of the storm chasers, the ‘catastrophe chasers’ who come into town and pretend that they’re going to help you rebuild at a reasonable cost,” she said. “That’s where people get hurt later on.”

“Catastrophe chasers” shouldn’t be the only concern when rebuilding. Safety is also an important issue. As well as preparing before the storm, you should also be prepared after the fact.

“If you’re rebuilding… always have emergency kits available,” said Neville. “If the house falls down, you got that outside of the house, [the emergency kit is] there with your insurance information, with your medical information, all your documents.”

Updated: 5/2009