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FEMA and Insurance Claims for Natural Disasters

Brandon Evans   |  October 24, 2016   |  

Recently, Hurricane Matthew struck North Carolina and caused devastating flood damage to parts of eastern and central North Carolina.  Land as far inland as Raleigh was completely inundated with flooding, and areas saw flooding envelop roads, highways, homes, and vehicles.  Our firm’s Raleigh office is located next to Crabtree Valley Mall, and the Crabtree River is notorious for overflowing into Glenwood Ave.  Luckily, the Riddle & Brantley Raleigh office was spared, but many others were not so lucky.  And the flooding was not limited to know risk areas.  Roads and homes that had not even experienced flood damage in Hurricane Floyd saw several feet of water, enough to block roads and damage homes or sweep away and strand vehicles.

After the storm passed, the flooding subsided from some areas, but actually worsened in others, as water from Raleigh and surrounding areas ran down streams and rivers toward the coast, passing through cities like Goldsboro and Kinston.  We have offices in Goldsboro and Kinston, and many of our people live in Goldsboro, Kinston, and surrounding areas, so we know first hand how bad the flooding hit us.  And our people who work out of our Jacksonville office know as well just how bad a toil this hurricane took on our state.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, as we clean up our homes and assess the damages, folks are beginning to look at their insurance policies.  As with every hurricane, insurance companies are inundated with claims, and often make quick decisions on whether to accept or reject a claimed loss.  Sometimes, their decisions are wrong, and we are contacted by folks asking if we can help.

The first thing to understand about insurance claims in the wake of a hurricane is that most homeowner’s insurance policies treat flood damage differently than other water damage.  If your home is damaged by rising flood waters, standard homeowner’s insurance typically will not cover your losses.  You would have to have additional flooding insurance to protect you from such flood damage.  But it can be extremely difficult to determine whether damage to a home was caused by a flood, or by other mechanisms of storm damage.  For example, if your home is hit by strong winds, and tiles blow off your roof, or a tree falls and strikes your home, your home will then sustain significant damage.  Your house will then be buffeted with wind and rain, and naturally, you will suffer damage from the water that accumulates in your home.  Maybe as this is going on, rising waters from the creek in your backyard reach your house simultaneously and cause separate flood damage.

Then, days later, an insurance field adjuster must come to your home and determine if your losses are covered by your standard homeowner’s insurance, or if the losses are associated with flooding that is not covered under standard insurance.  This adjuster probably has dozens of homes he must examine in a short period of time.  By now, the flooding has subsided and he cannot tell for sure where the waters crested.  More likely than not, this adjuster does not even work on homeowner’s claims, and may not even be from the area, having been transferred to deal with the huge volume of flood claims on a temporary basis.  There is a good chance the adjuster gets things wrong and denies your claim.  Or, they might accept your claim but refuse to pay for all the damages and losses you have sustained.

With auto insurance, the issues are slightly different.  Auto insurance typically will cover flood damage, although we have seen some reports of folks whose claims were denied under clauses for “acts of God”.  But generally, auto insurance carriers will accept and cover any damages to autos caused by flood damage.  The bigger issue that we see from automobile insurance carriers is when an adjuster wants to repair a vehicle that should be declared a total loss.  Usually, insurance carriers are quite willing to declare a vehicle a total loss.  The carrier pays out the book value on the car to the claimant, then takes possession of the vehicle and sells it as salvage.  Salvage value is not high on every vehicle but can be on later model vehicles because their parts are in considerable demand.  So the carrier pays out “book value” which is much lower than retail value, then recovers the salvage value to mitigate its losses.  But on flood damage claims, the salvage vehicle must be declared a flood loss on the title, and the salvage value is therefore greatly reduced.  Therefore, the carrier is less willing to declare the vehicle a total loss and tries to repair the vehicle.

But vehicles damaged by flood loss are often not repairable.  Particularly with vehicles that sustain flood damage to their electrical systems, the vehicles may never be the same.  Additionally, vehicles that sustained flood damage can suffer mold damage that can never be remedied.

If you or your loved ones have been affected by Hurricane Matthew and need help with an insurance dispute, please call our office.  If we can help, or point you to someone who can, we will do so, and there is no charge for the consultation.

Additionally, because the United States government has declared North Carolina a federal disaster area, this allows residents to make claims against FEMA.  FEMA will allow folks who suffered losses in the flood to make claims for damages and other losses not covered by insurance.  They are currently helping people affected pay for temporary housing and even paying for wage losses for people who cannot go to work due to the flooding.  These benefits are limited and can take time, but they are a good resource from which to seek help.

Those affected by Hurricane Matthew should apply with FEMA at (800) 621-3362, online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or visit a Disaster Recovery Center near you and file a claim with your insurance company if insured. For residents who have completed a FEMA application and/or contacted your insurance company, agents should be getting in touch with you soon, if they have not already done so. Some residents have already received decisions and funds. If you were denied or believe your decision did not adequately cover your losses and need assistance with a dispute or appeal, please review the disputes and appeal assistance tips below.

DISPUTES AND APPEALS ASSISTANCE TIPS

  • DOCUMENTATION: Save all receipts from any hotel stay during your displacement, the receipts you obtain while living in other places (relatives, temporary shelter and etc.) and those from matters relating to the disaster.
  • KEEP NOTES AND RECORD LOSSES. Use a cell phone to video or take photos of your losses.  Maintain a list or inventory of your losses. If you have insurance, your insurance claim and/or FEMA application may be denied, and you may need to dispute and/or appeal such decisions.
  • DISPUTE AND/OR APPEAL A DENIAL:
  • INSURANCE CLAIM DISPUTE ASSISTANCE is available for affected residents at (855) 408-1212 and specific questions about flood insurance may be directed to the National Flood Insurance Call Center at (888) 379-9531.
  • FEMA DISPUTE ASSISTANCE is available for residents who have been denied or if you simply do not understand FEMA’s decision. You may also visit the Disaster Recovery Center in your community or call (800) 621-3362. You may seek to dispute a decision prior to submitting a letter of appeal.
  • IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS which should be collected to assist with an appeal may include:
    • * Decision letter from FEMA in response to your request for assistance;
    • * If you rent your apartment or home, a copy of the lease;
    • * Homeowners or flood insurance policy and any correspondence to/from the insurer regarding denial or settlement of the claim;
    • * Rent receipts or other proof of payment for alternate housing (if FEMA denied rental assistance);
    • * Correspondence from the Small Business Administration demonstrating ineligibility for a loan; and
    • * Estimates, contracts, receipts, cancelled checks, or other proof of expenditures for home repairs, personal property replacement, moving and storage costs, medical or dental treatment, or funeral expenses; and/or inspection reports, photographs, or other proof that your home was made uninhabitable by the storm.
  • AN APPEAL OF A FEMA DECISION must be submitted in writing within 60 days from the date of FEMA’s decision letter.  The appeal letter should contain your legal name, FEMA application and disaster number, phone number, address, date of birth, place of birth, explanation of why you believe the decision is not correct and supporting evidence. The appeal letter must be notarized to include a copy of a state issued identification card or include the following statement within the appeal letter, “I hereby declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.”  You should keep a copy of your appeal letter for your records.

Mail or fax your appeal letter to:

FEMA

National Processing Service Center

PO Box 10055

Hyattsville, MD 20782-7055

(800) 827-8112 (fax)

If you or your loved ones have been affected by Hurricane Matthew and need help with an insurance dispute, please call our office.  If we can help, or point you to someone who can, we will do so, and there is no charge for the consultation.