Insurance troubles after Isabel bringing second wave of woe

Sun Staff

For the past two weeks, insurance representatives, adjusters and federal inspectors have been parading through John and Donna Provenzano's 3-year-old Miller's Island home to assess the damage inflicted by Tropical Storm Isabel.

The French doors on the ground floor were ripped out by the storm surge that washed away furniture and belongings, destroyed the garage doors and tore down an outside shed and fence. The Provenzanos estimated damage to their property at about $25,000, not counting three flood-damaged cars.

They learned last week they will be getting an insurance check for $2,000.

"The check is to replace a hot water heater and for the cleanup inside the house," John Provenzano said.

Like many families living along the waterfront in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, the Provenzanos discovered that their policy with the federal National Flood Insurance Program - the only source of flood insurance in the nation for the vast majority of homeowners - didn't cover all of the damage.

If they hadn't had flood insurance, the Provenzanos probably wouldn't be getting a check at all.

Their homeowners' insurance won't pay for any of the damage because it was flood-related, and they don't know yet if they are eligible for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of its disaster assistance.

"We knew that the contents weren't covered because we had flood insurance only on the structure," Donna Provenzano said. "But we were never told what the flood insurance would cover."

Confusion about insurance coverage has many coastal residents angry and frustrated. They say they have received conflicting answers from insurance companies and adjusters, if they can get answers at all.

Donna Provenzano said she has a basketful of correspondence and insurance papers, but she can't get a direct answer as to why her French doors aren't covered. Her family pays a yearly premium of about $300 for $227,800 in coverage on their home.

Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the NFIP in Washington, said structural elements of a home and mechanical equipment such as furnaces, electrical wiring and air conditioning systems are generally covered.

But items such as furniture, carpeting and most basement contents and finishing materials are not.

Flood insurance also doesn't cover outside buildings, piers, bulkheads, equipment out in the open and most motor vehicles.

Flood policies are available up to a maximum of $250,000 for a house and $500,000 for a business. Homeowners also can purchase up to $100,000 worth of content insurance. Businesses can insure their inventory for a maximum of $500,000.

Annual premiums for $100,000 worth of content insurance could range from $172 to $818 for a single-family home like the Provenzanos', said Evan Hecht, owner of the Flood Insurance Agency in Charlottesville, Va., which writes only flood insurance policies. Rates are based on a multitude of factors, such as base flood elevation, or the height in feet to which a 100-year flood would rise. Rates decline when the structure is built above that elevation.

Noting that there are 57 pages in the 400-page NFIP flood insurance manual - which is updated twice a year - to describe the lowest floor of a structure, Hecht added: "Flood insurance is hard to understand."

Until they started talking to their insurance representatives, some residents believed their homeowners' insurance would cover some damage.

Jim and Peggy Stolba of Miller's Island lost their one-story house on Chesapeake Avenue and all of their personal belongings the night of the storm. Jim Stolba said the family has "minimal" flood insurance on the house, but none on the contents.

At a meeting with an insurance representative, they discovered their homeowners' insurance wouldn't cover any of the damage.

"After the $500 deductible, we probably won't get very much," Jim Stolba said.

Insurance policies list what's covered and what's not, said Carolyn Gorman, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Insurance Information Institute. Homeowners' policies specifically exclude damage from flooding, she said.

A separate policy for flood damage has to be purchased through the NFIP, which was established by Congress in 1968 after a series of devastating floods wiped out thousands of homes along the Mississippi River.

"The flood insurance program was designed to be a life-saving program for people who lost their homes," Gorman said.

Although local agents sell flood insurance policies, they are underwritten by the federal government, Stevens said. Local insurance agents only handle the paperwork for the federal program; their companies won't underwrite policies for flood-related damages because losses can be catastrophic.

All homeowners can purchase flood insurance as long as their community participates in the government's floodplain management program. Renters also can purchase flood insurance for personal items.

Donna Provenzano said her mortgage company required the purchase of flood insurance on the house because of its location.

The federal government requires that homebuyers purchase flood insurance if they obtain a mortgage through a federally regulated or insured lender and the house is in a special flood hazard area.

Some of the confusion about the NFIP may stem from the fact that it is a complex program and some agents may not be familiar enough with it to give accurate information, Gorman said. "I can't say where the fault is," she said.

Bitter complaints about insurance coverage became a familiar refrain less than a week after the storm swept through the state Sept. 18 and 19.

During several meetings on Baltimore County's east side, residents told Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. they were getting conflicting answers from their insurance companies. The complaints prompted Redmer to set up two meetings between residents and insurance representatives to help those with damaged homes to get answers.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski sent letters to executives at six major insurance carriers, asking them to send additional claims adjusters and disaster response experts to give prompt and comprehensive reviews of the property damage suffered by state residents. She said she had received complaints that adjusters were doing "drive-by assessments" that took less than five minutes.

The insurance institute's Gorman advised residents to study their policies.

"Nobody likes to read an insurance policy because it's a legal document and it's not fun," she said. "But homeowners should become familiar with what's in their policies."

Donna Provenzano said her family relied on the insurance agent to explain what was covered in the policy.

But Gorman advised policyholders to question their agents and demand answers. Homeowners can also call FEMA if they can't get answers. The toll-free number for flood insurance questions is 800-427-4661.

Donna Provenzano said dealing with the insurance companies has been a drawn out process. But her family is better off than some who own bay-front property - at least the Provenzanos are still able to live in their house.

They have paid to replace the garage doors and clear away the debris that washed up from neighboring houses onto their property, which is less than 100 feet from the Chesapeake Bay. With the help of friends and family, the Provenzanos removed piers, decks, boats and personal watercraft. They've never found any of their personal belongings that washed into the bay.

John Provenzano also boarded up the bay side of the house, where the French doors once stood, waiting for a contractor to come and replace them. They will pay out of pocket to replace the doors.

"We have worked so hard all of our lives," his wife said. "We worked for three years to get the house the way we wanted it. This house was our baby."

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