Tropical Storm Irene twisted and toppled trees onto roads last year, blocking John Schwarz's path to his waterfront house in Westbrook, so he prolonged his stay at his daughter's Glastonbury home, and he worried.
Two days later, after Irene had swept through New England, Schwarz drove to his home along Captains Drive on a finger of land in the Long Island Sound. He couldn't take the usual route because front-loaders were clearing mounds of sand from the main road to his neighborhood.
"I got to the house, and, basically, the entire outside of the house was trashed," said Schwarz, a retired ophthalmologist who winters in Florida. "The deck had collapsed. The railing was gone. ... There were 2-by-4's from next door, and bricks from the wall next door, strewn all over the place. ... It was just shambles out there, and then I went down to the basement and there's two inches of water on the basement floor."
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It would take months to repair — primarily because of debates with his home insurer and flood insurer about what was covered and how much would be paid.
Schwarz is among thousands of Connecticut homeowners for whom Irene was an eye-opening insurance experience: filing a claim, cleaning up after a natural disaster and figuring out what their homeowners' policy would and wouldn't cover.
There were questions about "hurricane deductibles" — higher deductibles applied in cases of hurricanes — as well as about the difference between flooding damage and wind damage, and about who pays for damage caused by falling trees.
A year after the storm, those difficult lessons are fresh memories.
Remarkably, state insurance officials report that the majority of Irene-related insurance claims were handled without their intervention. Irene resulted in more than 60,000 insurance Connecticut claims for a total payment $235 million — an average of $3,916 per claim. Only a tiny fraction — 223 in total — were contentious enough to become complaints to the state Insurance Department's Consumer Affairs Division.
"That's very good for the industry considering how widespread the damage from Irene was," said Gerard O'Sullivan, program manager at the state Insurance Department's Consumer Affairs Division. "You have to remember that this stretched from Georgia, I believe, all the way up to Maine and into Canada. It wasn't just Connecticut many of the insurers were concerned with. ... They had to bring in thousands of claims representatives from other places in the country to deal with this volume."
That doesn't mean that homeowners were universally pleased with the claims process, just that they didn't take their complaints to the state.
Of those who did, most complained about the hurricane deductibles, and how much an insurer would pay toward such expenses as replacing spoiled food, staying in hotels and removing downed trees.
A standard homeowners' policy won't pay for hotels and dining out if a house is simply without power, said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. The home would have to be uninhabitable as a result of an insured event — such as Irene — for an insurer to pay for living expenses, Worters said. Some policies limit the hotel and dining expenses to a dollar amount while others will pay for a period of time.
Fallen trees also caused confusion, as people wonder who is responsible when a tree on one property causes damage on a neighboring property.
"We got hundreds of calls on that very issue," said O'Sullivan, the Insurance Department program manager.
In general, a homeowner whose property sustains tree damage files a claim to his or her insurer — even if the tree belongs to a neighbor. In some cases a homeowner's insurer is able to get the neighbor's insurance to pay for a part of the damage, if the tree was in bad health or wasn't properly maintained. Whether the tree was adequately maintained can open another debate.
And trees that fall and don't hit an insured piece of property are left to homeowners to clean up at their own expense.
But by far, the most common complaint after Irene was about so-called "hurricane deductibles."
When the storm struck, Connecticut's Insurance Department still had in place guidelines allowing insurers to write policies that applied a higher deductible for a property owner if a storm was declared a hurricane. The higher deductibles could be applied even if the storm was downgraded within 24 hours of making landfall in Connecticut, which was the case with Irene.