I never anticipated that when I closed the door behind me on that tense night in August 2020 and headed north to escape the approaching storm, I would never spend another night in my beloved home. I purchased the beautiful Charpentier Historic District craftsman house while displaced from the last great storm to impact Southwest Louisiana – Hurricane Rita. Times were tough, but I filed my insurance claim, picked up my check, went on a mad shopping spree and we moved in. I raised my son in that home. I adopted, loved, and lost a pack of rescue chihuahuas, fought and beat breast cancer, and started over following a difficult divorce. Home. Every corner spilling over with precious memories. In 12 hours, it was gone – one of the more than 44,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Laura.
It’s been more than two years since Laura picked up the Iris Street structure and moved it about six inches, splitting walls and floors and soaking everything inside with storm water that marinates in a noxious stench that only those who have experienced it will understand. It was also the beginning of a larger and more stressful battle – the fight to get my insurance company to pay out fairly and equitably on the homeowners policy I had religiously paid in full (and doubled my coverage after Rita). All of this played out as I struggled to recover from major breast cancer surgery and bounced around in temporary rental housing (without furniture). After a litany of inept and poorly trained adjusters assigned to my case failed to make progress, I hired an attorney.
For two years I’ve been fighting back against an insurance company hardwired to delay, deny, and defend policies that make it impossible to move on from tremendous loss. Though a confidentiality agreement prevents me from discussing the outcome of my claim, I testified in favor of insurance reform at the state legislature, met with the Governor, interviewed with the New York Times and countless other news outlets, and learned hard lessons along the way as I fought to spotlight an industry that has forgotten they work for us.
I came away from the battle weary and disheartened but firm in my resolve to fight for what’s right – for myself, and for others. Here’s what I learned (the hard way) about managing a large insurance claim in a system designed to wear you down until you give up.
Your insurance agent is not your friend or resource
They essentially work in sales. Take emotion out of it – it’s a contractual business transaction.
Buy a small notebook & pen & keep it in your hurricane kit
The MOMENT a storm hits, begin dated diary entries detailing every interaction with the adjusters and inspectors that come to your home or talk to you on the phone.
Photos are critical
Take as many as you can before and after the storm and keep them in a Dropbox file to easily share with adjusters and attorneys. Photos that clearly show damage cannot be denied by adjusters.
Summarize all communication with insurance personnel
Send it to yourself in an email, and screenshot the information in your insurance app. The date and time stamp on the email is crucial.
Video is even more powerful
Walk through your home and property a few hours before the storm to show the pre-hurricane condition of your structures. Open cabinets, drawers, storage bins, even the refrigerator and medicine cabinet. Don’t forget the yard and fence. Do the same thing after the storm to highlight damages. This will be your lifeline later.
Know your policy limits in every category
If it’s confusing, sit down with someone familiar with policies and have them explain it to you. Pay particular attention to the type of replacement value you have for your contents and your adjusted living expenses (ALE) limits. Knowledge is power!
Keep an inventory
Household items including when you bought them and what you paid. Online retailer’s that keep a record of all purchases are a great resource. The process of detailing contents loss is grueling and stressful and needs to be changed.
You’re on your own
YOU must advocate for your family. The sad reality is that many of us must hire attorneys to get the legal and fair payouts on our policies. Only an estimated 2% of homeowners stick with the exhausting claims process all the way to mediation or trial. Don’t be tempted to take a lowball offer, even if it’s a big check. Stand firm in your resolve to get what is legally owed to you.
There are no meaningful penalties for bad behavior
Companies who act in bad faith get a reprimand and a small fine when they break the rules. Call and write the insurance commissioner in support of reform. Vote for a candidate who will push back against insurance lobbyists. Write your state legislators and urge them to vote for reform.
The biggest lesson of all?
Losing everything, including your community, will immediately highlight what’s important in your life. Do I mourn for lost sentimental items and mornings spent watching the sunrise from my beautiful backyard deck? Certainly. But I also found a tribe of supportive friends who have cheered on my fight, especially on days when my resolve was wearing thin. I live on the other side of the state now and it is slowly starting to feel like home. But a piece of my heart will always be in Southwest Louisiana.