Brenda Manning, whose home in Escatawpa, Miss., was nearly submerged by Hurricane Katrina, is resigned to the idea that her insurance policy probably won't cover much of the damage. Her homeowner's policy, like many, excluded flood coverage.
But the 34-year-old mother of two needs to know for sure before she can move on with her life. Before she can apply for help through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she must demonstrate that her insurance company has investigated and denied the claim.
"I'm still waiting to hear from them," she said yesterday.
The one-two hurricane punch of Katrina and Rita has strained the insurance industry's ability to answer phones, investigate claims and get money into the hands of shattered survivors of the storms.
Some 10,000 insurance adjusters are deploying in the Gulf Coast region to handle more than 1 million claims expected to result from Katrina and Rita. But their progress has been slowed by their inability to inspect houses in inaccessible sections of the disaster areas and by the sheer bulk of the claims.
Katrina-related claims are expected to total between $35 billion and $60 billion -- an industry record even on the low end -- and Rita claims could reach $7 billion.
Many policyholders will pick up a major share of costs for their uninsured losses, and down the road, insurance premiums are likely to be higher -- for less coverage -- particularly in the regions where the hurricanes hit.
An insurance industry spokesman said it was too soon to know the extent of rate increases. J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas insurance commissioner who heads the insurance section of the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, said premiums in some parts of Florida rose between 10 percent and 25 percent after last year's four hurricanes.
But for now, claims-handling is the most pressing issue for policyholders. While some homeowners report prompt service under difficult circumstances, others complain of busy signals, unreturned calls and dangling claims waiting for an insurance adjuster's visit.
Irate homeowners have flooded insurance departments with complaints about claims denied on the basis of the flood exclusion. "I'm just getting killed about it," George Dale, Mississippi's insurance commissioner, said three weeks after Katrina hit. "I'm the messenger, and I'm the one they shoot."
And Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has sued insurers, asking a state court judge to stop, among other things, what he described in a statement as "unscrupulous" adjusters from requiring policyholders to waive flood-related claims to receive immediate living expenses.
Robert Hartwig, an economist for the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based trade group, said insurers had already fielded hundreds of thousands of claims and adjusted "large numbers" of them under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
"It's proceeding smoothly," he said. "Everyone gets through, eventually."
Consumer groups, however, report hearing a range of complaints from policyholders. Among them: that insurers are sending inexperienced claims adjusters who are too apt to deny claims.
"They're hiring anyone with two legs," said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based consumer group. "Of course, they're going to err on the side that things are not covered."
Insurers are not required to disclose how quickly they investigate claims or how many they deny. And totals of Katrina- and Rita-related complaints to state regulators are not yet available, making it hard to judge the extent of problems.
But claims-handling problems have cropped up, for instance, at the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., a state-owned carrier of last resort managed by a unit of American International Group Inc.
Victoria Glodd, 64, whose New Orleans home was submerged by Katrina, tried for weeks to get living-expense money she says is owed under her homeowner's and flood policies before getting a call back on Tuesday. Glodd lives in a motel room in Laplace, La., with a daughter and granddaughter and her 85-year-old husband, Leander, who needs heart medication. The Red Cross pays for the room for now, she says, while the family relies on a local church group for clothes.
She said that when she called Louisiana Citizens, the line was busy or a receptionist took a message that was not returned.
"Terrible, terrible, terrible," she said on Monday, sobbing. "I have a claim number, but that's all I have is a claim number."
On Wednesday, she picked up a $1,500 check, already made out in her name, at a desk set up in a shopping center parking lot in Baton Rouge.
AIG had been managing claims for Louisiana Citizens under a contract that expired Sept. 16. Charles R. Schader, AIG's senior vice president for claims, said that before Katrina hit, the AIG unit had halved its staff in anticipation of the contract's end. He said the unit agreed to stay on, bringing in additional staff members and housing them in recreational vehicles. The unit is processing 60,000 new claims, following 15,000 to resolution and referring the rest to new vendors taking over the contract. The new vendors may have mishandled some claims, he said.
"Everyone is scrambling to throw all the resources we can at it," he said.
Louisiana's insurance commissioner, J. Robert Wooley, said the company was working to solve the problems and urged homeowners to have patience. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," he said.
Gulf-area residents are getting a crash course in collecting homeowner's insurance, which can be arduous even in normal times. Insurance companies generally require policyholders to fill out a claim form, also called a "proof of loss" form; make an inventory of damaged items; and keep receipts from temporary repairs.
Some insurers pay small advances to displaced homeowners for living expenses even before they are able to inspect the property. State Farm Insurance Cos. says it sent out tens of thousands of $2,500 checks to policyholders who were subject to mandatory evacuation and were not able to return quickly to their homes. Lexington Insurance Co., an AIG unit, says it sends living expenses -- $1,500 or so -- via Western Union to all policyholders making a claim regardless of whether it turns out to be valid.
But for benefits to start flowing, insurance companies usually require a visit to the property by an adjuster, or claims investigator, who estimates the total damage amount, makes a ruling on the cause and sends the paperwork back to the home office for a final decision.
Insurers have dispatched platoons of adjusters to the region, housing them in private homes, recreational vehicles and even ships docked in the gulf. State Farm, which has more than 25 percent of the market in much of the Gulf Coast region, moved 3,100 employees to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to add to the 3,000 it already had in those states, a spokesman said. Plans for beefing up the Texas operation aren't set, he said.
Whether the extra troops are enough is a question.
Randy Lanoix, who owns an independent agency in Lutcher, La., near New Orleans, says most of his 3,500 customers have been able to contact their insurance company, but it is not clear when their claims will be investigated.
"If the companies had their wish, they would certainly take a lot more" adjusters, he said. "They got their bodies spread wide and thin."
Edward T. Whiting, an independent adjuster based in Eatonton, Ga., who is working for three major insurance companies on Katrina-related claims, said the physical obstacles have slowed the pace of his work, from adjusting as many as seven claims a day to two or three. On a recent Thursday, for instance, he drove from Mississippi to adjust a claim in Harahan, La., only to be turned back by authorities because of concerns about Hurricane Rita.
Whiting said he expects to be working in the area for a while. "Put it this way: I rented an apartment for six months," he said.
Starkman reported from Mississippi and New York. Crenshaw reported from Washington.
Raymond M. Fondel and Robert Johnson salvage items from the Allstate Insurance office in Lake Charles, La.