Today was a day of insurance efforts. I spent time working on the policy documentation, the personal property inventory and the details of our house claim.
Following our fire that took our home and 65 others along with 30 barns and sheds, we have heard very sad stories about people being under-insured and about insurance companies who have been difficult to work with. Given the stories we hear about others insurance we have been very lucky. We are insured through Travelers and we are very glad to be working with them. Today’s story is about that process. It has been an incredible and baffling process during which we have felt looked after rather than being in an adversarial relationship.
On the evening of the fire, as soon as we were safe and settled a bit, my sister reminded me to call our insurance company. We did not have any information on our homeowners insurance with us but we had our car with the same company. I called our car insurance number and explained that we were not calling about a car incident but that our house might have been burned and could they help us find our homeowners insurance. The gentleman was incredibly kind and stayed with me on the line until we got to the right person.
After we got to the right person to file a claim on our homeowners insurance that gentleman too was kind and took his time talking with us. He listened to our story. He explained that we would start the claim now and that a local adjustor would be in contact within 24 hours.
Multiple times as we were handed from one person to the next everyone was patient, apologized for making us go though one more step and promising us that when the claim got to “major claims” it would go very fast. People were working swiftly to get us moved into the major claims division.
Having never been in a situation like this before we were in uncharted waters. We did not know what to expect and we did not know what to ask for. We did not have copies of our insurance papers so I could not even reference them. I understand better now how things can go so tragically wrong in the stories we hear on the news.
We were lucky. The people we worked with always explained what was happening and then told us what would happen next. They provided for things we did not know we needed and did not know we had insurance coverage for.
Within hours after the fire our insurance company called us with assistance finding a hotel. Before they called they had identified two options for us. When I said we were already in a hotel the lady sounded relieved. I am not sure if she was, but it seemed like she was glad we were where we wanted to be rather than whatever she could find a room on a night when 1,000 to 2,000 people who normally slept in their homes were in evacuation status.
That was when we found out about “Additional Living Expenses” or ALE. We found out that even before we went bed they had put our hotel bill on their direct billing. They are still paying for our housing during this period of time when we have no house. The insurance company pays our landlady directly so we do not have to worry about that. We can file for utilities and other costs that are more than what we would have paid had we been able to live in our old home. Additional fund are available to cover increased food costs incurred by having to live in a hotel.
On Saturday after the Thursday of the fire, the first insurance adjustor came. It was his job to view the damage and officially pass us to the “major claims division.” Since it was still an active fire zone, homeowners were being escorted by law enforcement to their homes and could stay for about 10 to 15 minutes. We arranged to have the adjustor ride with us so we could continue with the claims process. We had learned from a neighbor the night before that our house had indeed burned. When we headed up our road and I saw the charred remains of the land where I live and that I love I started sobbing. I could not help myself. The adjustor asked me if I was OK. I said I was that I would be OK, and by the time we rounded the curve to the site of our home, I had managed to get over the initial shock and was able to think more clearly.
The adjustor was respectful and did not interfere with us as we viewed our lives with lenses we never though to wear. It is like seeing your home that is not your home. The decks and the doors and the ceilings and the floors were gone. The roof was crumpled into the foundation. There was no evidence at all of the logs that formed the walls of our three story house. It was as if you drove home and expected the garage door to open when you came around the curve even when you knew there was no garage. The adjustor made the statement in a sad voice, “There was nothing much to see.”
When we left the fire zone the adjustor said that he would immediately move the claim to the major claims division and that things would move very quickly now.
A few days after the fire our major claims division adjustor flew in to see us. He brought copies for our policies to us. He brought a sturdy paper book with big print and little pockets to put stuff in. He brought us an explanation of our benefits. He patiently answered our questions. He went out to the house site alone which was fine with us as we were still trying to sort out way though the mists of confusion. We saw him afterward and he too made the statement in a sad voice, “There was nothing much to see.”
A couple of days later, as our adjustor had explained would happen, the dwelling reconstruction estimator expert came. I had put together photos and documents that I had and provided them to him before we meet. When we meet, we sat side by side so I could see the computer program he was using and he asked questions and looked at the photos of my now dead home that I had printed from my computer that we brought from the fire. He asked questions in thoughtful and a quiet manner. I did not feel pressured nor did I feel left out of the process of figuring out what our home was worth. I could see what he was doing right on the computer screen. He too went to the house. He too made the statement in a sad voice, “There was nothing much to see.”
During this time we got a phone call from a person at Travelers who said they were sending us $10,000 because they knew we would need money. All of this had happened within a few days after the fire.
Not long after that, our adjuster called and said they would be sending us a check for the depreciated amount of the insured value of our house. They were also sending us 50% of our insured value on personal property. I was floored. If when we finish our inventory it has a value greater than the 50% we already received we can request the additional money. If it is less than 50% we do not have to give the money back.
The check for the house was the first of several steps. We had replacement cost insurance so we could tap up to 25% more than the insured value if the costs were higher. After the construction estimator was here we were issued an additional sum of money because they judged that our house would cost more to rebuild than our base insurance amount. The depreciated hold back funds are available to us upon evidence that we needed that additional money to rebuild our house.
The personal property inventory has been tedious, difficult, and at times heart-rending. I must record what the item was, its cost/value and the number of years old it was. We had a lot of antiques so that makes it bit tricky. You cannot go to the store and get one like you can a deck of Uno Cards. The number of years you own something is not the same as the age of the item with antiques. So, in the end, I am scouring auction catalogs, eBay, and other price guides for one of a kind items. So far we have cataloged about 2,000 items. Thankfully we have good photographic records and understand the antiques trade so we know where to look. When I finish the inventory and send it on, we will likely need back up information given the number and uniqueness of the things we had but I have that now.
We are at the point of starting the new house. We have in the bank the depreciated cost of the insurance company’s estimate to rebuild the house. We have access to the amount held back for depreciation if we can show that we need it. We have major regulatory and ordnance issues with our house and there is even as special fund we can draw from is we have any regulatory unexpected turn of events.
Today I spoke with our adjustor and thanked him for being so nice to us and for helping us work through this process. He told me that he really wanted to help people and I absolutely believed him.
Each of the insurance people who went to our house commented to us that “There was not much to see.” Two went alone and one went with us. Hearing a field-professional make a statement like that is reassuring and horrifying. It is affirmation that your life has indeed been profoundly and tragically altered and that feeling the overwhelming pain of grief and loss is appropriate. The reason it is horrifying is the same. You see thought others eyes what terrible thing has befallen you and your family. It really is true, it really did happen, it really is bad and it really is not OK.
When the first adjustor asked if I was OK when I broke down crying as we approached our house I was startled by his words knowing that there was nothing I could do about it. In the days since I have often wondered what sort of question that was and what sort of answer could exist. The adjustor was very kind and I perceived that when he asked me. However, what is OK, how can you be alright? If you are not, what is there to do for it? I suppose we could have taken a few minutes for me to gather myself but I don’t know if waiting would have done anything but make it harder. It calls to my awareness the limited aspects of our language. I was in pain and he reached out with compassion. That was the dialog. This powerful, wordless dialog has been repeated over and over with each person at Travelers with whom we have worked. That dialog has helped survive this painful, confusing and life-altering experience.