Hurricane victim learns insurance lessons the hard way

Carole Moore

On Aug. 28, 2011, Brent Mondel learned firsthand how brutal a natural disaster can be when Hurricane Irene left her home and life in shambles.

After tearing a path through the Caribbean, Irene came ashore in the U.S. at the Outer Banks, then moved with terrifying efficiency up the East Coast and into Canada. The storm was responsible for 56 deaths and an estimated $18.7 billion in damage -- the seventh-costliest hurricane recorded in U.S. history.

Mondel, an actress married to a Marine stationed out of state, lives in Jacksonville, N.C., with her mother, Gina, and two young sons, Braeden and Andrew. When forecasters began to predict that Irene would smack into the Carolina coast, she decided not to take any chances. She and her mother packed up the kids and headed inland to Raleigh, N.C., to stay with family until the storm passed.

“A neighbor called and said two trees had fallen -- one on the house and one on the car,” Mondel recalls. A couple of hours later, Mondel received a call that the same thing had happened again.

When Mondel returned to Jacksonville, she was unprepared for what she found: 
The two large trees that had smashed into her two-story home had punched a hole in the roof and crushed the joists, allowing rainwater to flood the interior.

“I expected the trees to be broken off halfway, but that’s not what happened at all; they literally were uprooted,” she says. The entire neighborhood looked like a war zone, but Mondel’s home sustained the most damage.

And two enormous uprooted trees had landed on her car. “My car was pancaked; it looked like a giant had crushed a soda can,” she says.

The rebuilding process was like feeling her way in the dark, Mondel says. She made some mistakes, but learned a lot in the process.

Here are some of the lessons from her Irene experience:

Lesson 1: Mitigate the damage ASAP.

Although her insurance covered mold growing out of the storm damage, it would not have covered any from post-storm rain, so Mondel’s insurance required her to immediately cover the holes in the roof. And two weeks after she had placed the tarp on the roof and the house had begun to dry, the tarp gave way to rain that had accumulated since Irene -- dumping more water into the house and restarting the drying process. “I felt doubly violated,” Mondel says.

Lesson 2: Not all contractors are equal.

Before she could even assess the damage, Mondel needed to remove the four fallen trees. After big storms like Irene, companies pour into the disaster area. Mondel contracted with a large company with a multi-state presence and the necessary heavy equipment. The company agreed to perform the job for whatever the insurance company would pay, but the result was less than stellar. Its workers didn’t pull up the stumps, and instead of hauling off the debris, they piled it in front of the house, leaving Mondel with rotting mountains of vegetation.

To make matters worse, the contractor sent her an unexpectedly exorbitant bill of $25,000 for removing the four trees and putting a tarp on the roof. (The North Carolina Joint Underwriters Association, which offers property insurance beyond what homeowners’ insurance covers, eventually settled the claim for about 30 percent less.)

Lesson 3: Have cash available.

Because the home wasn’t livable, the family checked into a hotel. It took several days after the storm for the adjuster even to get back to her. The insurance company did eventually reimburse her for the 10-day hotel stay, but Mondel ran through most of her savings while waiting for the company to cut them a check.

The family wound up renting an apartment. “The contractor said we would make a Christmas deadline” to move back home, Mondel says -- but as it turned out, that wasn’t even close.

Lesson 4: Expect things to go wrong

The insurance company decided to repair the home’s $100,000-plus worth of damages rather than deem the house a total loss. (The assessed tax value is about $155,000.) The subcontractors often didn’t show up for work, or else they worked for just a couple of hours, then knocked off. Work was held up because materials had not come in or the materials that did weren’t suitable.

Though Mondel had been promised a happy holiday season in her home, in fact the family didn’t move back in until March 8.

Lesson 5: Check and double-check the construction work.

Mondel advises anyone walking in her shoes to inspect every inch of the home once the workers leave. There’s only a one-year warranty on the work performed. “I had to be my biggest advocate; (the contractors) are there to do a job, not be my best friend,” she says.

Lesson 6: Even with coverage, count on out-of-pocket costs.

Insurance may not cover the full cost of materials you choose to repair your home. Mondel says she paid an extra $3,000 out of pocket because she chose to go with laminate floors in some parts of the house instead of carpet and make some other changes. Also, property insurance usually comes with a deductible. Be prepared to pay that out of pocket, too.

Lesson 7: Document everything.

You don’t know what you’re going to need to prove, so keep all of the records, says Mondel. For instance, Mondel’s husband is a resident of New York, so the state conducted a letter audit on his tax return to ensure that the storm damage losses they claimed were valid.

Lesson 8: Don’t get pushed around.

Mondel dealt with five different insurance adjusters and a boatload of contractors, and she found herself making hard decisions and sometimes trusting the wrong person. Don’t underestimate your ability to stand up to others, she advises. “I rode the wave, but there was nobody there for the rescue,” says Mondel.

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