Filed Under:Markets, Personal Lines

A Tale of Two Towns, Part 2: The Jersey Shore—Trapped in Purgatory

The Ward Agency is a small firm on the Jersey shore that mostly offers personal lines coverage, as well as some business insurance and even financial planning. It is also just a block away from the beach on Ocean Avenue, in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. But since the main office is on 10-foot-pilings, when Superstorm Sandy hit, the agency escaped damage. There was no power, and the agents had to work from their boss’ house, but the agency itself was untouched.

A lot of their neighbors, however, were not so fortunate, and suffered serious flood damage that in many cases remains unresolved even a year after the storm.

“I know they say 90-something percent of flood claims are closed but that’s just not right,” says Wendy Audino, a producer for the Ward Agency. She says homeowners have received a check from the National Flood Insurance Program, but by no means is the claim “closed.”

The same is true in the eyes of homeowners irritated by the dollar amount doled out by the program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve got a lot of appeals,” says Ward. “They are going to fight for what they think they are owed.”

Philadelphia resident Jim Smart is one of those people. He and his wife of 20 years have a second home in Mantoloking, N.J. on Barnegat Lane, just north of the Mantoloking Bridge where the ocean burst through and filled the Barnegat Bay. The home is on the bay and just a short walk to the ocean. When Sandy hit, the Smarts’ home was right in harm’s way.

“We had 3 to 5 feet of water in the house,” he says. “Everything was destroyed on the first floor. The French doors were blown out. We had to throw out everything but the pictures on the walls, but at least the place was still on the foundation.”

Some of his neighbors weren’t so lucky. Several homes washed into the bay. Others floated to rest in the middle of Route 35.

“We had $250,000 in [flood] coverage and the adjuster came in and easily got to that in damage,” says Smart, a USAA policyholder. “But they found a way to work it down—depreciation. We’ll be appealing that decision.”

There is no mortgage on the home and therefore no requirement to buy flood coverage. As far as he knows, the 85-year-old former boathouse never had any water in it. But Smart says he liked the extra assurance his flood coverage gave him. Plus, it wasn’t that expensive.

“If you have something to protect, and it’s relatively cheap—it seemed like a no-brainer,” Smart adds. But now, he’s not positive he got what he paid for.

Homes and businesses in beach communities along the Jersey shore a year after Sandy are in various states of repair. Dumpsters remain a common sight, along with heavy construction equipment for “knock-downs”—shorthand for houses so damaged they must be razed.

More and more lots are empty. Hundreds of houses are gone. Many of them have “Lot for Sale” signs posted. Some homes in need of demolition have realtor signs out front, leaving the headaches up to the buyer. It’s a signal that some homeowners are resigned to taking a loss. In some cases, home valuations have been sliced in half. Lots are worth much more than the structure.

“Some people gave up,” Audino says. “They threw up their hands and walked away.”

Ed Caputo of Toms River isn’t walking away.

“I love it here. My family loves it here,” he says from his corner-lot home bordering Ocean Terrace, about 100 yards from where waves audibly pound the shore. But ask about his dealings with the federal insurance program, and you’ll get some answers that aren't exactly fit for print.

“They duck their responsibility whenever and wherever they can,” says Caputo, who adds he was given a $32,000 check. “They cut every corner to pay less. They did it to everyone around here. It’s a shame.”

Caputo also has flood insurance, despite not having a mortgage.

“I’m going to fight them every way and for as long as I can,” he adds, predicting his patience will be tried in the process. “They already lost three sets of paperwork and when you call them the person you talked to the first time doesn’t work there anymore.”

Out-of-pocket expenses included thousands of dollars for sand removal. Several feet of it was in the garage and basement.

“I’ve been paying my premium every year and got nowhere near enough to fix everything,” he adds. “I still don’t have a furnace.”

Like Ward, Conover Beyer Assoc. in Manasquan, N.J. is helping clients with grievances with the NFIP—“with the holes in coverage,” says Mike D’Altrui, vice president and sales manager.

It’s a combination of arguments over depreciation as well as exterior damage, such as to pools and landscaping, as well as items in a garage or the disputes over the definition of a basement.

Mediation is mandatory. Some homeowners have already taken it to the next level, which involves attorneys, says D’Altrui. “We’re a hands-on agency; we try to give the best consultation we can.”

Ward, meanwhile, has gotten into the public-adjuster business. The agency has one in-house now.

“It’s a curse word for insurers,” says Audino. “But homeowners need someone on their side, and that became more evident after Sandy.”

Because their houses are second homes or because the damage was deemed not to exceed 50 percent of the home’s value, many homeowners aren’t eligible for federal grants to restore them.

“With the new flood maps, it could really become a problem for them eventually, if it hasn’t already,” says D’Altrui.

Some homeowners say they will make the difficult decision not to buy flood insurance due to cost, especially those unable or not willing to raise their homes as required in new flood plains.

One homeowner in Point Pleasant Beach, who preferred to remain anonymous, says he will use his insurance payout to pay off his mortgage so flood insurance isn’t a required expenditure.

“People are considering all options,” D’Altrui observes. “But we have a lot more inquiries about flood insurance. Realtors call. They want to be able to tell their clients what they’re in for.”

The agents say insurers are available for virtually all risks. For the highest risks, however, a policyholder will pay the largest premiums. Insurers that did not have wind deductibles in the policy have since added them. Insurers that did have the deductible raised the percentage, says D’Altrui.

Audino says she’s run into problems securing coverage for homes in “Sandy purgatory.” These homes have yet to get insurance money, are in the process of being renovated, or being torn down.

“Even in the excess market, it’s difficult even to get stand-alone liability,” says Audino.

“The question now is, ‘Was the home damaged by Sandy?’” says D’Altrui. “If it was, they want to know what has been repaired. It’s definitely an issue, even for the surplus market.”

Direct-to-surplus writings, he adds, are up substantially.

Though neither of them has plans to elevate his home, Smart and Caputo say they do intend to keep buying flood insurance. “These things happen,” says Caputo. “Every 50-60 years these things hit, right?” But each add that they would consider other factors such as flood mitigation efforts.

“I hope it doesn’t get to a point where we can’t find a comfortable spot in the balance between flood insurance and what is being done to stop another flood,” Caputo adds.

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