Saturday, November 26, 2005

Niceville in War, Insurance News

Niceville, Florida, is all over the news this Thanksgiving weekend. The panhandle town with the over-the-top saccharine name is "where Okaloosa and Walton counties align," as John Vinocour charitably phrased it in yesterday's International Herald Tribune.

Vinocour's column, titled "Niceville U.S.A.," reports that even in Niceville -- the reddest of red state country -- public and military support for Bush's Iraq war policy is seriously eroding. Having visited the area during the 2004 presidential campaign, Vinocour writes:
A little more than a year ago, Niceville, its cheery Welcome Wagon of a name, its air force base, its colony of retired colonels, and its locals' strong ties to the Christian right wing, all made the town an early campaign stop for Bush on his way to re-election.
But today, Vinocour heard on a revisit "confusion" and support for John Murtha's proposal for a rapid withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, and outright dissent over the Bush administration's Iraq war policy.

Vinocour's article is hidden behind the Times Select subscription page but you can see a teaser here. Even better, for free, you can read an eerie Ohio echo of the very same phenomenon by reading Kate Zernike's piece in today's New York Times, titled "Even Supporters Doubt President As Issues Pile Up."

Ms. Zernike doesn't mention Niceville, but the people in Ohio seem to be thinking and saying the same things as the people in Niceville. If this keeps up, Mr. Bush will have to confine his carefully choreographed public appearances to the campus of Bob Jones University.

But there's more! Niceville also looms large in a highly critical article about hurricane claims adjusting practices in Louisiana written by the Washington Post's Dean Starkman: "Same Insurance Claims, Different Results in La. Town."

Among others, Starkman tells the tale of two neighbbors in the small town of Gretna, La. (pre-Katrina pop. 17,208). One of them, Melmary Matheny, "has already received partial payment on her flood claim and has been told to expect another check soon." The other, Silvia I. Cosenza, "says she's been caught in an insurance nightmare: Her flood claim denied because an insurance adjuster ruled that her neighborhood was not flooded."

"For sure, she flooded as much as we did," says the lucky insurance claimant about the unlucky one. "Our whole entire neighborhood flooded."

So, what accounts for the different treatment? Different insurance companies and different adjusters, it seems. And it turns out the offending claims adjusting firm is located in Niceville, Florida:
Cosenza said she first contacted a unit of American National Insurance Co., the Galveston, Tex., company that sold her the flood policy. Representatives at American National referred her to National Flood Services Inc., based in Kalispell, Mont., which referred her to a claims-handling contractor, Simsol Insurance Services Inc., based in Niceville, Fla.

In calls to Simsol and National Flood Services, Cosenza said, she received different answers regarding her claim. One person told her it had been denied Oct. 5 and closed; a second person said it had never been closed; and a third person told her that it had been closed but reopened.

Cosenza said an adjuster from Simsol inspected the property on Oct. 1, but she did not hear back from him for weeks -- though she did reach his wife, who works in the office and assured her he was still working on the claim.
Reporter Starkman also puts a finger on one common curse of dealing with adjusters that few outside America's hurricane zone can appreciate: the tremendously time consuming, enervating and expensive process of responding to every demand the adjuster can think to pile on a homeowner.
The battle over her family's flood claim became so time-consuming that Cosenza said she had to turn down a new job as a government biologist. Her husband, who works for an oil-drilling company, was out of work for a month after the storm. The family is struggling to pay both the mortgage on the Gretna house and rent on their Houston apartment, Cosenza said.

"I'm already past the point of being upset and depressed, and it's a laughable matter now," she said.
Bitterly laughable, one supposes.
To support her claim, Cosenza said, she sent Simsol photos of water damage, statements from neighbors and news accounts of flooding in the area. She also obtained a letter dated Nov. 8 from the Jefferson Parish flood plain coordinator, Tom Rodrigue, who attested to the flooding in the neighborhood.

Cosenza said a Simsol executive who reviewed the documentation told her that the area had not been flooded and insisted that she retrieve photos of the area taken by a neighbor who rode out the storm.

"It would be great if you sent the photos you claim to have which show the floodwaters in the home, rather than having several individuals send letters on your behalf -- none of which conclusively support your contention that the property flooded," the executive, Don Roberts, wrote, according to an e-mail provided to The Washington Post by Cosenza.

Cosenza said she drove several hours from Houston to Gretna to retrieve the photos and sent them to Simsol.
What Cosenza doesn't know, but local insurance defense lawyers have verified to us, is that in many cases after Hurricane Ivan devastated the Pensacola area, when defense lawyers finally got to see an adjusting company's operations they often discovered "a lot" of the documents, photos, and other proofs homeowners transmitted were lost or mislaid in the chaotic mess of adjusting files stacked on the floor. As we wrote a month ago:
In a recent private conversation, one lawyer from a locally prominent insurance defense firm said at least 50 percent of the cases coming in the door should have been paid policy limits a year ago.

Why weren't they? Topping his list were poorly trained adjusters, break-downs in claims file management at the office level ("a lot of the paperwork was lost in stacks on the floor"), and deliberate delays due to adjuster or company policies.
Possibly this is the explanation for this:
Roberts did not return messages left at his office. A woman answering the phone at Simsol said Roberts was busy and might not be able to respond to questions for "another couple of months."
A 'couple of months'?? Someone in Niceville, it would seem, is being... well, not all that nice.

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