When Brian Helms heard about Hurricane Irma building momentum in the South Atlantic, he wasn't too concerned. His house was a concrete block, he had hurricane-impact windows and his family had plenty of supplies.
Besides, early weather reports indicated that Irma was headed for Miami, north of the island town of Islamorada, Florida, where he lived with his wife and kids. "Any time you’re on the south side of a hurricane, you’re better off than being caught on that right side, the dirty side," Helms told ValuePenguin.
But Irma, which made landfall in September 2017 on the Florida peninsula, didn't follow her projected path and instead landed about 50 miles south of the Helmses' home. With little time to act, the family moved all of their belongings onto furniture and beds, as high off the floor as possible. Then they headed inland.
Hurricane Irma was the fifth most destructive hurricane since the year 1900, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Irma caused around $50 billion in damage, while early projections put Hurricane Florence's cost at between $17 and $22 billion (with the total damage still being calculated). But some estimates suggest Florence's total damage will be on par with Irma.
A year later, Helms is still rebuilding his family’s home and dealing with ongoing insurance claims. The Florida Keys is “a really cool place to live,” Helms said, but the threat of hurricanes is “a fact of living on an island.”
Returning home after a hurricane
Helms estimates that the water receded from their home within a few hours, but the damage wasn’t anything they could prepare for.
"We had three trees down on the roof of our home, a lot of fence and landscape damage,” he said. “And we had brick pavers that got undermined by floodwater." Despite their hurricane-impact windows withstanding the storm, wind pressure had broken the windows' seals, requiring their replacement. Inside their home, the waters had reached as high as three feet, and despite their efforts to move items off the floor, much of the family's personal property was destroyed.
Among the personal effects that became hurricane detritus was a cherished family memento. "On our family vacations, we [would] go to national parks and hike and such, and have a small journal that we wrote things in over the years,” Helms said. “We forgot that, and it got ruined.”
Even the items he had the forethought to pack away weren’t spared by Irma’s destruction. “I put my tools in coolers, thinking that the coolers would protect them,” Helms said. “Well, the water came in and then the coolers tipped over, and all the tools went in the drink."
The post-hurricane cleanup begins
Helms got to work right away, but he was overwhelmed by the size and uncertainty of the task. With cell phone towers still down and communication cut off, he tried to research online, “What does the insurance company want?” It was a daunting task trying pick out what needed to be done, “because there was just too much to do all in one day, or one week,” he said. In fact, it took several weeks just to clean up everything in the house before the full scope of the damage could be assessed.
Fortunately, he knew to document the damage before cleaning anything up. He took a video of the destruction and saved it for his insurance claims. Then he started cleaning out the house, salvaging what he could and disposing of the rest. "All the cabinets and everything were starting to smell,” Helms said. "It was just a matter of getting everything out of the house as quickly as possible to mitigate the mold. Once everything was out, there was no means to live in the house."
It would take months before the family could return home.
Filing claims and finding contractors
Once they had cleared out their house, it became a waiting game for the Helmses.
"A lot of the ocean-front, high-end homes—those people have the means to hire contractors immediately after [a hurricane] and start work,” Helms said. “Unfortunately, we had to wait for insurance money.” The other issue, Helms points out is, “living in a small town, there are only so many people that do that type of work."
According to the terms of his insurance policies, Helms needed to file claims with both his flood insurance company and his wind insurance company. His homeowners insurance policy excluded coverage for wind and flood damage that result from hurricanes.
But getting those claims moving wasn’t easy. Helms recalls spending weeks calling his insurance company only to hear an automatic recording on the other line, with the message that they were experiencing high call volumes and would return calls as soon as possible. “You’d never hear back from them,” Helms said.
The delay in response time from insurance companies is a common complaint after large, regional disasters, such as hurricanes, and one of the reasons Hurricane Florence homeowners should try to file all of their claims as early as possible.
Once the adjusters arrived, some parts of the process went smoothly, but others hit a roadblock. The flood insurance adjuster spent an entire day at their home, inspecting the damage, measuring the property and recording each individual item that was ruined by the flood water. "Honestly, I can’t say enough," Helms said of how satisfactory this part of the experience was. "The adjuster was always available." He offered Helms a portion of the payout immediately, so he could get started on the repairs. The rest of the money came within a month.
There was just one problem: Like many Americans, Helms took out a mortgage to buy his house, and since he didn't yet own the house in full, his lender received that money. When Helms told his lender that he was happy to do some of the basic renovations himself if they'd give him the money for supplies, they responded by telling him they wouldn't release any funds until they'd sent their own inspector, approved of a contractor and approved of that contractor's bid.
That’s when any repair work came to a halt. "None of the contractors wanted to go through that much work when they had so much other work where people were willing to write them checks right at that moment," Helms said.
Around the same time, the wind insurance adjuster also came to inspect their home. That experience, however, was in sharp contrast to the Helmses’ experience with their flood insurance agency. Helms recalls the adjuster couldn’t answer what his policy covered and spent all of ten minutes surveying the damage.
More than a year later, Helms still hasn't finalized that claim. "They made us an offer that wouldn’t even cover ten percent of the roof damage,” Helms said. “We still don’t have our fence back up. We still don’t have certain things done that were paid for by the flood insurance company, because we used the money from the flood company to fix our roof, since there was no point moving forward with the inside stuff until the roof got fixed."
What Hurricane Florence homeowners can expect
Six months after Irma, the Helmses finally moved back home. They used all of their flood insurance money to pay for the most important structural repairs and to replace some of their personal belongings, such as furniture and clothing. Their wind insurance policy also included contents coverage, which could be used to replace some of these items, but since that claim hasn't been paid out yet, the family has had to pay out of pocket to replace the rest.
After seeing the devastation of Hurricane Florence and having gone through the same rebuilding efforts himself over a year ago, Helms had this advice: “We just picked out projects every day, and tried to do small things; small victories at a time, to mitigate everything we could."
In the meantime, the family has hired someone else to fight their case against their wind insurance company, Homeowners Choice. "After two or three months of trying to deal with them ourselves, we finally just hired a private adjuster,” Helms said. “We'll let them argue."