North Fork insurance agents offer advice, insights

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Perry Conklin cuts up wood from a fallen limb in front of his Main Road home in Aquebogue Sunday afternoon.

Long Island property owners struck insurance gold when Hurricane Irene deteriorated into a tropical storm on its way up the coast. If the storm had remained a Category 1 hurricane, many homeowners would have had to shell out deductibles ranging from 2 to 5 percent of their home’s value, said John Brisotti of Brisotti & Silkworth in Mattituck.

“Now, it certainly has worked to their benefit,” he said.

Under hurricane deductible provisions, a home valued at $500,000 would carry a deductible of between $10,000 and $25,000. But since the storm wasn’t that bad, the standard wind damage protection kicks in, and that usually carries much lower deductibles of $500 to $1,000, Mr. Brisotti said.

Members of Allstate’s catastrophe team arrived at Elizabeth Hanlon’s Riverhead office Monday afternoon, ready to deal with a mountain of claims for property damage from Irene.

“The cavalry is here,” Ms. Hanlon said when a reporter called the offices Monday.

She said Allstate’s team will mainly process the most common post-Irene damage claims, which stem from trees falling on homes, sheds, fences and valuable lawn furniture, most of which should be covered under wind damage provisions in most homeowners’ insurance policies, she said.

The process for documenting damage and submitting a claim is important to receiving a settlement.

Ms. Hanlon recommends that homeowners take numerous pictures of the damage and call in a tree expert to assess the situation.
“[Homeowners] have to protect their homes from further damage, too,” she said. “So, if something lands on their house and they have a big gaping hole in the house, they have to get someone there to remove the tree and cover the roof damage up.”

If the tree or debris has no potential to cause further damage, leave it until a claims adjuster arrives, said Joseph Townsend of the Neefus Stype Agency, which has locations in Southold and Aquebogue. He cautioned homeowners against using uninsured servicepeople and said insurance companies will generally pay for work that prevents further damage.

“One thing you have to watch out for, because the companies are just going to pay the prevailing rate, is that you don’t overpay,” Mr. Townsend said. “People will gouge at times like this. The insurance company won’t pay more than the general cost of that service.”

Many homeowners’ policies do not cover tree removal but some companies will chip in with a reimbursement check to “be the good guys,” Mr. Townsend said.

“So definitely save your receipts,” he said, adding that companies may broaden their coverage post-tropical storm or hurricane. And, if the insurance route fails, saved receipts documenting storm cleanup and repair could always be claimed on taxes as uninsured losses, he said.

Automotive claims relating to fallen tree and limb damage and flooding have also spiked since Irene hit, Ms. Hanlon said. She has also received claims for food spoilage, but the deductible on that alone usually exceeds the value of the food, she said.

One claim missing from the bunch? Flood damage. Ms. Hanlon has a few flood damage claims, but not many. Flood insurance is provided by the federal government through independent agents, she said.

Allstate is prioritizing claims based on their severity and promises a five-day turnaround on most, Ms. Hanlon said. Some will be able to be settled via telephone alone, she said.

Fear of rate hikes should not deter homeowners from making claims, Mr. Brisotti said. Unlike car insurance, one claim will not directly impact premiums.

Long Islanders will also not see a mass hike in premiums, a scenario that occurred after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Insurance companies allow for the possibility of a disaster when they set premiums, so the claims filed this time around should not change monthly bills, he said.

“But, I suppose it could, if we have another storm like this in the near future,” he said. “Then there’s a better chance.”

Although homeowners generally will pay lower deductibles this time around, insurance companies are not hurting from helping pay for Irene damage, Mr. Brisotti said. If Irene had made landfall as a Category 2 storm, which was predicted at one point, homeowners would have had to pay higher deductibles. But the damage from a stronger storm would have been much greater and more widespread, he said. Insurance companies would be paying for extremely costly catastrophic damage like washed away homes rather than fallen trees, he said.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said.

Unlike Ms. Hanlon’s bulked-up Roanoke Avenue office, Mr. Brisotti and Mr. Townsend reported a slower pace of phone calls. They expect another round of claims after second-home owners arrive on the North Fork for Labor Day weekend, and when power and Internet service are restored to more homes.

“It’s been steady but not nearly what it was for Gloria,” Mr. Brisotti said, recalling the 1985 hurricane, to which Irene had been initially compared. “I remember that, it was unbelievable. It was all hands on deck.”