Oct. 11--Insurance agent Tom Cotton opened his South Orlando office Saturday, expecting customers with hurricane damage. By 11:30 a.m., one person came to pay a bill; Cotton sent his staff home.
Twelve years ago, the longtime agent opened on Saturday after the region was rocked by Hurricane Charley, and customers were waiting in line.
"We got very, very lucky in Central Florida this time," said Cotton, who had fielded six claims from his 5,000 customers since Hurricane Matthew brushed by the state last week. "The water was going where it was supposed to go."
Northeast of Orlando, Volusia County and its popular seaside destinations of Daytona Beach, Ormond Beach and New Smyrna Beach had more insurance claims filed through Sunday than any other Florida county -- 1,399. About 4 percent of them had been resolved, the lowest rate in a state where more than 7 percent of claims had been resolved by Sunday.
Volusia had about three times more insurance claims filed by Sunday than Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties combined.
The state Office of Insurance Regulation reported late Monday that about 4,973 Floridians had filed $21 million worth of claims from Friday through Sunday. As evacuees return to their homes, that will likely climb, said Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Financial Services.
Two of the state's largest insurance companies -- State Farm and Citizens Property -- reported that less than 1 percent of Florida policy holders had filed complaints within 48 hours of Hurricane Matthew, which barreled up the Eastern coast.
Most of the damage in the state was from Daytona Beach north to Ponte Vedra Beach, according to a news briefing from Florida Association of Insurance Agents.
The post-Matthew story for the property insurance industry has been one of warning property owners against signing any insurance-related documents, known as assignment of benefits.
The assignment of benefits can be a "costly scheme that hurts consumer's pocketbook," according to State Farm, which has 265,739 policy holders in the state and fielded 2,500 claims by Monday.
Insurers say the practice opens the door to overbilling. Contractors encourage homeowners to sign over to them the benefits of their insurance policy often before a claim has been filed so that the contractor deals with the insurance company instead of the homeowner.
"While AOB [assignment of benefits] is a legal tool that can be used appropriately, it also provides an opportunity for shady repair or damage remediation companies to partner with trial attorneys to drastically inflate home repair costs," said Michal Brower, a State Farm spokeswoman. "The increase in costs (and attorneys' fees) leads to an increase in premiums for which all Floridians are left on the hook."
Michael Peltier, a spokesman for Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, cautioned the company's policy holders to beware.
"Unfortunately, unscrupulous contractors and repair companies thrive in the frenzied days following any storm," he said.
More than 200 Floridians called the state Division of Consumer Services by Monday afternoon with questions about coverage, and one call resulted in a complaint about claim-handling delays and issuing timely insurance payments, a state spokesman said.
Few property owners are likely to get insurance relief, said Jeff Grady, president of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents. While some property owners are required to carry flood policies because their home is in or near a flood plain, few others do. Wind deductibles became commonplace in Florida following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and a trio of hurricanes in 2004, forcing policy holders to pay 2 percent to 5 percent of their home's value as a deductible.
By Monday afternoon, 1,314 of the 464,725 Floridians with Citizens Property Insurance had started filing claims.
Throughout Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties, 4,660 homeowners have Citizens and about half of them can expect higher rates in 2017. Rates in the Metro Orlando area range from $491 in Lake to $538 in Seminole -- far below the state average of $1,818.
The state has extended hours for its insurance consumer helpline: (877) 693-5236. The Department's Insurance Consumer Helpline offers Floridians access to insurance experts who can explain policy coverage details, help consumers locate contact information for insurance companies, and answer claims-filing questions.
Also in the wake of what had been a Category 5 hurricane, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday activated a temporary loan program for small businesses impacted by Hurricane Matthew. With as much as $25,000 per loan, up to $10 million has been allocated for companies with two to 100 workers.
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