Insurance claims adjusters in Fla. face formidable task in Andrew's aftermath

September 27, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Larry Bishop drops gingerly through a hole in the roof onto the living room floor. Even with wet debris everywhere in this abandoned home, it's as if he has stepped into a time capsule sealed more than a month ago, in the last hours before Hurricane Andrew changed south Dade County forever.

The coffee table is stacked with videos -- "Fantasia" and "The Little Mermaid." Next to them is a Hurricane Preparations Guide opened to a kids' page of "Weather Facts and Fun." Down the hall, the main bathroom still smells sweetly of soap and skin lotion, although a few blades of grass sprout from a mound of rubble, and the ceiling is open to blue sky.

Two framed needlepoint works hang undisturbed on opposite walls in the ruin of the master bedroom. One proclaims, "There is joy in each new day." The other recites a popular prayer of comfort that begins, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. . . ."

It can be odd, doing this job. Mr. Bishop and partner George Small are insurance claims adjusters, at once the most popular and most despised occupation in the surreal landscape of south Dade County.

Thousands of adjusters

There are thousands of adjusters here, called in from across the country to help assess the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, which hit Florida Aug. 24. For weeks, they've been poking through the ruins with tape measures and cameras, and for tens of thousands of homeowners they are the chief financial officers of the recovery.

A day spent with Larry Bishop and George Small is a crash course on Andrew's legacy, offering the best view of the recovery's agonizing progress. By turns, it is a glimpse into the exhausting monotony of the survivalist lifestyle, a primer on the perils of short-cut construction, a census reading on a migrating population and a soap opera of anxious people whose futures hinge on the size of their insurance checks.

Before this day is out, Larry and George will write checks totaling more than a half-million dollars, although some of the homeowners they visit will be left waiting for computers to

render a final judgment on their settlement.

An empty home

But their first stop is this empty home with its rooms frozen in time. The owners have moved north to Broward County, and, judging from the full closets and cupboards, they took hardly a thing with them.

"I've been surprised at the number of people who are just up and moving," Larry says. As he arranges appointments each night on the telephone in his hotel room, he says, "I'm talking to people in Tennessee, Pennsylvania and California."

At this first stop, the damaged roof, ripped wiring, bent walls, soaked floors and skewed frame make for an easy call. It's a total loss. The only question will be whether the owner had enough coverage.

Larry, based in Gasden, Ala., and George, from Asbury Park, N.J., work for State Farm, insurer of about one-fifth of the homes in south Dade. They're part of an army of 2,100 people the company sent here to reinforce the 500 who already worked in Dade. State Farm officials expect to pay out $1.5 billion in claims before it's over.

it is a mammoth logistical effort, based at a complex of six double-wide trailers set up in the parking lot of a ruined shopping center in Homestead. There are satellite dishes for phones, fax machines and computers. Each night, the whole force scatters in rental cars to 24 motels and hotels, some driving 60 miles up or down the coast.

But the toughest part of the job is getting adjusters out to the 110,000 homes whose occupants have filed claims. As of Friday, State Farm agents had filed claims on 93,000.

In the early going, Larry and George risked getting mobbed wherever they went. Their bright red State Farm shirts were both a curse and a blessing, protecting them from quick-triggered residents nervous about looters but attracting every State Farm customer on the block.

"When that happens, you just look straight ahead. You don't turn around or they'll snatch you," George says.

'Try not to make eye contact'

"You try not to make eye contact," Larry says. But if someone keeps coming and starts screaming, "You just let 'em go, and once they blow it off they're usually very civil."

Those scenes don't happen as often now, although at just about every stop on this day, a homeowner mentions some neighbor still waiting to hear from State Farm.

Jorge Rosado, whose house is the second stop, talks of a neighbor down the street. But Mr. Rosado's problems are enough to handle for the moment, and after 20 minutes he gets a check for $105,000.

"I would like to rebuild," he says. "The first day when this happened, everybody was going to move. But now you speak to people, and they're staying."

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