Storm victim battles insurers

Companies refuse to cover the loss of family home

November 09, 2003|By Stephanie Tracy | Stephanie Tracy,SUN STAFF

Victoria Wheatley sat on the front porch of a neighbor's house on Halloween and watched workmen demolish the house she had lived in her entire life.

The two-story wooden house had been in her family for more than 100 years and was condemned by the City of Annapolis after it was swept off its foundation during Tropical Storm Isabel. Now, Wheatley is locked in a battle with her insurance companies over coverage of the damages.

"It's just a real shame on top of the one tragedy, to then have to fight with the insurance companies," said Wheatley, 58. "The house was the only connection I had to my parents and grandparents; in some sense I feel like I'm burying my family all over again."

Wheatley's insurance claims were denied, and she could not afford to have the house taken down without funding from insurance. The city agreed to demolish the house for her -- but put a $9,000 lien on her property in lieu of payment.

And while she has received some funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help her find a new place to live, she is still dealing with the aftermath of the storm. She recently hired a lawyer to help her settle the conflict with her insurance companies.

Wheatley and her two sons rode out the September storm in their house at 210 Eastern Ave. in Eastport, a few hundred feet from Back Creek.

On Sept. 19, once the storm had subsided, Wheatley contacted her insurance companies after she noticed water seeping up through the floor on the first level of the house. She had a homeowner's insurance policy through Travelers Property Casualty, and flood insurance through Hartford Fire Insurance Co.

When Wheatley noticed the house beginning to lean to one side Sept. 20, she contacted an engineer to inspect the structure.

The engineer looked at the building Sept. 22, and informed Wheatley that the flood waters had knocked the house off its pilings. There was concern that the structure could collapse onto the neighbors' home.

The same day, inspectors from the city notified Wheatley that the roof was caving in and that the building was uninhabitable. Wheatley and her sons left the house and moved in with family and friends in the neighborhood.

That's when her paperwork battle began. When Wheatley reached her insurance companies Sept. 24, a claims representative at Traveler's told her that the damage to her home was caused by flood and was not covered under her homeowner's policy.

A claims adjuster from Hartford Insurance inspected Wheatley's property a few days later. Wheatley was told that the damage was caused by wind and was therefore not covered under her flood insurance policy.

A spokeswoman for Travelers declined to comment on Wheatley's claims, citing privacy concerns.

A spokeswoman for Hartford said she could not comment specifically on Wheatley's claims because of confidentiality policies, but offered an explanation of Hartford's procedures in assessing Wheatley's situation.

Cynthia Michener said that Hartford operates its flood insurance program under the umbrella of the National Flood Insurance Program. The National Flood Insurance Program is administered through FEMA. Hartford had its adjuster's assessment of the damage confirmed by an expert from the National Flood Insurance Program.

City inspectors returned to Wheatley's home on Oct. 1 to inform her that the building was still leaning and threatening neighboring buildings. She was given 72 hours to have the house demolished or face a $500 per day fine.

By early October, Wheatley had been informed in writing by both insurance companies that her claims had been denied, and the city served her with a civil citation Oct. 15 for not demolishing her house within the 72-hour time limit.

Wheatley's home was one of about six structures that presented serious problems to owners in the days after Isabel, said Mike Mallinoff, director of the Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Programs. He said the city arranged demolition with Wheatley and that the fines imposed on her were not meant to be punitive.

"We imposed the fines as a formality," Mallinoff said. "It's not something that we really expected her to pay. Clearly what happened is that the area was flooded; there were city buildings in that area that were under water."

In the process of filing her claims with the insurance companies, Wheatley said she was told by her flood insurance company that her home had been in a weakened condition before the storm.

In response, Wheatley started to collect letters from her neighbors and family members testifying to the good condition of her house before the storm. She was collecting letters while workmen were tearing down her house.

Tom Swontek, chief code official for Annapolis, had worked with Wheatley in the first few days after the storm and contacted the insurance companies in an attempt to advance Wheatley's cause.

Wheatley filed a complaint against the insurance companies with the Maryland Insurance Administration. Alderman Josh Cohen, a Ward 8 Democrat, wrote a letter in support of Wheatley, encouraging the administration to expedite the case.

"Ms. Wheatley's situation has really been the exception in what has otherwise been a good response from the insurance companies and other agencies," Cohen said.

In the meantime, city officials have worked with Wheatley to help untangle the complications from the storm, she said. "The city officials have been wonderful through all this," Wheatley said.

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