It’s been more than four months since Hurricane Ian ripped through Fort Myers Beach, Florida — but many residents are fighting with insurance companies, and one family says they’ve only been offered $500 in compensation for their unlivable home.
In devastated Lee County, more than a quarter of all closed insurance claims were denied, leaving tens of thousands of property owners on the brink of financial ruin.
In addition to the 48,344 claims denied as of January 20, another 30,215 remain in limbo with no sign of an upcoming payment.
A growing number of the 135,086 Lee County residents who actually received payments mean they were underfunded, with amounts nowhere close to covering major reconstruction efforts.
“What happened here is shocking,” said Fort Myers Beach Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt. “It was a disaster. People are outside. They are desperate.”
The bulk of the claims stem from carriers claiming that the damage was caused by a flood that was not covered by their homeowner’s insurance.
But residents told The Post that the obvious wind damage covered by the basic policy is being denied by carriers.
Residents who can’t live in their homes and don’t have the insurance funds to fix them are taking shelter everywhere – in camps, couchettes, and in some cases, tents.
Insurance attorney Monica Schmucker told The Post that Ian destroyed her home and made it unlivable. He had homeowner’s insurance, which he believed would cover wind damage to his roof and other structural members.
“They sent me a check for $500,” Schmucker said. “I didn’t even cash it. This is simply an insult.”
Without enough money to renovate the house, her family of four now lives in a donated camper in a church parking lot. “My daughter starts crying sometimes,” she said. “He says he wants a room again. It feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Schmucker is inundated with requests for help from other homeowners who have had their claims denied or received insufficient payments.
Laurie Carroll, an executive at a medical device firm, had flood and homeowner’s insurance on the home she shared with her husband.
“We thought we were completely covered,” he said. “Homeowner’s insurance sent us a check for $107.”
Carroll said the flood insurer has sent him a payment for half of his policy — which won’t come close to funding his rebuild.
Carroll and his wife have already spent $100,000 to stay afloat — $50,000 on property cleanup and $50,000 on the trailer they live in.
“You would think that if there was ever a situation where you would get full compensation, this would be it,” he said. “We’re paying a mortgage for a house that doesn’t exist.”
Carroll said a growing number of locals are being denied claims, forced to sell their beloved but battered properties.
“If we can’t rebuild, we may have to take the exit option,” he said. “It’s fight or flight right now.
Several residents noted that scattered tent camps had sprung up in Ian’s wake – a mix of renters and homeowners with nowhere else to go.
Atterholt said others live in badly damaged homes with no running water or utilities, preferring to live under a roof at risk rather than on the street.
Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Tasha Carter told The Post that her office has received a steady stream of complaints from homeowners.
In some cases, flood carriers blame the wind for the damage, while the homeowner’s insurance company blames the damage on the storm surge, Carter said.
In this case, both parties refuse to pay.
“These are people who think they have it covered and they’re not getting anything,” Carter said. “There is no house, no evidence to prove either side.”
Atterholt, who also denied the lawsuit, said he expects a wave of lawsuits in the coming months and possibly years.
“The pettiness, the insensitivity is just shocking,” he said, adding that countless homeowners can barely agree to a call back from their operator.
The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation told WFTS in December: “OIR expects insurers to do everything possible to respond to the needs of affected Floridians, restore a sense of normalcy, and facilitate recovery and recovery in affected communities.
“Consumers are encouraged to work closely with their insurance company and agent if they feel they have been unfairly denied or unfairly compensated for a claim. Consumers must first provide the insurer with damage estimates or additional documentation to support their claim.”