IOWA DERECHO 2020

Homeowners have insurance questions after Iowa's derecho storm. Here are some answers

Jeremiah Hawkins puts up a ladder Friday to get on the roof of a neighbor's house as he, along with Patrick Marx and Rob
Jeremiah Hawkins puts up a ladder Friday to get on the roof of a neighbor’s house as he, along with Patrick Marx and Robert Estabrook, work to remove and cut up a large tree off Phil Roger’s house in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — For cleanup-weary Iowans trying to cut through myriad insurance-related issues that followed Monday’s derecho savagery of downed trees, power lines and spirits, the answer to their questions about what is and is not covered oftentimes is that it depends.

The Gazette submitted a list of questions confronting homeowners to the Iowa Insurance Division. The response: Many times, specific instances must be addressed on a case-by-case basis and likely will hinge on things like policy parameters, deductibles (the amount customers pay before insurance pays) and other factors.

“They are tough for us to give bright line answers that will be useful to all,” said Chance McElhaney, the division’s communications director and legislative liaison.

One piece of good news is that wind damage — unlike floodwaters — generally is covered under homeowner policies, McElhaney noted.

Beyond that, Tom O’Meara, executive director for the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa, an association of about 600 member companies, said the answers often come down to a “depends or maybe or sometimes.”

In cases of tree damage on a property, coverage often depends on the levels provided for in the homeowner or resident’s specific policy, O’Meara said. If a tree went through the house and caused a total loss, payments might be subject to your policy’s coverage limits. For less-severe tree damage, the policy most likely would pay for damage repair subject to deductibles and other provisions.

Here are some common questions and some guidance — but since individual policies vary, it’s best to contact your insurer for details about your specific case:

A tree fell my way from a neighbor’s property. Who pays?

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In a case where a neighbor’s tree falls on your property or house, O’Meara said, in the majority of cases the responsibility falls on the property owner, even though the damage came from an outsider’s tree.

One exception would be if the neighbor’s tree was dead or had overhanging dead branches that the homeowner reported to city officials — who then told the neighbor to act but they didn’t. In that case, the neighbor would be liable, he said.

“The majority of the time you’re responsible for your own property even though it was your neighbor’s tree,” O’Meara said.

My house didn’t sustain structural damage but lots of trees are down. Is there coverage for that?

In cases where a homeowner has lots of trees and debris to remove but no structural damage, there is no insurance coverage.

If a neighbor, relative or friend stops by to help in the cleanup effort and is injured, homeowners’ insurance policies typically provide up to $5,000 medical payments unless some kind of negligent action was involved, O’Meara noted.

The tree that fell was in the city right of way. Who is responsible for that?

Should a tree come down that was planted on city right of way near someone’s home, “If it falls the city’s way on the street or something, the city’s responsible for it; if it falls toward the home, then the homeowner is responsible for it,” O’Meara said.

The exception would be if the tree was dead and had a big X and an orange circle around it but wasn’t removed.

Is damaged personal property covered?

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Personal property, such as a backyard trampoline, swimming pool, lawn furniture or children’s play equipment, likely would be covered separately under replacement costs minus depreciation and deductibles, O’Meara said.

If the items were blown off the property, the insured would have the burden of proof such as receipts, photographs, owner’s manuals or other documentation. But often those items were to be reported to an agent initially, since they could affect coverage rates.

A tree fell on my car. Is there any help?

If a tree falls on a person’s car, it is covered under the auto insurance policy’s comprehensive coverage. But it’s not covered in cases where the owner was carrying only liability coverage unless someone was injured in the mishap — and that part of it would be addressed.

Check with your agent

Monday’s derecho met the criteria of a catastrophic loss — the significance of which is these kinds of weather events cannot be factored negatively when setting insurance rates for the next coverage period, O’Meara noted.

Aaron Pearce, board president with the Iowa Insurance Institute, said many insurance-related scenarios will depend on individual policy coverage and while “there are certainly common coverages, we do not want to commit any member company to position.”

“Given the very unique nature of every person’s insurance policy, and their carrier’s operations, we encourage any Iowan who believes they may have a claim to contact their insurance agent, broker or carrier so that they can start a conversation about what potential options may exist for them,” Pearce said.

Insurance industry officials said Monday’s widespread damage that started in western Iowa and moved east has triggered a flood of insurance claims and inquiries that has swamped agents, company adjusters and independent adjusters who have been hired from other states to assist in the backlog.

“There are long waits right now,” O’Meara said. “The homeowner’s expectation is going to be a lot quicker than what the reality of the situation is.”

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He said homeowners want responses right away, but “the numbers don’t equate in being able to do that right now.”

McElhaney advised Iowans to consult their insurance policies to see what is or is not covered and contact their insurance agent to assist them in this process and guide them about how different policies (homeowners, health, umbrella, auto, etc.) may work together to help get them back on their feet.

“It’s important for folks to understand what their deductible amounts are as that may influence whether they file an insurance claim or not depending on the amount of damage they have encountered,” he noted.

“It can be very helpful in the claim process if there are pictures or video of the damage or during cleanup to accurately assess the damage.”

Avoid scams

Iowans who run into issues with their insurer are encouraged to contact the Iowa Insurance Division to file a consumer complaint at iid.iowa.gov/consumers or contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office at iowaattorneygeneral.gov if they suspect they’re being scammed during the recovery process.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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