JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Oct. 3, 2017 – The Rev. Tywanna Estell knew her church had not been spared from Hurricane Irma even before she arrived to survey the damages. She knew the storm had led to flooding along the Ribault River and that New Life Power Ministries' sanctuary had been erected on a particularly low-lying parcel on 10 acres of property right along its banks.
A church member called Estell, the senior pastor, to report the damages and suggested that if she wanted to see for herself she should bring a boat.
"It was literally a lake," she said. "The church itself, the water I would say, almost to your knees."
Church members never anticipated the type of flooding that ruined the carpets and drywall inside the building, so there was no flood insurance. Now, members wait to see what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be able to provide.
FEMA says it has approved 144,407 applications and provided $124.4 million to repair damages to Florida homes and businesses that aren't covered by insurance.
But that number is just a fraction of the overall Irma-related claims in Florida. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation reports that Irma claims statewide amount to $4.2 billion in losses. There were 661,957 claims filed as of Monday, which comes to about $6,500 in damages per case.
Leading the pack in the number of claims by county were three of the state's most populous: Miami-Dade at 79,827, Orange County at 54,962 and Broward County at 52,741. Rounding out the top five were two Southwest Florida counties that saw a direct hit from Irma: Lee with 49,525 claims and Collier with 44,493.
Duval County came in eighth with 27,931 claims filed. Clay County residents filed 7,372 claims and 7,628 claims came from St. Johns County.
Statewide, 84 percent of Irma-related claims are related to damages to residential properties like a home or apartment building. The rest deal with businesses or private property.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said recently that he expects the number of claims to continue to rise.
"As we enter the second stage of Irma recovery, we're focusing on making sure that insurance professionals have the tools they need to adjust and close your claims as efficiently and effectively as possible – helping your family return to normal faster," he wrote in a news release.
Nearly one in five non-FEMA claims filed statewide have been either paid out or denied, a clearance rate of 18.2 percent. However, some counties are well above average in the number of cases that have been closed out. In Clay County, 29 percent of claims have been resolved and that number was 28 percent in Duval.
These numbers include claims processed by private insurers and the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. but not losses reported solely to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Citizens was created by the Florida Legislature to provide insurance for residents near the coastline who are unable to find property coverage in the private sector. The Citizens Board of Governors received a report on Irma losses last week that said the company had received 45,681 claims as of Wednesday but that number could increase to 70,000 within 18 to 24 months.
Total estimated Irma losses for Citizens customers are expected to rise to $1.23 billion. So far, most claims have come from Miami-Dade, Monroe and Broward Counties. Citizens plans to use surplus funds and reimbursements from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to cover these losses.
"Much hard work and preparation over the last few years has paid off during Citizens initial response to Hurricane Irma," Chris Gardner, chairman of the Citizens Board of Governors, said in a news release last week. "However, given the magnitude of reported claims, we are sure to encounter unforeseen challenges."
As the number of home and business-owners filing insurance claims related to the hurricane continues to mount, Patronis said he is deploying teams of anti-fraud investigators to educate homeowners and local law enforcement about how to spot bad actors.
"The unfortunate truth is that some individuals will attempt to take advantage of consumers during this high-stress time," Patronis said in a news release. "To combat fraudsters' attempts to swindle Floridians, we're putting boots on the ground to ward off fraud and swiftly address any scams that may arise."
Copyright © 2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.), Tia Mitchell. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.