By Shonda Novak and Bob Sechler
As Texas grapples with unprecedented flooding due to Tropical Storm Harvey, "catastrophe teams" from insurance companies are moving in to assess damage to hard-hit areas, the Insurance Council of Texas said.
The Houston area has seen widespread flooding and more rain expected throughout the week. Other Southeast Texas counties also are seeing significant flooding, the state industry trade association said.
"It is the worst flooding we have ever seen and the fact that it is occurring over a heavily populated area makes it that much worse, " said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, which represents about 500 property and casualty insurers. "The state remains in a search and rescue mode of operation until the flood waters subside and we're not sure when that is going to take place."
Hanna said it is impossible to know what insured losses will mount to, although it is expected to easily be in the billions of dollars and potentially record-setting.
"We have damage going on as we speak," Hanna said.
The costliest storm to ever hit Texas was the last hurricane to make landfall, Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13, 2008, near Galveston. Insured losses from Ike were estimated at $12 billion.
With heavy rains expected over the next few days, flood insurance will play a critical role in the post-storm recovery, the Insurance Council said.
The Insurance Council is urging Texans to contact their insurance agents and insurance companies with their claims as soon as they can safely return to their property and inspect and document damage by taking pictures and video.
Residents should make temporary repairs, if possible, to prevent further damage, the Insurance Council said. Don't start making permanent repairs until an assigned adjuster or representative has contacted you and inspected your property.
Homeowners should save receipts if they buy items such as tarps and plywood or other supplies to make repairs, as those may be reimbursed if they have a covered loss.
The National Flood Insurance Program is the only source of flood insurance for most people. The federal program falls under the Federal Emergency Management Association, or FEMA. The program, which is paid for by taxpayers, backs flood policies sold and serviced by private insurers.
While most Texas homeowners have insurance protecting them in the event of wind or hail damage, most of them lack flood insurance, Hanna said. The people who have it generally are required to, while others opt to take their chances, he said.
A flood insurance policy provides protection from rising waters outside a home.
Despite the risks in flood-prone parts of Texas, only 15 percent to 20 percent of people in areas affected by Harvey such as Houston and Corpus Christi carry flood insurance, Hanna estimated.
Nationally, a poll by the Insurance Information Institute showed only 12 percent of people in flood-prone coastal areas had flood insurance in 2016, down from 14 percent in 2015.
"A lot of people are going to be uninsured -- that's a fact," Hanna said Monday.
In Texas, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) is a residential insurer of last resort, providing wind and hail coverage to property owners in designated coastal areas who are unable to obtain insurance in the private market.
Windstorm policies provide protection from wind, wind-driven rain and wind-driven debris like a tree and hail. TWIA does not cover storm surge/flood damage, and flood insurance does not cover wind damage.
TWIA policyholders who sustain windstorm damage can file claims by contacting their agent, or by calling TWIA's 24-hour claims center at 800-788-8247; or by going online to TWIA.org/claimscenter.
In a statement Monday, the Consumer Federation of America said Harvey could result in as many as 50,000 claims for wind damage by homeowners and perhaps as many as two or three times as many claims for federal flood insurance, depending on ultimate rainfall totals.
Insurance payments for wind damage from Hurricane Harvey will likely approach $2 billion dollars, while insured flood claims will likely be in excess of $5 billion, the Consumer Federation of America projects.
Insurance adjusters, meanwhile, already are mobilizing in strategic locations, and "will be dealing with an overwhelming number of homes, businesses and vehicles that have been damaged by wind or flooded," the Insurance Council of Texas said.
State Farm, for instance, has sent additional resources to the Austin area, preparing to deploy them to the hardest hit areas to help process claims when weather conditions improve. Evacuation orders, power outages, and road closures are expected to delay some damage reports, the company said.
Since Thursday, more than 1,000 claims specialists had been deployed to Texas, with staging areas in Austin and Dallas, said Chris Pilcic, a State Farm spokesman.
"They are being assigned to areas of high claims concentration, as conditions allow us to enter," Pilcic said. 'There are a lot of restrictions right now."
As of late Sunday, State Farm reported about 5,050 claims across the state, with about 2,500 auto claims and about 2,500 homeowner claims.
So far more than 75 percent of the automobiles cannot be driven, State Farm officials said.
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