Five months after an Easter night tornado sent trees crashing through her roof and rain cascading into her kitchen, Lauren Cameron's home was still draped in blue tarps, wide open to the weather.
"Structurally it's OK, and it's harder in a way to rebuild," Cameron says, walking through the empty shell of the home off Standifer Gap Road where she's lived for 13 years. "If it were completely destroyed, insurance would have written a check, and we could have rebuilt here or bought somewhere else."
Instead, Cameron is navigating the sometimes arduous process of documenting every loss and negotiating the terms of repairing the home with her insurance carrier.
"The burden of proof is on you to figure out what needs to be done," Cameron says. "It's not been an easy journey. We've had three different adjusters, and we just got approved to replace the roof."
The Easter storms resulted in more than 15,000 insurance claims in the Chattanooga area, including nearly 11,000 for damage to residential property, according to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. In all, there were $444 million in losses, more than $325 million of that to residential property.
That volume makes it tough to get help in a hurry, says Christina Nuar, who owns Rock Creek Insurance in Chattanooga with her husband, Matthew.
"You have to be patient with the insurance company because now they have thousands of claims," she says. "Take photos, save copies of itemized invoices. We don't have insurance companies that are going to nickel-and-dime a client during a disaster, but documentation makes things much easier on the claims adjuster."
David Allen, principal with RSS Insurance in Chattanooga, says one of the most important things any homeowner can do is walk around their house making a simple video record of their possessions before a disaster hits.
"A lot of people don't understand, when you have a loss, the onus is on the consumer to substantiate the loss," Allen says. "It's the saddest situation, to see a person at a time of distress — you're in a state of shock, you don't remember what you did and didn't have."
Another step homeowners should take is to understand their policies — which is easier said than done, says Arch E. Trimble IV, director of strategic relationships for RSS.
"Unfortunately, 99.9% of people don't understand how insurance works," Trimble says. "When you have a house wiped off the face of the planet, you need someone you can trust that you can call to help you through it."
April 2020 tornado claims in Tennessee
* Residential Property: 10,839 claims / $326.2 million in losses
* Commercial Property: 693 claims / $83.4 million in losses
* Personal Auto: 3,395 claims / $21.7 million in losses
* Commercial Auto: 62 claims / $602,404 in losses
* Business Interruption: 95 claims / $3.8 million in losses
* Flood: 3 claims / $95,392 in losses
* All Other Lines / $3.6 million in losses
Cameron had that relationship with her insurance agent, but in the middle of these challenges came a personal blow — the agent who had worked with her family for generations passed away suddenly in July.
"He had also been my parents' agent, and he was a huge advocate for us," she says.
Losing that support in the middle of this process has been tough, Cameron says, but she is prepared to persist.
"You have just 24 months to file everything, and the first four months are figuring out what to do and time starts ticking," she says. "It's six months before they can really start the work. I have to be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint."
On the night the storm hit, Cameron and her 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, were alerted by Cameron's mother, who called and told them to get to the basement in a hurry. They huddled together in a dark downstairs room, listening as the wind tore through and toppled the trees that had surrounded their home on a hillside in East Brainerd.
"When it was over, before we left that room, I told Olivia, 'I don't know what we're going to come out to, but we're safe and everything is replaceable," Cameron says. "We're very thankful and feel blessed that our lives were spared."
Cameron and her daughter spent the first month after the storms living in a hotel, and have since rented a house in Ooltewah while she works through the process of rebuilding. The insurance company has been quick to reimburse them, but there were steep up-front costs with moving and storage and hotel expenses, Cameron says.
"We were probably $3,000 to $5,000 out of pocket immediately," Cameron says.
Helping people understand what to expect when they're hit with loss begins as soon as the storms clear, Allen says. On the night of the storms, the RSS claims unit was on the scene at 4:37 a.m., he says.
"We really just try and understand at that time of need, how can we help people?" he says.
One unpleasant discovery many homeowners have made in the heavily wooded suburban areas where the storms hit is that tree damage often isn't covered unless the tree hits a structure, Nuar says.
Before the Storms
Top property insurance tips from RSS Insurance:
* Prepare for a claim: Create a home inventory by recording a video of each room in your home to help you remember when those items may have been destroyed.
* Be informed: Understand the difference between the rebuild/replacement cost versus your home value. As materials costs go up and demand for contractors surges after a storm, your home value based on the sales price or market value could be very different from the actual cost to rebuild.
* Relationships matter: Build relationships with insurance advisors so you have someone to help you navigate the claim process.
* Shop for value: Many carriers can add significant coverage enhancements to the standard homeowner’s policy, increasing the value of the coverage, sometimes without much additional cost.
* Purchase an umbrella policy: As your assets increase, the basic liability protection in your homeowner’s policy may not be enough to address your needs.
* Other structures: Decks, pools, sheds, and any other structures not attached to the home need to be addressed in your coverage.
* Know what is not covered: Fill in the gaps. Jewelry, art, firearms, “toys” such as expensive outdoor equipment, and other valuable items most likely will need to be individually covered.
* Extra coverages: Water and sewer backup, flood, earthquake, and sinkhole collapse are all examples of excluded coverages that can be purchased.
"A lot of homeowners in East Brainerd learned in April whether tree debris removal is covered on their policy," she says. "You don't think about it being critical until you have numerous trees to remove."
The storms also hit just as many people had stocked their refrigerators and freezers with extra food in the early days of the pandemic. For some, the extended power outages after the storms meant they lost thousands of dollars in food, Nuar adds.
"We spent a lot of time looking for generators for our clients," she says.
Weather data suggests tornados are becoming more frequent in the South, which could mean changes to the approach insurers take to covering property here, Allen says.
"The next 12 months will be very interesting," he says. "You'll see carriers be very strict in their underwriting, and you'll see perhaps they'll take rate increases if this really becomes a more frequent pattern."
Hodgen Mainda, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, says consumer complaints about insurance were up in the months weeks and months following the tornados in Chattanooga, as well as the devastating storms that hit Nashville in March.
"Most complaints were about slow response, it was hard to get adjusters on the ground," Mainda says. "Unsatisfactory settlement offers were another common complaint."
As of Sept. 1, 2020, the department had gotten consumers more than $3.6 million in claims restitution from insurance companies. During the same time period last year, the amount was just shy of $2.6 million.
Hodgen Mainda's first year leading Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance brings big challenges