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Trash begins to pile up on the sides of the road in the Spring Meadow neighborhood of LaPlace, La., 9 days after Hurricane ida, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

For Renata Payne, the decision to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ida was a no-brainer. Years of devastating storms had helped her develop a simple rule: “If it’s a Category 3, that’s when I leave.”

So, less than 24 hours before Ida made landfall, the single mother-of-three fled with her family from their home in LaPlace to a hotel in Houston.

She’s glad they left.

Hurricane Ida terrorized LaPlace with wind gusts topping 135 miles per hour. Her home took on four feet of water. And more than 800 residents who stayed behind required rescue.

But because St. John the Baptist Parish, where LaPlace is located, didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation order, Payne’s insurance company refused to cover her evacuation expenses. She’s now $1,500 in the hole for her week-and-a-half stay out of harm’s way.

“They said that’s their policy, but have you seen the devastation here?” Payne said. “If I would have stayed, I could be dead.”

After similar stories emerged in Hurricane Ida’s aftermath, Louisiana’s Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon issued an emergency directive ordering insurance companies to cover the temporary living expenses of policyholders who fled, regardless of whether parish leaders issued mandatory orders to evacuate.

Among the 136 insurance carriers that offer homeowners insurance in Louisiana, 113 notified the Department of Insurance that they would comply with the order.

But the state’s largest carrier, State Farm, which commands roughly 26% of Louisiana’s insurance market, has refused to follow the directive, arguing instead that Donelon overstepped his legal authority.

In late September, State Farm formally challenged the directive’s validity and requested a hearing with Louisiana’s Division of Administrative Law – a court that settles disputes between government agencies and those they regulate.

“The directive undermines one of the most fundamental tenets of insurance coverage: namely, that the coverage due is based on actual policy language,” State Farm’s attorneys wrote in the petition for a hearing.

If the directive is allowed to stand, State Farm argued, Donelon would have “unfettered authority” to meddle in its contracts after-the-fact, which “could serve to destabilize the insurance market in Louisiana.”

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At State Farm’s request, the administrative court issued a stay on enforcing the directive pending a decision on its validity. A hearing is scheduled for November.

Donelon, for his part, said making reimbursements contingent on a mandatory order is “legitimate” to prevent residents from taking an all-expense paid vacation every time a storm enters the Gulf of Mexico.

But by the time Hurricane Ida’s threat became clear to local officials, it was too late to issue a mandatory order, Donelon said, noting that his granddaughters had a full day of school the Friday before the storm.

“If they had ordered a mandatory evacuation, everything would have gridlocked, and people would have been stuck in 150 mile per hour killer winds in their cars on highways all over south Louisiana,” Donelon said Wednesday at a town hall in Reserve.

Donelon issued the directive after President Joe Biden visited Louisiana and used his bully pulpit to pressure insurance companies to waive the requirement.

“No one fled this killer storm because they were looking for a vacation or a road trip,” Biden said in LaPlace. “I’m calling on the private insurance companies — right now, at this critical moment — don’t hide behind the fine print. Do your job. Keep your commitments to the communities you insure … Pay your policy holders what you owe them.”

In addition to State Farm, the Department of Insurance confirmed that Dover Bay, a State Farm surplus line, and GeoVera are also bucking the directive. Another 15 companies are under investigation after complaints of noncompliance.

Tia Richardson, who is insured by State Farm, said she’s had to dip into savings to cover the thousands of dollars she spent on hotels, food, gas, clothing and other “basic necessities for daily life” after evacuating to Houston ahead of Hurricane Ida.

“They’re making the road to recovery almost impossible,” Richardson said.

She fled from St. Tammany Parish, which didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation order, and although the belongings she left behind were ravaged by the storm, she’s only been able to collect payment for spoiled food. She plans to cancel her policy with State Farm.

“You take our money every month, but when we need assistance the most, you turn your back on us,” Richardson said. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater

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