An insurance policy is a contract. The customer pays a premium, and in exchange, the insurance company provides coverage that’s spelled out in detail in a written agreement. That’s how things are supposed to work, anyway.
But for survivors of major storms in Louisiana, hope of accessing the benefits they purchased comes down to varying interpretations of a single, hugely important concept: What makes a dwelling uninhabitable?
For most homeowner policyholders, a determination that a home is unlivable triggers reimbursement for temporary alternate living arrangements and related expenses. A ruling that it can be inhabited leads to denial.
After Hurricane Laura ripped through Lake Charles last August, City Councilman John Ieyoub thought he knew “uninhabitable” when he saw it in his own home. Rain had poured through the roof, forcing the family to rip out soggy Sheetrock. There was no power and no running water. The dust and debris posed a particular threat to his young daughter, who has underlying health issues.
And yet the initial adjuster from his company determined the home livable and refused to pay for a rental. It was only after Ieyoub took the fight to the company that the decision was reversed.
“The fact that it changes from adjuster to adjuster shows you that it’s not a good system,” Ieyoub said. “It should be a lot more cut and dry.”
It absolutely should.
With a whole new cohort of Louisianans facing home damage and extended utility outages after Hurricane Ida tore through the southeastern part of the state late last month, Advocate reporter Blake Paterson asked Louisiana’s major insurers how they determine whether a property is uninhabitable.
Amazingly, none would offer specifics, and several said that status is determined on a case-by-case basis.
It’s likely up to the state Legislature, where the industry traditionally holds strong influence, to force insurers to provide consistent policies.
Last year lawmakers from the areas affected by Laura, including some usually business-friendly Republicans, pushed for guidelines after widespread complaints of insurance shenanigans by their constituents. A bill by state Rep. and insurance consultant Gabe Firment, R-Pollock, to correct what he called "bad behavior" and wide disparities in treatment made it through the House but died in the Senate, after insurers complained that they’d in effect be forced to insure the utility grid.
There’s surely going to be more pressure now that members from other areas are hearing from their neighbors. Just as the states affected by Ida in the South all the way up to the Northeast could form a powerful coalition, so too could lawmakers from the regions hit by Laura and Ida.
"They're about to get a taste of what we went through — and what we're still going through today," said state Rep. Brett Geymann, a Lake Charles Republican.
One key lawmaker who seems open to legislation is Senate Insurance Chairman Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge. His district didn’t get the very worst of Ida, but there was major damage. Talbot said he agrees that legislators should revisit whether to define what makes a dwelling uninhabitable, and has tentatively scheduled a hearing on the subject next week. We urge them to listen, and when the time comes to legislate, to insist on transparency and clarity.
Recovering from a major storm is traumatizing enough. Insurance coverage should offer peace of mind, not still more uncertainty and stress.