SULPHUR - Robin Baudoin rode out Hurricane Laura in her house, taking cover in a bathroom with her daughter and two others, along with nine cats and dogs, as devastating winds tore her roof away. She scurried to a neighbor’s home for safety during the brief calm of the storm’s eye.

In some ways, the worst was yet to come.

More than eight months later, Baudoin is still battling her insurance company and living in a friend’s garage apartment, her home of around 26 years now demolished. Only a small garden and a statue of St. Francis remain at the lot in her suburban neighborhood in Sulphur, across the Calcasieu River from Lake Charles.

Baudoin eventually had the house razed herself because it was dangerous, she said, even though her insurance company, State Farm, had told her the four-bedroom, four-bath home of 2,600 square feet could be repaired.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Baudoin, 65, said as she stood in front of the lot on Louise Street. State Farm, she said, has provided her with only about a third of what she needs to rebuild and replace what she estimates is 90% of her belongings, some of which were strewn throughout the neighborhood.

“I cannot build another home and furnish it and replace all my clothes and shoes and pots and pans and stuff like that. I can’t do it.”

Baudoin, a secretary for a law firm, added: “I’m not being greedy about it. I’ve paid that insurance for (almost) 30 years.”

Baudoin is among a legion of southwestern Louisianans who allege insurance companies are holding back the region’s recovery after last year’s Hurricanes Laura and Delta through a combination of slow responses, repeated delays and blatantly low settlements.

Some say they have had to cycle through multiple adjusters for reasons unclear to them as their damaged houses sit unrepaired, with contractors unable to begin the work absent a guarantee of payment. Residents share such experiences on a number of Facebook groups.

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A yellow lily perseveres in front of the slab where a house once stood in Lake Charles on Thursday, May 13, 2021. The city continues the long, slow process of demolishing and rebuilding after Hurricane Laura as a new hurricane season approaches. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

The insurance companies vigorously defend themselves, citing as complicating factors last year’s heavy storm season and in particular the massive damage wrought by Category 4 Laura and Category 2 Delta, which followed similar paths only six weeks apart. They also say the pandemic has frustrated efforts to settle claims efficiently.

They add that the claims process is sometimes misunderstood by homeowners. Many residents have said that they were unaware of the size of their so-called hurricane deductible, which kicks in for a named storm and can run to 5%.

State Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon agrees there have been challenges outside the companies’ control: the pandemic, the brutal storm season, the scramble to dispatch enough adjusters. But he says he is concerned about the volume of complaints related to the changing of adjusters and policyholders’ difficulty in communicating with their insurers, which he calls “unacceptable.”

His office recently opened an examination into the conduct of multiple insurance companies, which Donelon said he could not name at this point. He said he would expect a report from the outside contractor handling the examination, which can result in fines of up to $250,000, after about 90 days.

Asked whether the insurance companies were a factor in holding back the recovery, he said: “No question about it.”

“The overall impression I have of the performance of the industry is, at this point, I would say a C minus,” Donelon said. “I hope I can improve that grade when I get the results of what we’re doing in the form of market conduct examination of the squeakiest wheels in the process.”

His office has received 1,380 complaints so far related to Laura, Delta and Zeta, which hit the state’s southeast in late October, Donelon said. The complaints have resulted in around $36 million in additional payments, he said.

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Lake Charles continues the long, slow process of rebuilding after Hurricane Laura as another hurricane season approaches on Thursday, May 15, 2021. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Laura will end up as the second-costliest disaster in the state’s history after Katrina, with $8.5 billion paid out so far, according to Donelon. It was the most powerful storm to hit Louisiana since 1856, with winds of up to 150 mph.

The share of claims listed as closed related to Laura was 83% as of March 31, while the number listed as closed with payment was 65%. But even when a claim is listed as closed, policyholders can continue to make supplemental claims, which often occurs, making comparisons to previous storms difficult.

State Farm said in a statement that the majority of homeowner claims related to Laura and Delta had been resolved.

“State Farm’s commitment to our customers to pay what we owe promptly, courteously and efficiently is the same for all claims,” it said.

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Allstate, another major provider in Louisiana, said in a brief statement “we move quickly and put people first.”

Two industry groups also defended the insurers’ response, with one noting that adjusters can be changed for a variety of legitimate reasons, including the type or significance of the damage.

“Louisiana experienced an unprecedented five landfalling storms during the 2020 hurricane season,” Lee Ann Alexander of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association said in a written response to questions.

“Following each storm, insurers were ready to help policyholders begin the recovery process, and they immediately got to work. During the pandemic when many policyholders were concerned about having adjusters in their homes or businesses, many insurers utilized virtual solutions to help them respond to claims in as safe and efficient a manner as possible, given the unusual circumstances.”

Jon Schnautz of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies said “insurers have no economic incentive to delay or withhold legitimate claims payments. They want happy customers who are able to recover quickly after a disaster.”

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Wallace Livings, 75, walks across the foundation of his neighbor's house on Thursday, May 13. Livings keeps the weeds and grass mowed on his street in Lake Charles; he said his neighbors aren't coming back and he's not sure if the house will ever be rebuilt following the destruction of Hurricane Laura last year. To add beauty to the area he planted the flowers in front of the slab. 

For Karen and Darryl Drewett, the companies’ explanations hold little water.

They also rode out the storm at their home in Lake Charles, watching their boarded-up windows bow and hearing their chimney collapse as Laura lashed the region. After patching up their roof, they relocated to Houston for a few weeks before returning and are now living in an apartment in town.

Their insurance company, Allstate, has provided them with a total of around $70,000 to repair their house, which is appraised at $454,000, they said. Allstate also paid another $43,000 to repair water damage.

They say they have now had six desk adjusters and five outside adjusters. They are considering a lawsuit as they continue to negotiate. In the meantime, they say they are paying around $2,800 a month for their house note and storage space.

“I’m tired of crying. I’m just tired,” said Karen Drewett, 65, a bank lender and breast cancer survivor. Darryl Drewett, 67, is a semi-retired CPA.

“I’m not going to be able to retire for a while. We’re having to dig into our retirement,” said Karen Drewett as the couple walked around their property and gutted home. Darryl Drewett demonstrated some of what they say are structural issues with the house by pushing on and moving the bricks of the exterior wall.

Their situation is not unlike that of Kerry Andersen, 53, who hasn’t been able to return to her house in a historic area of Lake Charles and has relocated to Baton Rouge. She and Baudoin testified at a state House of Representatives committee hearing recently where two bills to tighten requirements on insurance companies were discussed.

Andersen, who has also battled breast cancer recently, broke down in tears as she recounted her trying experience since the storm to the committee.

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Kenneth Hanchett, 62, pauses to look around his neighborhood near 5th Street in Lake Charles as he mows the grass in front of his house and at an abandoned house next door to him on Thursday, May 13, 2021. The city continues the long process of rebuilding after Hurricane Laura as another hurricane season approaches. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

In an interview, she said the quote she has received to rebuild her house was $319,000, but State Farm has so far only provided her with roughly $210,000 – and around $150,000 of that came through just recently, after she testified. She says that she, too, has faced multiple adjusters.

“The situation now is that we’re almost nine months into this and not a single hammer has been lifted at my house, and we just really feel like we are at the mercy of the insurance companies,” she said. “After a while you realize that you’re just being strung along.”

Eric Holl of Real Reform Louisiana, which has been pushing for tighter requirements on insurance companies in the state Legislature, argued that “they just want to wear folks down until they quit and they take a lot less than they’re owed.”

Baudoin has now filed suit in federal court. She said she is continuing to pay for insurance “on a home that doesn’t exist and property I do not have,” unable to cancel outright because of her claims. Her request to halt the payments has so far been unheeded.

She has reached a point of weariness, but says she will not abandon the fight.

“I don’t cry anymore. I don’t get upset because there’s nothing you can do,” said Baudoin. “All you can do is just dig in.”