Homeowner’s insurance — as homeowners sometimes learn too late — does not cover losses caused by a hurricane storm surge. Floodwater damage is only covered by flood insurance, a standalone insurance policy that homeowners have to purchase separately.
However, depending on the circumstances and the fine points of state laws and court precedents, a homeowner may have a valid insurance claim if a house was hit by both flooding and wind. In court, the crucial question is: which force caused the damage — the flooding, or the wind? Typically, the answer comes down to which event occurred first. If wind destroyed a house before the flood washed it away, then the windstorm insurer would be on the hook. But if the flood arrived first, the homeowner must collect from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) — if, that is, the house was covered by a flood policy.tha
So the outcome of disputes often hinges on facts about the weather — and when those facts are uncertain, the experts show up in court. The Newark Star-Ledger has this report (“N.J. meteorologists play new role post-Sandy: Expert witness,” by Stephen Stirling). The paper interviewed weatherman Frank Lombardo from Weather Works in Hackensack, N.J., who works as an expert witness in court cases where weather facts are important.
“It’s sad,” Lombardo told the paper, “because a lot of the time it will turn out that the property owner isn’t covered." And in the case of Sandy, he says: “Having been down there, you can tell, for the most part, that it’s all water."
But public insurance adjuster Dick Tutwiler says that weather information isn’t the only useful data. Expert eyes on the damage also matter, he says. “This is critical,” Tutwiler says: “Each loss needs to be looked at individually to determine if wind caused any of the damage before, during, or after the flood event.”
And weather testimony can get complicated, says Tutwiler. “The weather people (depending on which one you ask) will tell you that high winds and tornado-like winds will have occurred in areas around the storm. There will be a lot of micro-investigation of wind data going on to determine wind speeds in a given area.”
The issues were thrashed out in detail in the litigation that followed Hurricane Katrina, Tutwiler notes. “Folks along the coast in New Jersey and New York who have the unfortunate situation of severe damage from flood will get a feel for the future by reading about some of the Katrina stories,” he says.
Finally, Tutwiler advises, “If they feel that in fact they have wind damage, these folks need to be collecting information that will help them with a wind claim, because their insurance company will not be doing that for them. Nothing should be overlooked, because it all matters, given the limited flood coverage that was available to be purchased from the government and the extensive damage that occurred.”