By Amy Chaunt & Anna Meiler
Monson residents struggling to rebuild and recover after the June 1 tornado had a chance to meet with the Massachusetts Division of Insurance Wednesday night -- the first of many "drop in" meetings to check up on the affected communities in Western Massachusetts.
“I think we’re getting to the point now where we have people with more challenging situations that need more direct assistance,” said Monson Town Administrator, Gretchen Neggers.
Three counselors from the Division of Insurance were present to offer advice and tips to the tornado victims. Eleven affected families attended the meetings, but due to the complexity of each situation, the counselors were busy nonstop for the entire four-hour session.
“I think people want to know that someone is paying attention to their situation. We can’t always fix it and we can’t always fix it the way they want it but we can certainly listen and do our best to get them some information,” said Karen Blomquist, deputy commissioner for Communications and Operations at the Massachusetts Division of Insurance.
Each circumstance is unique, but common themes can be identified at the root of many insurance issues.
These problems include residents being under-insured, being unaware of the true costs of replacement and missing records that were destroyed by the tornado. In some cases, there’s a disagreement about what the value of something is, a common issue in insurance negotiations, according to Blomquist.
“If you stopped any ten consumers on the street in a town that hadn’t been hit by a tornado and asked them did they have full replacement value in their homeowners policy, nine of them would say ‘I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. It’s not the sort of thing you think about until you need to make a claim,” she said. “So some of this is getting the multiple sides of the story together.”
Each case is reviewed by the counselors, who act as intermediaries by reaching out to the insurance companies to address the obstacles faced by homeowners.
“Frequently it is a matter of getting everybody to a place where they can agree on what the true circumstances are and sometimes that’s just a process of having a third party come into the conversation and try to bring everyone together,” said Bomquist.
However, in the case that a homeowner files a complaint, the Division of Insurance initiates an investigation of the company.
Such is the case of Monson resident, Geri Germain, who has been in a constant battle with her insurance company since the tornado.
“They know about our ongoing battle with our public adjuster not doing what we hired him to do and not returning any phone calls and hence, not getting any answers in return from our insurance company,” she said. “So that’s left us with not getting our walls gutted out of our house. The walls are still in the same condition that they were in the day the tornado hit June 1.”
Germain and her 79-year-old mother and 11-year-old daughter are currently living in a rental on Hovey Rd. Each month, they face the fear of eviction. Germain was laid off two weeks before the tornado and can’t afford the rental costs of $3,000 per month.
"Going day to day not knowing when you're going to get back in your house, not knowing where your going to live in a few weeks and you know the possibility of being homeless," she said. "Words can't describe it, you know, it's sickening," Germain said.
The Division of Insurance is investigating the case and Germain has recently hired a lawyer.
Thirty families are currently enrolled in the Monson Long-Term Recovery Program. Neggers estimates that this number represents the total number of families struggling from insurance problems, as turning to the long-term recovery program is usually a last resort.
For families who didn’t attend the meeting tonight, Neggers said the families can fill out complaint forms available at Monson's selectman's offices or online at www.mass.gov/doi.
The Massachusetts Division of Insurance has also activated their consumer hotline number, (617) 521-7777 for residents seeking assistance.
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About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.