Irma flood victim goes to war with insurance company, wins

Victim researches law, gets her claim denial overturned

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When Hurricane Irma came barreling through, a Jacksonville couple was home riding out the storm.

"In the middle of the night, about three o'clock in the morning, we started hearing, the winds woke us up," Dawn Duss told the I-TEAM.

Duss had her camera rolling. She captured video as the flood waters from the St. Johns River began flowing into her Avondale home, eventually filling three to four feet inside.  

"Nobody thinks that flood this catastrophic is going to hit Avondale," she said.

When Duss paid for her flood insurance policy on Aug. 11, Irma didn't even exist. But exactly one month later, on Sept. 11, all of Jacksonville felt the storm's wrath.

"My car was actually flooded and the engine was flooded. We lost the whole downstairs. We lost three cars," she told the I-TEAM.

As the flood waters rose, Duss said she realized she hadn't even opened the flood insurance policy she and her husband purchased. She was floored to find out that, according to her insurance company, she had zero coverage on Sept. 11.

"We open up the flood policy and it says an effective date of Sept. 16," Duss said. "Your heart just falls into the floor and you realize that not only are you going to lose everything, but you're going to go bankrupt. You can't recover from this."

There's a 30-day waiting period for a flood insurance policy to take effect, so Duss thought she would be covered. She was told she wasn't.

Rather than take no for an answer, Duss did extensive research on her own, proving her insurance company accepted her payment on Aug. 11, but the money just didn't clear until Aug. 16.

A deeper search of federal insurance laws revealed, the waiting period for a flood policy starts as soon as payment is submitted. In her case, Aug. 11.

"The withdrawal from our bank account didn't occur until the sixteenth, so that date matches to where that sixteenth came from. And, I suspect that somebody who was doing the paper work saw the payment come in on the sixteenth and put that as the effective date. But that's not the law," she explained.

After dozens of phone calls, and even the threat of taking legal action, the insurance company agreed to cover the damage.

The I-TEAM is not naming the insurance company because Duss and her husband are still waiting to be paid. But, Duss is telling her story so other flood victims can learn from her.

"If you don't ask the questions, you may be at a disadvantage," said Jimmy Patronis, Florida's Chief Financial Officer.

We took the insurance war Duss won to Patronis. His department helps Floridians with insurance issues.

Patronis said policy holders need to understand what insurance companies call a "grace period" when it comes to coverage.

"The insurance carriers, even in that particular case, the insurance carriers are going to carry a certain amount of liability coverage, and they'll realize that there's going to be some grace periods where maybe some of these policies can be executed and put into action. I'm just glad [Doss] found a solution and that it worked out for her," Patronis said.

When it comes to insurance and any claims you may have, experts suggest:

1. If you are moving, don't allow any gaps in insurance coverage.
2. Save all your communications between your agent and insurance company. 
3. Read the policy for yourself as soon as you get it. Don't rely on someone else to read it for you. 
4. Be honest and organized. 
5. Be prepared to take legal action. 

It's also important to point out that flood insurance laws are constantly changing in response to recent hurricanes.

For example, following Hurricane Harvey, FEMA extended the amount of time you have to renew your current policy from 30 days to 120 days. That gives you four months to submit payment before your policy expires.

If you need free insurance help, you can call Florida's Insurance Consumer Helpline at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236). You can also find help online at www.myfloridacfo.com.

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