Coping with a Fire’s Aftermath

By Teresa O’Dea Hein, Managing EditorAnaheim Hills, Calif.—While fires caused by dry Christmas trees are a concern during the holiday season, outdoor fire issues are a year-round worry. Southern California wildfires recently destroyed a number of apartments apartments, rendered multiple buildings uninhabitable and displaced over 110 people at a 292-unit garden-style apartment community, the Cascades, in Anaheim Hills, Calif. As a result, over 69 renter’s insurance claims have been filed, according to the Irvine, Calif.-based LeasingDesk Insurance Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of RealPage Inc. and a provider of full participation insurance programs for the multifamily industry, along with American Modern Insurance Group, the major underwriter of its liability and renter’s insurance policies. More than 95 percent of the claims have been closed and the companies anticipate providing more than $750,000 in loss reimbursements related to total or partial loss, smoke and fire damage as well as temporary living expenses once all claims are finalized. “You never expect anything like this to happen at your community,” says Chip Harvey, regional manager for the Cascades community. “The fires happened so quickly that our evacuation plan was vital to the safety of our residents. It was also very reassuring to know the majority of our residents had coverage and our partners, LeasingDesk in particular, have been exceptionally responsive to the needs of our community.”Nationwide, a 2006 poll by the Insurance Research Council found that only 43 percent of renters purchased insurance.“The loss of personal property is staggering; however, thanks to the community’s quick evacuation plan, there were no fatalities or significant injuries,” says Dirk Wakeham, president of LeasingDesk. “Our catastrophe team was quickly on site, processing qualified claims, providing residents with emergency reimbursement checks and temporary housing in the wake of this horrific fire. Although a check cannot make up for the loss of sentimental pictures or family heirlooms, our goal is to help deliver peace of mind during this transition period of our customer’s life.”The wildfire damaged six residential buildings, with four of them completely destroyed. Even the leasing office had to be relocated as a result of the fire. To date, 20 claims were deemed “total losses” and, in most cases, the policy limits were paid in full. The remaining 49 claims represent “partial losses,” which included water, fire and smoke damage and/or “additional living expenses” for residents who were unable to return to their apartments immediately after the fires. The Cascades, managed by Sares-Regis Management Company, had implemented a full participation insurance program in 2002, effectively requiring residents to carry personal insurance coverage as a condition of residency. More than 80 percent of residents at the community were insured at the time of the fires, nearly half of whom used LeasingDesk’s eRenterPlan policy. On-site property managers communicated to residents through a detailed Web blog that was updated frequently. American Modern deployed a catastrophe team to the community the day after the fires were contained to assist policyholders with the claims process. As soon as a resident filed a claim, American Modern processed and provided a $1,500 check to the resident, either in person or the check was sent overnight to the resident for temporary housing, food and clothing. The average reimbursement payment for units damaged by smoke has been $3,000.“American Modern is the only insurance company with a catastrophe office on site to manage resident claims and ensure each qualified policyholder receives the appropriate financial support during this catastrophic event,” says Bob Crowley, vice president of claims for American Modern. “LeasingDesk’s exclusive focus on the multifamily industry makes these residents a top priority and has helped us expedite reimbursement payments. These factors enabled us to meet our objective of closing all claims before Thanksgiving.” As part of a disaster preparedness plan, Cascades on-site staff had also developed a comprehensive evacuation plan in the event of an emergency of this caliber. Immediately following the evacuation, the community’s property management leadership launched a blog to inform residents of important information pertaining to the damages, actions taken by local firefighters, where residents could go for assistance and when residents could return to their homes to review the extent of the damages. The complex was patrolled around the clock by private safety officers. The blog can be viewed at http://cascadesapartments.blogspot.com/.The Cascades staff, including employees from nearby properties managed by the same company, worked with city and county safety officials who arranged the complex’s buildings into three groups–Green tagged (units deemed safe for residents to return), Yellow tagged (units needing more inspections before residents can return) and Red tagged (units uninhabitable).The Sares-Regis Management Company worked with local apartment owners to assist the displaced Cascades apartment residents. The local Red Cross was also on site to provide basic living necessities to those in need. Subsequently, as if a fire hadn’t been enough trauma, property managers had to notify residents of the potential for a quick evacuation in the event of a mudslide on the fire-scorched slope at the back of the property. Sares-Regis had hired erosion experts and more than 60 workers to mitigate the anticipated water runoff. Thankfully, efforts to avert the mudslide were successful. Narayanan Iyer and his family have been residents of the Cascades community for several years. Like many residents, Iyer viewed his eRenterPlan renter’s insurance policy as an essential item, but hoped he would never have to use it. The fire did not destroy the building where his family lived but his unit suffered smoke damage causing significant disruption to his family’s lives.“I was unfamiliar with the claims process and was quite apprehensive, but fortunately my American Modern adjuster was there to help,” notes Iyer. “The representative discussed the claims process, provided options for our consideration and was empathetic to our situation. Within one hour, my claim was settled and I was issued a check.”