Insurance Coverage Drying Up As California Wildfire Recovery Drags On

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After the Tubbs Fire reduced their Santa Rosa, Calif., home to ash in October 2017, Chris Keys and his wife, Sara Jakel-Keys, said deciding to rebuild was easy.

But a year and a half after the fire, the road to normalcy has proved longer and more painful than anticipated, even for families with pretty good insurance. Construction and bureaucratic delays have added up, and in July, the five-member family expects to run out of insurance coverage that helps pay for living expenses.

Chris says they won't be able to afford both their mortgage and the $3,500 rent on their temporary home in Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco. At that point they'll have to move into an RV, he says, but not everyone can fit.

"We're going to have to split the family apart. I mean, there's no way we can get around that," he says. "Our 19-year-old will have to go to his grandmother's. Sara might have to stay at a hotel a couple of nights a week so that she gets adequate sleep. And that leaves me with the kids."

Californians who recently lost their homes to deadly wildfires are going through an exhausting recovery. They wait months for property cleanup. They suffer bureaucratic delays, fight insurance companies, and compete for workers to build their new homes. And now survivors like the Keys are worried that they'll run out of the insurance coverage that pays for their rental home during the lengthy rebuilding process.

Builders, consumer advocates and insurance experts say they're starting to hear more stories about families who will soon run out of the insurance coverage that keeps them financially afloat while their home is rebuilt.

Insurers typically cover two years of living expenses, or a finite dollar amount, while homes are being rebuilt, insurance experts say. But with California's pricey housing and a construction bottleneck after fires, that financial cushion can disappear quickly.

"The process takes so long because of the number of homes that were lost," says Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, which represents the construction industry in Santa Rosa, Calif., and nearby counties.

Woods says that by the end of 2019, less than one-third of the 5,300 homes destroyed by the Tubbs Fire will have been fully rebuilt — although many more will be under construction.

Woods says the prolonged construction process will be worse in far northern communities like Paradise, Calif.

"When you have a limited number of contractors and workers up there for construction even before the fires, they've got a real uphill climb," Woods says.

"The rebuild of that area will have to be the most creative building project in California history" because of the monumental challenges to reconstructing a town that was almost wiped off the map, he says.

Mark Sektnan, a vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said families rebuilding after last year's Camp Fire or other deadly wildfires should plan to carefully manage their insurance benefits over a long period of time so they don't come up short during their recovery.

"Within a building process, which is by its very nature uncertain, one should always be judicious and try to anticipate unforeseen delays," said Sektnan.

California lawmakers recently passed legislation to help fire victims collect benefits for longer, but that applies only to disasters beginning this year. Sektnan said homeowners can try to negotiate with their insurer to extend the timeline of coverage if they're running up against a deadline.

More conversations are underway to figure out how to pay for fire recovery in the future, says Amy Bach, executive director of the consumer advocacy group United Policyholders, but there are no solutions yet.

"We have a big problem in this state ... given that insurers have a decreasing appetite for covering wildfire risk in California, and utilities are pushing back and saying we don't want to be that source either," Bach says.

Meanwhile, moving again won't be easy on the Keys. Their 6-year-old son, who has autism, has developed new fears. Sara and Chris, who both have full-time jobs, have severe insomnia.

The Keys had no luck trying to get their insurer to cover their rent for longer. Their new house likely won't be done until fall, Chris says.

The family is trying to see the silver lining. When their house is done, their son with autism will have his own wing of the house, in case he's still with them when he grows up.

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