Thursday, 24 January 2019
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A tornado forced these elderly residents from their apartments. Then they were hit with huge moving bills. Should they have to pay? – Des Moines Register

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Drone video shows the extent of the damage around the square and coliseum after a tornado ripped through Marshalltown. Brian Powers and Michael Zamora, The Register

 

MARSHALLTOWN, Ia. — After the July 19 tornado, seniors at a cozy senior living apartment complex awoke to fallen trees, shattered windows and totaled cars.

Vicki Bogner, executive director at The Embers, was at a loss at where to begin: The generator wouldn’t work; winds had blown shattered glass and debris into walls, furniture and ceilings; and, without power, Bogner had no sure way to feed 107 residents.

“I was stunned. I just thought, what in the world? Where do we go from here?” she said. 

What happened next — an evacuation — seemed the only solution to Bogner at the time.

But the ensuing bills over the next months proved to be a nightmare for many of The Embers residents. One resident, mired in a cloud of worry over the cost, according to Bogner, hung himself in October.

The day after the tornado, Bogner met a representative from ServiceMaster by Rice, based in Clive, who said he could help her with most everything she needed.

Residents made plans to live with friends or relatives or go to The Willows, a new assisted living facility in town that had yet to open.

More than 200 ServiceMaster workers set to work cleaning residents’ belongings, packing them up in boxes and putting them in storage pods on the complex grounds.

Stuck with huge bills

The fact that residents were given no choice in the move and storage — and the resulting cost — infuriated some.

“No one was notified, no one gave permission for their personal belongings to be removed from their private residence,” wrote Lisa Friedrichsen, whose mother came to live with her in Waukon for a couple of months.

Friedrichsen contacted Reader’s Watchdog this month, saying residents are just now receiving bills for the ServiceMaster move and storage. She said — and Bogner confirmed — some bills have been as high as $10,000 to $11,000.

Friedrichsen said people like her mother who did not have renters insurance were being billed directly.

“When I informed (Bogner) my mother did not have renters insurance, she said, ‘Well, it will be $1,000 to $3,000 dollars,'” Friedrichsen said.

“I consulted an attorney friend and he said, ‘Do not pay unless she can provide a contract between the landlord and tenant agreeing to the services provided,’ which of course there is no such thing.”

Bogner said James “Andrew” Aspergren, a Nationwide Insurance adjuster, assured her soon after the storm that the moving and storage costs would be covered by The Embers’ policy.

Later Samuel Crunkleton, an adjuster manager at Nationwide, informed her the complex’s policy did not cover the costs of moving residents’ personal belongings.

That decision, which came in October, devastated a 67-year-old Embers resident who took his life a few days later, Bogner said.

Damage claims limited by insurance policy

The EF-3 tornado that touched down July 19 cut a blocks-wide swath through the heart of Marshalltown’s downtown business district and surrounding neighborhoods.

Many homeowners and businesses suffered far more damage than The Embers.

But environmental testing after the storm showed glass splinters and other debris permeated the complex, including units where doors and windows were closed. Heavy rains several weeks later caused further damage.

When Crunkleton paid a visit in October and told Bogner the insurance giant would not be covering the cost of moving residents’ belongings, the director said she was greatly upset.

“I’d been telling them all this time not to worry,” Bogner said. “And here they were making a liar of me.”

Bogner said she tried to argue that Iowa’s landlord-tenant law required that the costs be covered while the buildings were being fixed.

But Aspergren sent her a clause in The Embers’ policy that said costs associated with residents’ belongings were not covered.

Several residents moved or never returned while the complex underwent months of remodeling, which is still ongoing.

Apartments had to be stripped and carpet ripped out, walls had been taken down to their studs and ceilings replaced. About 570 of 725 windows had to be replaced.

The dining room and community room were remodeled. The chapel reopened for services only last week. 

Friedrichsen said she suspected that the high bills The Embers residents were being charged with for the moving and storage were helping to cover the owners’ cost of remodeling.

But what they are being charged doesn’t come close to covering the $10 million in damage — and counting, Bogner said.

She said about 10 to 15 percent of residents did not have renters insurance, and those were the ones most affected by moving and storage bills.

She said the resident who hung himself voiced his concern repeatedly with her and other staff members that he could not pay a roughly $5,000 bill incurred without renters insurance.

She said she tried to reassure the distraught resident that all would be OK, that he could pay half his rent and put the other half toward the moving bill until it was paid.

“This whole thing has not been a very pleasant experience,” said Bogner, a 68-year-old who has worked at the senior complex 23 years. 

After arguing with Bogner over her mother’s bill, Friedrichsen said Bogner told her to move her mother out of the complex. She did.

Bogner said Friedrichsen isn’t the only one who has refused to pay. Ultimately, those costs will have to be absorbed by The Embers, a not-for-profit backed by three local banks.

Reader’s Watchdog contacted several residents of Embers. Some didn’t return calls; others spoke but declined to be interviewed.

“The question we have is who authorized this and what right do they have to do it and why?” one resident told Watchdog.

Crunkleton referred a phone call seeking an interview to Nationwide’s national media relations line.

The company did not respond to questions about its actions after the tornado or Bogner’s contention that it reversed early assertions about what would be covered.

Instead, it issued a statement that reads:

“Our hearts go out to the people affected by the tornadoes that hit Marshalltown and other Iowa communities in 2018. Nationwide worked with the residents of the facility, including those who were uninsured, to find alternative housing once the facility was declared uninhabitable.

“Nationwide was unaware of any concerns that residents of the Embers Retirement Community had prior to receiving this inquiry. Nationwide continues to be in contact with the facility and residents to address any open issues.”

Renters beware

A landlord has the responsibility to maintain a property under Iowa code and that includes damage done after a natural disaster, said Ben Bellus, an attorney in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

Bellus said a landlord generally cannot charge tenants for moving and storage after such a disaster unless there’s a contract agreement.

“I can’t make you pay me for something unless we have a contract,” he said. “Without a contract, they shouldn’t be able to charge them that kind of money.”

As of now, no complaint has been filed with the Attorney General’s Office.

Generally, most renters insurance covers damage done to your belongings, but some policies do not cover costs associated with natural disasters, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Embers renters who were billed for the moving and storage of their belongings, and who were uninsured at the time of the tornado, may want to contact an attorney. 

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her at [email protected], 515-284-8549, on Twitter @leerood, or at facebook.com/readerswatchdog.

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Source: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/investigations/readers-watchdog/2019/01/02/insurance-screw-up-after-marshalltown-tornado-losses-causes-grief-and-suicide-senior-apartment/2337071002/

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