Jeff Carter, Charlan Stephenson, & Chip Merlin

Merlin Law Group’s Panama City based attorney Jeff Carter and his paralegal assistant, Charlan Stephenson, talked with me about the current state of affairs in the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Michael before I left Panama City last night. Every storm leaves its own unique stories and lessons. I seemed to keep running into long-time storm and adjusting professionals on this trip as well as numerous friends from my high school days in Panama City. So, there were many discussions with others which added to my perceptions as well.

My sense and concern is one of depression for many long-time residents of Bay County. Six hundred teachers are scheduled to be laid off with at least three schools closing. FEMA and the federal tax incentive relief which have come to the rescue in past storms seem stuck in federal limbo. As a result, many have left and may never come back. It is not just the less affluent who have left because their homes were destroyed and have no place to live. Some notable doctors and other professionals have closed offices and are looking for greener pastures. I can only speculate why there has been no similar stimulus package provided like the other Gulf Coast areas received after Katrina, but there is little excuse for federal leaders to have botched this as badly as they have.

Reconstruction is running much slower than other areas. I ran into independent insurance adjuster Pete Kappas in Port St Joe. Pete did a lot of construction work before becoming an independent adjuster. He now does a lot of appraisal for carriers and gets selected for umpire work. He asked me ‘what is so different about Hurricane Michael versus other hurricanes six months post impact?’ He answered his own question, ‘a lack of noise from chain saws and construction.’

For some reason, there is a huge demand that cannot be met with existing labor. Costs for materials and labor outside of Panama City run about 30% higher than the already high pricing in Panama City. Getting general contractors to go all the way down to Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, and Cape San Blas is often not worth the effort given the work available in Panama City, Florida. The price demanded is not being recognized by the amounts paid by insurers. Some policyholders are giving up waiting and trying to act as their own general contractor out of necessity.

Our local Merlin Law Group office on 23rd and Beck Ave in Panama City has been stuck for months awaiting final construction work. Jeff Carter and I finally agreed yesterday to just open the front of the office so we could leave our temporary office on Thomas Road. The frustration of those waiting for work on their homes and businesses must be hundreds of times worse. But, this scenario is the normal course of affairs rather than the exception.

Appraisal seems to be a more frequently invoked activity and is more important to resolution of claims than ever. I met with Neal McLoghlin and Ed Fako on Tuesday evening. They were attending a John Robison appraiser training course at Panama City Beach. Both commented on the increased trend of appraisal. They also noted the need to have better and more qualified appraisers. They suggested that a reason for this was that many insurance company and independent adjusters lacked the experience and field training to properly understand how construction is done and how to make a valid construction estimate. I suggested that more virtual reality training could be a cost-effective means to overcome this problem of training for inexperienced company, independent, and public adjusters.

Wind versus flood damage is going to be an issue in many areas. Still, more than Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike where there was severe storm surge leading to the wind versus flood issue, it is obvious that there were more extreme winds with Hurricane Michael.

Meteorologist Rocco Calaci and his crew met with me after they learned I was in town. Rocco is an excellent meteorologist and lives in the Florida Panhandle. He noted that the data supports many high gusts in excess of 150 miles per hour. Seeing the damage in Mexico Beach, nobody would disagree. Still, my bet is that there will be many flood versus wind debates, which are common to these severe storms. Those wish to learn about the issue should read, Why Damages Caused by “Windstorm” Hurricane Ike are Going to be Difficult for TWIA to Exclude and Policyholders Can Fully Collect Under a Flood Policy and a Wind Policy at the Same Time.

Scammers and advertising attorneys are everywhere and have been since a few days after the storm. So, buyer beware and if you are a victim of what you think may be a scam, speak up! Please check out the credentials of advertising attorneys and what their true experience and reputation is of successfully handling prior claims.

One scam we have come across is some contractors or consultants urging policyholders within days or a few weeks of the storm to hire a specific attorney for a contingent fee of 20-25% before there is any dispute or even an estimate. The attorney just happened to be available or tagged along with those consultants, contractors or public adjuster. The entourage talks the policyholder into signing a retainer with the attorney at a contingent fee normally much higher than normal for this stage of a claim. This is illegal solicitation and known as “case running.” Another method of this is the runner carrying the attorney’s contract or pulling it off the internet and then getting the policyholder to sign. If this has happened to you, you have a right to complain and void the contract to get your money back from those scammers.

There are many very ethical and good local attorneys in the panhandle of Florida who can do a capable job. The vast majority of all attorneys are ethical, follow the rules and are sincerely interested in helping people. So, please carefully check references and reputations and do not feel rushed or pushed to hire anybody.

Thought For The Day

All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.
—Carlton Smith, Hunting Evil