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Insurers call for reinforcements to assess water-damage claims

By Jonathan D. Epstein and Matt Glynn

NEWS STAFF REPORTERS

The heavy, wet piles of snow on roofs, coupled with ice dams that have formed in gutters, under roofs and even inside walls, are taking a toll on Western New York houses by causing water leaks.

Insurers and agencies are getting swamped with home insurance claims as a result. Troubles include roof collapses, burst pipes, and one of the biggest threats: leaks caused by ice dams.

“The biggest factor is ice damming up under roof shingles and then the warmer temperatures melting the ice,” said Lori L. Kozuch, a principal at local insurance agency Niagara National. “The ice has nowhere to go but back under the shingles and into the home, due to the snow and ice stopping it from running down the outside of the home. Even homes with pretty good insulation are experiencing problems.”

The insurance carriers, still backed up with claims from the November storm, are seeing another wave of claims from the relentless cold and snow. And homeowners can’t get the damage repaired until their insurers look at it.

So insurers are bringing in reinforcements from around the country to help, and hiring independent adjusters to take some of the burden.

“The common goal is to get to all of our customers as quickly as possible,” Kozuch said. “We are anticipating that we have only heard from about a third of possible claims.”

One of Niagara National’s customers, Gemma Zotara, was coping with leaks caused by ice dams at her Amherst home, where she has lived for 16 years. “I’ve never, ever experienced it like this,” she said.

She will have to replace all of the drywall in her family room addition, and was dealing with leaks elsewhere in the house, too. It’s too early to add up the cost of the damage. On Friday, she was working on getting a contractor to break up the ice jam, and thinking about taking preventive measures for her gutters and roof for next winter. “I don’t want to go through this again,” Zotara said.

At Mary Kate O’Connell’s Buffalo home, the first clue was a drop of water falling from the ceiling onto the head of her puppy. Soon, other leaks began to appear, in a total of five rooms of her house. O’Connell has been trying to keep up, with buckets and blankets. “I’m as on top of it as you can get,” she said.

As frustrating as the experience has been, O’Connell said she is keeping everything in perspective and intends to be more mindful next year about warding off ice dams before they become a bigger problem.

In Orchard Park, Faith Jaskulski was busy trying to care for her two kids and her 92-year-old grandmother, while cleaning up the mess caused by water seeping into her home. Water was getting into a light fixture in her dining room, forcing her to shut off that circuit. She also was trying to find a contractor to remove ice dams without charging her a fortune. Her fiancé had tried to unclog the gutter, with only partial success.

Alex Chrzanowski of the Chrzanowski Agency, who is affiliated with Allstate, said his customers have paid contractors anywhere from $250 to $1,500 to remove ice dams. And a friend of his in the painting business has temporarily switched over to ice removal, with those services in great demand.

Western New York may be used to snow, but this winter’s conditions were exceptional – and made the ice dams worse for homeowners. “The thing I think really hurt us is, we never got that thaw this year,” Chrzanowski said.

The wave of claims has insurance companies scrambling to keep up.

Allstate Corp. spokeswoman Jaclyn Darrohn said the Northbrook, Ill.-based company brought in “additional catastrophe adjusters to help support our local claims personnel,” noting that “the entire state of New York has been subjected to subzero and record-setting low temperatures along with heavy snowfall accumulation.”

“When we do experience a high volume of claims in areas of the state, we will deploy extra resources to help us get to our customers in need as soon as possible,” said Darrohn, whose company is the largest homeowners insurance company in New York.

State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. has “seen an increase in claims due to the winter weather,” and brought in “additional resources,” said Rachael Risinger, spokeswoman for the Bloomington, Ill.-based carrier, the largest home insurer in the country.

Liberty Mutual Group has “dozens” of claims adjusters deployed in the field, including some “who have come in from other parts of the country since January to help expedite the claims process,” said Glenn Greenberg, spokesman for the Boston-based carrier. The insurer also has additional adjusters “positioned to come to the region should our claims volume increase,” he said. And that doesn’t include “hundreds of claims experts” nationwide who are helping customers by phone or handling less-complicated claims from a distance.

The carriers would not release specific claims data, noting that it’s changing constantly. But Kozuch said that her local insurance agency had handled 34 water-loss claims in four days last week, an “extremely high” amount. By comparison, Niagara National took in 26 water claims for all of February, and 12 in January. Most of the November and December claims related to snow and ice buildup, not water.

And both independent agents and insurers are encouraging homeowners to report their damage as soon as possible, so it can be quickly repaired under their policies.

“Damage may not become apparent until the temperatures warm up and allow the ice to melt. This means claims may be reported over a period of time so our current claims figures may not represent the total impact,” Darrohn said. “We are encouraging customers who are experiencing property or auto damage from recent storms ... to report their loss.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com and mglynn@buffnews.com