Fort McMurray residents claim 'nightmare' dealing with insurance

With thousands of insurance claims being processed in Fort McMurray, Alta., some residents say working with companies to repair their homes and recover costs has been an uphill battle.

With 45,000 insurance claims in Fort McMurray, tempers are flaring over unsettled and disputed claims

Terena Gunderson says she has been battling with her insurance company over damages at her mobile home in Fort McMurray following the May wildfire. (David Thurton/CBC)

Some Fort McMurray, Alta., residents repairing homes damaged by May's wildfire say they've had it with insurance companies that don't return calls and emails, pressure them to accept low settlements or have been rude and unprofessional.

"Horrible from the beginning. From mass evacuation, it's been absolutely a horrible nightmare," said Terena Gunderson, a homeowner in the Timberlea neighbourhood of the town where homes sustained extensive damage in the fire.

Gunderson's claim is among the 27,000 residential claims filed due to the wildfire. It is Canada's costliest disaster with damages estimated at $3.58 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. The bureau's latest stats show clients have filed 45,000 claims as of July, with the majority being residential.

Fort McMurray resident shows some of the water damage in her home

7 years ago
Duration 1:07
Some Fort McMurray residents repairing homes damaged by May's wildfire say they've had it with insurance companies.

Insurance companies admit the tidal wave of claims has pressured their resources. Some have brought in staff from across the country to deal with the volume of work. But policyholders say they are taking the brunt of the stress; several Facebook groups have been dedicated to people sharing their stories.

Insurance won't recognize extent of water damage, says resident

Gunderson and her husband Allan say their mobile home has smoke and water damage. Firefighters drenched it to save it from the flames that left their neighbour's house a gutted, charred frame.

The Gundersons say Wawanesa, their policy provider, has refused to acknowledge the extent of the water damage they say has soaked not only into their roof but also their walls and subfloors. The insulation in the walls still feels damp to the touch.

Allan Gunderson checks for water damage in the insulation of his Fort McMurray mobile home. (David Thurton/CBC)

The couple shows the vents — or "whirlybirds" — on their roof that were knocked off by pressurized water hoses. Water funnelled into their ceiling, then through their walls and underneath their floors, they say.

The couple worries their insulation has absorbed the water and that mould is growing.

"(Wawanesa) just wants to get us back in here quickly," Gunderson said.

"And it doesn't matter to them if there's mould. It doesn't matter to them if there's water damage. It doesn't matter. They want the claims closed. But I am not settling."

The couple is currently renting accommodations in Fort McMurray.

Lists, receipts, paperwork but no results

Cody Foster and his wife Aeryn own a home in the Thickwood subdivision, near an apartment complex that caught fire. When the province allowed evacuees to return in June, they found their house standing but unlivable. It was was caked in fire retardant and soot.

The couple and their two children — including a baby boy born during the evacuation — haven't returned home.

Cody Foster says all he wants is his home to be safe for him and his family to return to and for his insurance company to adequately compensate him for those repairs. (Cody Foster/ Submitted)

The Fosters have been battling for months to have a fire restoration company do a complete clean-up inside and outside their home, and for compensation for toys and outdoor furniture.

They've submitted lists, paperwork and receipts numerous times because an insurance adjuster disappeared and their paperwork was lost. Their insurance company is also Wawanesa.

"In my opinion, they are trying to discourage us, to try and take whatever garbage they throw at us," Foster said.

"We've had to have a baby during this time frame. It's too much."

The couple also say their insurer has refused to fully compensate them for the costs of living away from their home, although their expenses are covered under their policy.

Thousands of claims filed in a few days

Wawanesa did not respond to an interview request. But in an email, the insurer said it had mobilized resources as "never before" and had drawn on "employees from every region of the country."

The company said it does not comment publicly on specific claims.

"We are committed to faithfully fulfilling all terms of the insurance contracts we have in place. We are particularly sensitive to the needs of our policyholders in the Fort McMurray area following the devastating wildfire."

Ted Koleff, vice president of claims for AMA Insurance, acknowledged there have been shortcomings.

"It's certainly been a challenge from the perspective of being able to provide the level of service that we pride ourselves," Koleff said.

The Foster family says its outdoor furniture and children's toys have been ruined following the Fort McMurray wildfire. (Cody Foster/Supplied)

In a typical year, AMA receives 5,000 property claims, but it got that many in days following the fire.

Koleff estimates the company is dealing with 8,000 claims, with about 50 per cent of those closed or settled. About 300 were for homes totally lost to fire.

Communication with customers has been tough because many policyholders are no longer in Fort McMurray and are scattered across different time zones and have new addresses, he said.

A Fort McMurray lawyer says claimants need to understand how insurance companies operate.

"Insurance is not about spending money generously. It's about mitigating risks," said Terry Cooper, a partner at Cooper & Company.

How to play the game

"There are people who come into our office and the stories they tell us — it's heartbreaking. I mean they are really being treated shabbily."

The problem isn't necessarily unique to one insurer, but rests with how adjusters treat clients, he said.

Homeowners need to understand their insurance policy, even if it means visiting a lawyer, he said.  Once they understand what they're entitled to, they should bargain with insurers and, if necessary,  haggle with their adjusters.

Fort McMurray lawyer Terry Cooper says he's helping to navigate the insurance process for hundreds of people who had home lost or damaged in the Fort McMurray wildfire. (David Thurton / CBC News)

"You have to understand the rules of the game. If you are going to play poker, you have to know the rules," Cooper said.

"You have to know what chips you got that are important for the insurance company, and what the insurance company has that's important for you."

If bargaining doesn't work, Cooper advises escalating to the point of submitting proof that an aspect of your house has been damaged. This might mean taking pictures or getting testing or an inspection done by a certified contractor. Policyholders can then file a proof of loss claim.

If those steps don't work, Cooper suggests homeowners consider legal action.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook, Twitter and via email.