Gerry Emig had just been rescued from the roof of his flooded home in Friendswood when his phone started buzzing. Friends and family were calling and texting, urging him to immediately file an insurance claim for damage from Hurricane Harvey. Submit your claim before a new law starts September 1, they warned, or risk losing out on damages. He’d just escaped his neighborhood by boat with his family. He hadn’t even showered yet.
The floodwaters began to seep into their home at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning. Three hours later, the water had risen several feet, nearly to Emig’s chest. He and his wife, Courtney, grabbed their four children — the youngest just 4 months, the oldest, 6 years — and headed to the attic, where they watched the murky water swallow the home they’d owned for fewer than three years. They feared it would swallow them, too.
Frantic calls to 911 and the National Guard were met with instructions to cut a hole in the roof to escape, and look for boats on the street to rescue them. The family was eventually picked up by Emig’s brother and his friend, and taken to his brother’s home half a mile away.
Emig filed an insurance claim the following day.
Lawyers have urged Texans whose property suffered hurricane damage to file insurance claims before a new law goes into effect September 1. The measure, attorneys say, will make it harder for individuals to sue their insurance companies for late payments for weather-related damage. The law lowers the interest rate that insurers would be required to pay as penalty, and makes it easier for them to avoid attorney fees. Supporters claim it is necessary to prevent frivolous lawsuits, but critics say it’s a favor to the insurance industry that loosens consumer protections and makes it more difficult to hold companies accountable. And, they say, the timing couldn’t be worse.
Emig’s home is in Friendswood, a city southeast of Houston that happens to be represented by the new law’s author, Representative Greg Bonnen, a Republican elected in 2012. Bonnen insists that House Bill 1774 doesn’t affect the insurance claims process and only applies in rare cases when a lawsuit is filed. The law does not apply to claims with the National Flood Insurance Program or the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. The legislation “prevents property owners from being swindled by a select few unethical roofers, public adjusters and lawyers,” he said.
Contrary to social media rumors that flew this week, the majority of Texans with flood damage won’t be affected by the law — which applies to the small percentage of residents who have private flood insurance. Unfortunately for the Emigs, they’re in that small group. Their family managed to buy private coverage last year after a long search for an affordable plan.
Emig considers his family lucky that they have flood insurance at all. An estimated 80 percent of homes with flood damage in the Houston area do not. Emig thinks it’s closer to 90 percent on his block, which was badly hit because of the flooding from Clear Creek and runoff from nearby neighborhoods. “When you step outside, you can tell which people have insurance or not,” he said. “The people who don’t are already pulling the stuff out of their homes and throwing it on their front lawns.”
Knowing that their home could be deemed uninhabitable, Emig said he would have come back to take care of the damage quickly anyway. But concerns about the new law have made an already harrowing experience far worse, Emig said. He’s panicking that despite his requests, he has not been given written documentation that his claim was filed before September 1.
“It’s already hard to get claims taken care of,” Emig said. “It’s kind of silly that this law is going into effect to give more power to insurance companies. … The thought that our representative would do that is a little scary.”
Emig went back to his house on Thursday to document the damage for his insurance claim.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” Emig told the Observer from inside the home. The couches are in the wrong places and soaked through, he said. The entertainment center in the living room looks like it’s been melted. The ceiling in the kitchen caved in and the room smells like spoiled food. There’s that hole in the roof. Children’s books and drawings, falling apart, cover the floor. A wall in the bedroom is buckling where the washing machine in the garage floated into it.
The Emig family grabbed a few things before their home was underwater: a binder of Social Security cards, an external hard drive full of photos, their daughter’s favorite doll, Emig’s textbooks for the high school math class he teaches. Nearly everything else is ruined, covered in a layer of water, sewage and gasoline that filled their home.
Still, Emig said his family is “tremendously blessed” that they have coverage and a strong support network. “Folks in this area need a lot of help.”