PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- It took years for many insurance claims to be paid following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. This time, technology is helping speed along the claims process for residents hardest hit by Hurricane Charley.
"I really think the industry can handle this without a lot of problems," Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said during a tour Thursday of Charlotte County. "The industry now knows what a major storm can be and they're prepared for it. So is the state."
Charley killed 23 people in Florida and state officials said more than 335,000 customers were without power Thursday. Charlotte County residents were not expected to have their electricity fully restored for another 10 days.
Charley has caused an estimated $7.4 billion in damage to homes, businesses and personal possessions, more than any other hurricane in Florida since Andrew. Gallagher recalled in the aftermath of Andrew, it took "six to eight months before we got a handle on it."
Charley destroyed more than 10,000 homes and left 16,000 others with major damage, meaning they're uninhabitable without major repairs, according to preliminary figures from an American Red Cross survey. The agency said it had canvassed 75 percent of the disaster area, home by home, by late Thursday, and that the survey should be completed by next week.
Most owners of property damaged by Charley will have to pay more out of their pockets than Andrew's victims did. Instead of set dollar deductibles, which were the standard before Andrew, policies now have deductibles based on a percentage of the insured property, which generally require the insured to pay a larger portion of the damage.
Nevertheless, technology is playing to homeowners' advantage, speeding up the pace in which insurance companies can begin addressing claims. That translates into residents getting insurance checks much faster.
"The faster the process gets started, the sooner they'll get back on their feet," said Bill Mellander, who was flown in by Allstate from Illinois as part of their disaster-response team.
Satellite-equipped units were quickly set up by Allstate and other companies after Charley hit last Friday -- able to provide all the resources of a regular office.
"These are giant offices on wheels," said Mellander. "It gives us Internet, phone, fax, computers, the whole nine yards. It allows us to physically insert an entire office in the middle of a damaged area."
Previously, he said, the company would have to take paper claims, box them up and then ship them out of state.
"Now, because of the satellite, as these customers are getting their claim number, that claim number is instantaneously being assigned to an adjuster who is here in the area," Mellander said.
Roy and Jean Serrentino typify just how different the process is this time around. The couple had just driven from Wellfleet, Mass., to begin the claim process on the mobile home where the retired couple has wintered for the last 12 years.
But while driving through downtown, they spotted one of five mobile offices Allstate had set up in the area. They pulled in, an adjuster immediately verified their policy, gave them a claim number and they were on their way out to the house to do an initial assessment.
"I thought I was going to have to wait two weeks for this guy," said Roy Serrentino, pointing to adjuster Bill Kirby after they maneuvered around a 20-foot boat and over crumpled metal from his roof and carport to reach his home's front door.
With many victims beginning to file insurance claims, Doug Robinette, president of Nationwide, who joined Gallagher on his tour of the hard-hit county, said he expected 95 percent of their claims to be paid out within three months.
"We are absolutely prepared for this," Robinette said.
Several tables were set up outside the insurance companies' mobile offices in a parking lot near a local Allstate agent. Many victims have been given checks of $2,000 to $3,000 on the spot to help with a food, a place to stay and other needs while claims are processed.
"They're getting start-up money, or kind of keeping-you-going money," Mellander said.