Still without a home, a year later - Insurance dispute stalls windstorm repairs
By AMY ROLPH
Not many reminders are left of December's windstorm that blew the Puget Sound region into the dark -- unless you happen to be driving down 39th Avenue Southwest in Arbor Heights.
The lights are on in all the homes that line the West Seattle street except for one: a lumpy, crumpled affair shrouded in ragged tarps and padlocked behind a chain-link fence.
The 140-foot poplar tree that landed on the roof of the little green house has been cut into chunks and hauled away, but the place is still in ruins -- more crumpled and broken than it was when owners Gerard Denommee and Kathi Cronin emerged from the basement with their children after the storm.
"This has been our home," Denommee said last week, staring at the soggy tarp-pile through the fence. "To see it still broken after all this time is so frustrating."
He blames an unfair insurance process for delaying the repairs the house needs. The house remains unrepaired and uninhabitable -- and might just be a talking point in a statewide debate over Referendum 67, which would force insurance companies to face huge jury awards if they denied or delayed claims.
Though Farmers Insurance has paid more than $100,000 for repairs and living assistance for the family so far, a disagreement persists over how much work needs to be done and how much it should cost. Denommee said he thinks the roof needs to be replaced entirely, but said insurance agency officials are telling him it can be repaired.
Frustrated with the process, the couple hired their own adjustor, but Farmers spokesman Jerry Davies said that makes the process slower. He said the company is trying to settle the claim quickly for Denommee and Cronin, and "the last thing we want to do is lose them -- I promise you that."
Denommee, however, said it has been difficult to get any kind of response from the company, and he suspects that Farmers is just trying to run out the clock.
"I can't get over the unfairness of it." Denommee said. "The system is not set up for the homeowners; it's set up for the insurance company. It's not a level playing field."
And so as the region gears up for the winter storm season, Denommee and Cronin are paying the mortgage on their damaged home while renting another.
And they're finding themselves a bit wind-shy.
During last week's windy days, Cronin was shaking uncontrollably while driving to pick her daughter up from school.
"It was eerie," she said. "I knew it wasn't like last year, but ..."
One look inside Cronin's home of five years will generate at least some sympathy for her nerves. The roof remains caved inward, and from the living room you can see rain clouds overhead when the wind tugs at the tarps.
Toy-chest-size bins collect the rainwater that drips from the bare beams, but they don't seem to be catching much. The hardwood floors are wet and muddy, and a contractor has stripped away the wallboard walls to expose the house's worn skeleton. The roots of the now-removed tree have given birth to a network of fresh, young poplar shoots that -- like something out of a Stephen King novel -- are methodically surrounding the house.
He recently signed a petition on the "Approve 67" campaign Web site, thinking that the added threat of triple damages could make insurance companies hustle to serve their clients in the future.
But it may not be that clear.
A spokeswoman for the pro-67 campaign said this looks like a textbook case of an unjustly delayed claim. But those pushing for the referendum's failure said Denommee and Cronin already have all the protections they need. If the couple have been mistreated, they can already claim the usual damages in court, plus damages related to emotional distress, "Reject 67" spokeswoman Dana Childers said.
Within 90 days, December's windstorm resulted in about 42,500 claims and $170 million in payments, according to data compiled by the Northwest Insurance Council. The state Insurance Commissioner's Office is investigating a total of seven complaints related to windstorm claims, according to the council's data.
For Denommee and Cronin -- who filed one of those seven complaints -- there's one room inside their Arbor Heights home they say is especially heartbreaking to visit: a back bedroom painted with murals of trees and flowers.
It's their 7-year-old daughter Briere's room, which she and Denommee painted with the help of 3-year-old Phin.
"But there is no grief in this," Denommee said. "My kids and my wife are OK.
"We can still laugh and say that we're going to be OK."
P-I reporter Amy Rolph can be reached at 206-448-8223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.