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Underhill Details Hurricane Recovery, Insurance Woes

Recovery from Hurricane Sally is well underway in Northwest Florida.

But, for some coastal property owners with the most significant damage from water and wind, rebuilding can’t begin until after their insurance claims are settled.

That’s the case for Escambia County District 2 Commissioner Doug Underhill, who lives on Perdido Key.

“So we anticipate that we’re going to be living like this for probably months and it’ll probably be a year or more before we’re back in a proper house,” said Commissioner Underhill, estimating the timetable for family’s return to normalcy following Hurricane Sally’s destruction to their home on the Perdido River.

“We are fairly certain that a boat that broke loose, from somewhere south and west of here came flying through here at a fairly high speed,” he surmised.

He believes storm surge pushed the boat through a gap in an adjacent line of trees and rammed it into his house.  

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Credit Sandra Averhart/WUWF Public Media
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Wendy Underhill shows the damage to her home due to flooding from Hurricane Sally.

“We know that something very heavy impacted the wall here and knocked a big hole in the wall. And we know that because it (boat) continued down this row of houses and did some damage to our neighbors as well, and it came to rest a couple of doors down,” he stated.

The upper floor of his two-story home is usable, although it may not be structurally sound because of a crack in the foundation. Floodwaters forced him to gut the entire ground floor of his house, cutting out about 4 feet of wall throughout, to prevent mold.

Due to the windy conditions, Underhill and his wife, Wendy, invite me to step inside - through the open wall.

“This is the new door,” Wendy said jokingly, before noting that we were standing on one of their sons’ bedroom.

Doug Underhill joins in, “This is two boys’ bedrooms, the bathrooms. So this was their kitchen.” They note the refrigerator that’s out on the back porch was in this space in this space, along with a family room.

“It’s funny because the boat poked a hole in the wall here and there was a shower right there. We never found half the shower.”

The Underhills, who have been married for 22 years, evacuated the barrier island before Hurricane Sally made landfall and came back after cleared to do so.

They were as prepared for the hurricane as anyone could be. Its late shift to the east reduced the time they had to pack, but they have a trailer, which allowed them to save many of their personal treasures. Also, they have an RV to live in until their home is repaired. Still, the situation is very upsetting, and it’s taking a toll.

“I mean we put on a good face for it, but all of my children’s clothes, gone,” Underhill explained. “Actually, they’re spread all over the neighborhood. Things that we gave them, my father’s cruise book from the USS Saratoga in the ‘60s from before I was born was destroyed in this. So, I mean it’s devastating.”

According to Wendy Underhill, whose cherished wedding gown is now covered in mud, it’s more painful than she thought it would be. 

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Credit Sandra Averhart/WUWF Public Media
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Two elevated AC units and the structure they sat on survived the 2014 flood, but were washed away by Hurricane Sally.

“We’ve lived here for nine years and we’ve kind of always been prepared for this possibly happening every hurricane season,” she said. “You think you’re prepared, and you think you know what to expect, but when we came back to the house on Wednesday, there was still surf rolling through the house, and the violence of it was very upsetting to me.”

The couple know what it’s like to experience a natural disaster, having suffered a similar level of damage to their Perdido Key home in the flood of 2014. Back then, it was just rising water from what was unprecedented rainfall. With Hurricane Sally, it’s more complicated.

“This time, we had rising water, we had storm surge,” she declared. “We had wind pushing waves through our house and knocking things around, knocking things into it and knocking windows out. That wind was a factor in what happened. But, the wind insurance company is calling it flood.”

The Underhills believe pictures of the damage from the two different disasters reflect the true story of what happened this time.

“In April 2014 flood; I have a picture of an exterior structure on the side of our house, with our two elevated AC units sitting on top of it. The water came up, halfway up that structure, went back down. AC units never stopped running. This time that structure is gone and the AC units are gone.”

Although new for the Underhills, they’ve heard their friends’ stories of similar ‘wind verses water’ wrangling with insurance companies following Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

“We pay that flood insurance premium and that wind insurance premium every month and then we start to feeling like the insurance companies are our enemies, and it feels like you’re victimized all over again,” she stated in frustration.

“It’s not really a battle, but a realization that they’re not your friend, not on your side. They’re there to payout as little as possible in each and every case,” Underhill explained.

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Credit Sandra Averhart/WUWF Public Media
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Doug Underhill's wife, Wendy, points to the damaged dock behind their home on the Perdido River.

“For example, In the 2014 flood, we had a letter that said we were 67% damaged and anything over 50% you’re supposed to be able to rebuild to standards. We did not have a public adjuster, did not have a lawyer on our side to argue and negotiate on our behalf and as a result we had to repair this house, whereas had we rebuilt it back then, we wouldn’t have this damage.”

After lessons learned from six years ago, the commissioner says this time he’s enlisting the help of a public insurance adjuster, and had just signed a contract with one the morning of our interview.

“And, it felt like lifting some of that burden off, right. You know you’ve got somebody whose only job is to be in your camp,” he said with a level of relief.

The services of public adjusters are available only to insured property owners, not insurance companies, and their fees are capped at 10% for claims made with a year of an event declared an emergency by the governor.

Underhill says he strongly recommends an adjuster to any citizen experiencing a similar situation with hurricane damage.

“And, to my knowledge, I never met anybody who said, “Yeah, I hired a public adjuster and I wish I didn’t,” he said with a chuckle.