In The Eye Of The Storm
The Narayans were slammed twice in two months, first by a near-fatal car crash, then by Hurricane Charley. Now their financially innocent 26-year-old daughter has to piece her family's life back together
By Joan Caplin

(MONEY Magazine) – DAY 1 Nothing was going to keep Roja Narayan away from her family's home, not even her sister calling from Punta Gorda, Fla. to say that Hurricane Charley had destroyed everything—that she shouldn't bother to come.

If anyone was going to put her family's shattered life back together, it would have to be Roja. Though a year younger than her sister Pammy, the 26-year-old had always been the more practical and tougher of the two. Her mother, Roja says, gets "way too emotional" in a crisis. As for her father, a successful cardiologist who ordinarily would have led the family at a time like this, he had suffered a near-fatal car accident two months earlier, leaving him with temporary neurological damage and short-term memory loss. She hadn't quite realized it yet, but Roja had become the de facto head of her family.

In many ways, she was ill-prepared for the role. Though smart and accomplished—Roja will graduate from medical school in March—this youngest child of protective parents is strikingly inexperienced when it comes to financial matters. To this day, Roja has never used an ATM. The only time she's ever held a job was in high school, but she quit after two weeks because her disapproving parents refused to speak to her.

Now Roja would get a financial crash course. She and her mother Geetha packed the car with supplies and drove south from Sarasota, where they'd waited out the storm trapped in the windowless cafeteria of the hospital in which her father Dev was recovering. Roja knew that insurers should be contacted and lost possessions catalogued. Beyond that, however, she mostly had questions: In what order should she take these steps? Should she touch anything before the insurance adjuster arrived? Who could she hire to help? What would the insurance company pay for? What if their policy had perished in the storm? Where would they live?

Then there were the emotional issues: Home was her base of stability, its destruction a painful lesson in how little control she actually had. At the same time, it was hard not to think about the precautions her family should have taken. ("I never in my life dreamed this would happen to us," Roja said afterward. "I always thought of hurricanes as beautiful.")

For the moment, Roja focused on the tasks ahead, so much so that her mother worried about how she never broke down and wept. "If you cry, you won't stop," Roja thought. "There's no time for that."

The 127-mph winds that blew through the Gulf of Mexico and smack into Punta Gorda at 4:35 p.m. on Aug. 13 were later blamed for 33 deaths throughout the region. The property damage, estimated at $7 billion, makes Charley the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, after 1992's Andrew. In Charlotte County alone, where Punta Gorda is located, the commercial district was all but flattened and nearly one in five houses were destroyed. As Roja and Geetha approached their home, they could see that Pammy's assessment wasn't far off.

Built in 1988, 8 Ocean Dr. had been Geetha and Dev's dream house. They bought the land, which backs onto a canal that flows into the Peace River and eventually into the Gulf, for $80,000 and spent two years planning before breaking ground. Every room facing the canal had corner-to-corner windows.

The bed of pink roses blooming in front of the house was deceptive, because little else had survived. The roof had collapsed, the windows had blown in and water was everywhere. A 20-foot-long leather couch had been hurled across the living room. The Baldwin grand piano was so smothered in broken glass, Roja couldn't find a place to grip it so she could roll it into a dry corner. In the bedrooms, wet clumps of pink and yellow fiberglass insulation were impossibly mixed in with the small items that had once occupied dresser drawers. Jewelry was strewn about; Roja could do no better than to find a ring here, a bracelet there and a few single earrings—but, infuriatingly, never their mates. The home was, as the insurance company would later declare, uninhabitable.

There came a moment later that first day when Roja found herself alone at the house and as close to hopeless as she would get. Then something happened: She noticed debris floating in the small man-made pond where the family kept a collection of koi. "I said, 'Oh, you poor things, everything is going to be okay.' I was talking to them like they were babies." In a near trance, Roja walked back into the house for the fish food and, miraculously, found it on the floor in the utility room. "It made me feel like at least I was doing something." Roja never faltered again.

DAY 2 The first order of business was patching the roof, at least provisionally, to prevent further damage to the house. Roja got the names of several contractors and put out calls. Waiting for a response, she spent two days wiping off small items she salvaged, putting them in plastic bags and labeling the bags. At night, she listed everything destroyed or missing that she could remember.

Roja also educated herself about insurance via the Internet. The learning curve was steep. "I didn't even know what a deductible was," she says. Geetha was of little help—she could remember nothing more than that State Farm was their carrier. Roja mistakenly thought that an insurer would not process their claim without a policy number. (Actually, large insurance companies now routinely deploy mobile offices to disaster areas to process claims where records may no longer exist.) After rummaging through piles of damp papers, she finally located a 10-year-old policy.

DAY 4 Roja had hired the first contractor who called her back, a guy named Douglas Huff. When he showed up, she handed him a check for $2,500, which he said he needed to buy materials. "He told me not to worry, the insurance company would reimburse me," she explains sheepishly. "I was so desperate at that point, I said, 'Please tell me you will do this today, because another storm is coming and more stuff is getting damaged.'" And yes, she got a receipt.

Huff boarded up the windows and covered the roof with flimsy plastic. By the next day the plastic was already flapping in the wind. (Huff didn't return MONEY's calls.)

At least Huff was licensed. It's not uncommon after a major disaster for bogus contractors and advocates to come crawling out of the wreckage, ostensibly eager to "help out." People who under calmer circumstances would exercise better judgment find themselves letting down their guard to profiteers.

How can disaster victims protect themselves? "Don't pay it all up front," advises Bob Doyle, a C.P.A. in St. Petersburg who volunteers his services to people affected by disasters. It's reasonable for contractors to ask for earnest money, but, he notes, suppliers usually extend credit to contractors they know.

DAY 5 Roja made her second hire, again on a blind referral from a neighbor: Above & Beyond Restoration, which agreed to come in the next day and start cleaning the house. This time she lucked out. Gale Valente, president of the company, took some 120 digital photos, inside and out, for insurance purposes. Then her workers shored up the roof properly with plywood and a heavy tarp; brought in generators, fans and dehumidifiers; cleared fallen trees; and packed up and stored anything that held together in one piece. Explains Valente: "You want to keep things that are marginal, even if they have mold on them, for the insurance company."

Since State Farm hadn't shown up yet, Roja worried that she might have cleaned up prematurely: "Everyone said you're not supposed to touch anything, but I decided to clean up anyway. I thought we'd just be losing more things." Turns out she did the right thing, says Chris Pakuris, the State Farm official who ended up processing Roja's claim. "To move and collect things is all right—whatever they can do to protect the property."

DAY 10 A week after Roja first contacted State Farm, an adjuster (not Pakuris, who got involved later) showed up and spent two days assessing the damage. Also, Roja handed him her list of lost possessions, but only after spending an entire afternoon driving around looking for a place with a copy machine—and electricity—where she could make duplicates. It came to 10 handwritten pages, and Roja was proud of it. "Everybody said you have to be a lioness," she explains. "You have to hold your ground, or they'll take advantage of you."

DAY 17 The family had by now rented a home in Sarasota so that Dev could continue his rehabilitation therapy there, and Roja had found an apartment nearby. But more than two weeks after Roja first called State Farm, the Narayans hadn't received any money, despite having faxed in a copy of the leases and having made repeated and fruitless attempts to speak to the adjuster. (State Farm's Pakuris later conceded that the adjuster should have given them his cell-phone number.)

Exasperated, Geetha decided it was her turn to act. She marched into the local State Farm office and declared that she wouldn't leave until she was handed a check for four months' rent. One uncomfortable hour later, she got it.

DAY 22 The Narayans finally heard from the adjuster, but the news was frustrating: Now he needed more details about the lost possessions—brand names and dates of purchase. So the whole family, and even friends, assembled for an excruciating memory game. They sat around the dining room table at the rental house in Sarasota. Roja acted as secretary. One close friend who is a collector was able to recall a number of pieces of crystal. And a techie cousin proved indispensable. "He connected our surround-sound system, the VCRs, the DVDs, even the laptops and the computers, so he remembered everything," Roja says.

The cataloguing was wrenching for everyone, but perhaps most of all for Geetha, who was all but overcome by feelings of loss. She is not only an inveterate collector but also a compulsive saver who had stored away everything—from Roja and Pammy's old piano and tennis trophies to unused china that she planned to give to her daughters when they married. All of it was destroyed.

Geetha also had a story to tell about nearly every lost object. There was the pair of six-foot-tall brass oil lamps that the whole family had carried back from India in sections, one per suitcase. Roja had little patience for her mother's reminiscing. "She was getting emotional, and I kept cutting her off," she says. "If you allow her to be emotional, it's never ending."

DAY 28 Roja was growing impatient with State Farm. The Narayans' policy entitled them to eimbursements for food, cleaning bills, the roof patching, the replacement tire after they got a flat on the debris-studded roads between Sarasota and Punta Gorda, even the gas they used. Yet nearly a month had passed since the hurricane, and the family hadn't seen a dime besides what Geetha had demanded for the rent.

So when Pakuris arrived at the Ocean Drive house to speak with Roja, the lioness roared. "The inspection has been done," Pakuris told Roja. "We finished the building estimate; now we want to get together and review. I know the main disappointment has been the contents—"

"Everything is a disappointment," Roja snapped. "We haven't been able to contact [the original adjuster]. We can't get together with him. He wasn't clear on what he wanted. No one has explained anything to us. He didn't have time, I understand—there are a lot of other people. But we're left up in the air. He hasn't given us anything we wanted."

DAY 33 Pakuris—who by this time also had the aftermath of hurricanes Frances and Ivan to deal with—finally sat down with the whole family at the Sarasota rental to discuss the claim. The Narayans' homeowners insurance is a "replacement cost" policy, which means the amount of money they'll eventually get is based on what it costs to actually replace their property, up to the policy limit. Until they present receipts or a signed contractor agreement, however, the policy pays out only the depreciated amounts. (An "actual cash value" policy, by contrast, reimburses policy holders only for what their belongings were worth at the time of the damage—and most things depreciate over time. Replacement policies cost about 10% more than cash value ones.)

So what did Pakuris put on the table? The contents of the Narayans' home had been covered for $365,000. As of the end of September, State Farm had approved $150,000 in reimbursements, but with depreciation, the initial check will be cut for $100,000. How were those numbers arrived at? The group effort had produced a detailed list of missing and damaged possessions, and salvaged photos luckily showed off things like expensive saris and art objects. For claims that were impossible to verify, Pakuris was sometimes willing to extrapolate: "If they had a separate dining room, I know they had a dining room set." But he asked them to go back to stores for receipts on big-ticket items, like their 20-foot leather couch, jewelry and Oriental rugs.

The structure itself, meanwhile, had been insured for $525,000; the 2% hurricane deductible brings the maximum reimbursement to $514,500. So far, State Farm has no intention of giving them anything close to that. "The foundation is solid and the integrity of the house is not damaged," explains Pakuris. As a result, State Farm approved $250,000. Less the $10,500 deductible and $50,000 for depreciation, the Narayans' check will be for $189,500—until they present a signed contract or the rebuilding is completed.

Above & Beyond Restoration's Valente says she thinks the figure is pretty fair. Local ReMax realtor Lyn Bevis, however, thinks $250,000 isn't even close to enough. "They're going to have to bring everything up to code." Plus, he says, "they're going to have a problem with mold. Everything has to be torn down to the studs." George Keys, a public adjuster who says he's helped 150 hurricane victims duke it out with insurance companies during the past two months, agrees. He says that all but two of the claims he's worked on have been "grossly underpaid." (Neither Bevis nor Keys has been inside the house.) But Pakuris says mold is a nonissue: The water damage was so extensive that State Farm's figures built in the cost of gutting the house.

What if bids for the job end up coming in significantly higher than $250,000? If the insurance company can't reconcile the estimates, the Narayans might have to seek another one. As a last resort, they could hire an independent appraiser like Keys and have the matter arbitrated by a third party. But, says Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs at the Insurance Information Institute, they would first want to appeal to Pakuris' supervisors before bringing in outside help, which they'd have to pay for out of pocket.

The additional living expenses, so far, have been less problematic. State Farm doesn't limit the dollar amount, though it does cut off support after one year and it does require that expenses be commensurate with a family's standard of living.

As for the $2,500 that Roja paid Huff, the contractor with the flimsy plastic, she'll probably be reimbursed. The job on the roof was clearly shoddy, but Pakuris was inclined to cover the bill, considering how big a job it was to board up almost 20 windows.

EPILOGUE Six weeks after Charley hit Punta Gorda, the Narayans were looking for contractors to bid on the rebuilding. Experts suggest getting several estimates, but that was turning out to be easier said than done. Good contractors were in heavy demand; two of the three recommended to the family didn't return their calls.

In any case, with Dev's recovery and professional future still uncertain, the Narayans hadn't even decided whether to rebuild—though Geetha wants her home back.

For her part, Roja reluctantly continued to carry the lioness' share of the negotiations, even while cramming for her month-away medical boards. "I thought I could get everything wrapped up by now," she said in late September. "I realize now it's going to take a year or two, minimum."

On Sept. 26, Hurricane Jeanne visited the house in Punta Gorda and blew the tarp off the roof. It also cut off power in Sarasota for several days. Roja kept working by candlelight.

The cost of Charley

Here's what the Narayans are getting back from State Farm.




NOTES: Estimates as of Sept. 30. [1]Includes gas and cleaning supplies. [2]The Narayans will also get depreciated amounts when they present receipts and/or a signed contractor agreement.