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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 12:48 am | Fair 50º


Experts Outline Ways to Rebuild After Montecito Mudslides

Attendees at Santa Barbara session told process can be difficult and likely take 18-24 months

From left, Bryan Henson, president of Allen Construction, Sheri Mize Wrightam and Insurance attorney Bourhis, spoke Wednesday night about disaster recovery. Click to view larger
From left, Bryan Henson, president of Allen Construction, Sheri Mize Wrightam and Insurance attorney Bourhis, spoke Wednesday night about disaster recovery. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

For the people whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the Montecito mudslides, the rebuilding process could take up to two years.

A team of experts spoke Wednesday night at the Veterans Memorial Building, offering information about how to fight insurance companies who reject claims and ways to access money from FEMA.

A Santa Barbara County emergency worker also warned that the massive debris flow could happen again the next time it rains.

But most of all, the panelists at the event agreed that Montecito residents are strong and that the community will pull out of the tragedy greater and stronger than ever.

“If you are hearing my voice, you are blessed, you are lucky to be here,” said Luis Moro, a Montecito resident who helped organize the event to provide the community some facts about how to recover.

Some 200 people attended the event.

“During the last two months we have been hit with Biblical disasters," said event moderator John Abraham Powell. "We lost our friends, our neighbors, our pets. People are hurting, and this community is wounded.”

Among the panelists were Bryan Henson, president of Allen Construction and an expert in disaster remediation and the insurance industry rebuilding process after natural disasters.

Henson said people who have lost their homes or suffered damage should get informed by closely reading their home insurance policy; become your own advocate; and build a strong team that helps organize and support you during a process that could take 18-24 months.

He said that homeowners should read their contracts five or six times to understand what it says, and then itemize as much as possible for the insurance company, everything from the value of the actual house, the driveway, garage and everything not connected to the main structure, the home’s contents, cost of debris removal, relocation expenses and other costs.

He said most policies won’t pay the entire cost to rebuild, but instead have a maximum payout.

“You need to take charge of the situation because no one is going to do that for your,” Henson said.

Insurance attorney Ray Bourhis took a stronger tone, urging homeowners to fight the insurance companies because it is their obligation to pay.

Bourhis said it was the insurance companies’ worst nightmare that this disaster happened in Montecito.

“The people of Montecito are smart, honest and straight-shooters, and they are not going to roll over just because some insurance company tells them what to do,” Bourhis said.

He said home insurance contracts are written to be intentionally confusing.

“You may as well write them in Chinese,” Bourhis said.

So it is important for people to read the document and understand California law.

“Insurance companies treat you very differently when you know what you are talking about,” Bourhis said.

In most homeowner contracts, you don’t need flood insurance to cover the cost of the debris flow and mudslides, Bourhis said.

“Your exclusions in your insurance policies are void if the underlying cause is a fire,” Bourhis said.

California has the best consumer-oriented laws and courts in the country, he said.

The insurance companies that are resisting payouts right now, he said, are eventually going to fall in line, and the “multimillion-dollar lawsuits” are going to go away.

Robert Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services, warned that the debris flow could happen again, and that there’s a new normal in Montecito.

“Get use to this idea that we are going to have to leave sometimes,” Lewin said. “Being in this transient world is something we are going to live with for awhile. We can be survivors or victims, We get to choose.”

Lewin also urged the homeowners to hold on to the mud that may still be on their private properties. Crews are still struggling to remove the mud on public property.

“The government is not going to be able to move your mud away,” he said.

FEMA representative Sheri Mize Wrightam also told the crowd that FEMA money is available as a supplement.

She said FEMA is not there “to make you whole again,” but to provide financial compensation “just enough to survive and help you function.”

FEMA will only help replace essential personal property, along with medical and dental costs.

FEMA steps in, she said, if a person doesn’t have insurance or an insurance claim is denied. She also said FEMA offers loans to homeowners.

The deadline to apply for FEMA money is March 16.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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