|Tuesday, December 7, 1993
Orange County Edition
Section: PART A
Insurance Top Concern for Laguna Fire Victims;
Rebuilding: Residents of neighborhood assess coverage and
comprehensive lists of pre-blaze property.
By: REBECCA TROUNSON
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Loretta Edger insists that she is not distrustful. She
start out making notes of conversations. She never asks
anyone to confirm
an agreement in writing. She doesn't think about
recording phone calls.
But that is changing, at least when it comes to her home
Since Oct. 27, when the Laguna Beach fire consumed her
stucco house on picturesque Buena Vista Way, Edger's
soared, then crashed, lifted, then plummeted again, based
each time on
talks with Farmers Insurance Group. Even now, despite a
from Farmers that she can rebuild her house, she remains
that all is not as it seems.
"Why should I trust them now?" asked Edger, 53,
a widow and former
teacher who lives in Illinois and rents out her Laguna
house. "One day
I'm up, one day I'm down. One day I'm rebuilding, one day
I'm not. I
don't know whether to believe them anymore or not."
In the weeks since the fire, the issue of insurance
assumed paramount importance for the 405 families whose
damaged or destroyed. Edger's experience may not be
typical of Laguna
fire victims, or even of the nine individuals and
families whose homes
were lost at the northern end of her narrow, winding
street, but it
illustrates the struggles that come with attempting to
rebuild life from
the ground up.
As requested by their insurers, for example, Buena Vista
victims--or "fire survivors," as they like to
be known--are spending long
hours compiling comprehensive, minutely detailed lists of
book, article of clothing or piece of furniture they can
remember in the
homes they lost.
From friends, they are trying to collect all existing
their houses and valuables. And they are working with
re-create drawings that were incinerated along with the
buildings but are
crucial to the insurance process.
As Buena Vista Way's residents work to replace the homes
belongings they lost, small but significant changes along
signal the beginning of the neighborhood's return.
Just beyond Bonnie and Jonathan Wolin's house at 658
Buena Vista Way,
where Orange County firefighters made their stand that
Wednesday night, a
swinging, chain-link gate has been erected to deter
Past that, on toward the blackened end of the street, a
double row of
sandbags lines each side of the street, placed there by
the county in an
attempt to stem further damage from mudslides.
And last week, a demolition company under contract to the
finished clearing the nine burned-out lots, sweeping the
street clean and
carting away tons of broken concrete, tangled metal and
"Somehow, it doesn't look so disastrous after it's
clean," said Cindy
Boyer, owner of Cin-Mar Industries, as she cleared rubble
from inside the
charred shell of Sheila Patterson's garage at 644 Buena
Vista Way. "I
hope it'll make some of these people feel a little
Edger, a friendly, straightforward woman with short,
said she actually did feel better when she saw her
property at 661 Buena
Vista Way looking a little less devastated last week.
She watched and took pictures as the workers carefully
lot, removing the last vestiges of the home she had
shared with her
husband 14 years ago. In 1980, a few months after her
husband was killed
here in an industrial accident, she and her children
moved to Illinois.
"I have never really been able to live in the house
again," she said.
"Every once in a while, I would move in for a short
time, but the
memories were too strong."
With the house--and a major part of her financial
Edger said nothing short of a written guarantee from
Farmers that she can
afford to rebuild it will ease her lingering concerns
about the future.
While a Farmers spokesman insisted last week that
"we're going to take
care of her," Edger said she believes company
officials not only ignored
and misled her immediately after the fire but neglected
to tell her in
advance about coverage that might have helped protect her
Farmers spokesman John Millen said he was reluctant to
specifics of Edger's claim but acknowledged that the
company had made
some mistakes in her case. Millen said the company has
now agreed to
upgrade Edger's coverage, essentially ensuring that she
can rebuild her
By late last week, just before Edger flew home to
spending nearly a month in Laguna, Farmers officials had
with some details of her new coverage. The new policy
increase the amount the company will pay toward
rebuilding her home and
add to the amount she will receive in lost rent and
Other burned-out residents of Buena Vista Way have
difficulties in dealing with insurers in the days since
Thomas Homan, a businessman who carried top-of-the-line
his modern, stucco house at 650 Buena Vista Way, said
last week he was
satisfied with the Allstate Insurance Companies' response
to his needs.
So was George Cary, whose multilevel dwelling at 645
Buena Vista Way was
also covered by a deluxe Allstate policy.
Homan said his insurance carrier has been
"fantastic" in the way it
has treated him. "I can't even think of one bad
thing to say about them,"
Other residents, like Christian Werner, a German-born, UC
geography professor who lived behind a jungle of greenery
at 657 Buena
Vista Way before the fire, have reserved judgment for
now. Aside from a
nagging feeling that he may have been underinsured,
Werner said he has no
"The fact of the matter is, the moment of truth
hasn't quite arrived
yet," Werner said. "As long as the positions
and demands and expectations
of both sides are not yet fully articulated, small talk
cheap and easy, don't you think? We'll have to see."
Jim and Jackie Allen, who lived at the northernmost end
of the street,
joked that they find themselves feeling nervous not
because they have
experienced any problems with their Farmers insurance
because they haven't. The Allens said they carried a
replacement policy on their stucco and wood house at 631
Buena Vista Way.
"You know, we're going to worry either way,"
said Jim Allen, 63, who
works in Orange County's Public Works Department.
"Well, our guy is so
nice he sends up a red flag. He's too nice."
For Edger, though, and for Joe Becker, who also owned a
rental house on Buena Vista Way and also was covered by a
it took almost no time to understand that they were badly
Although Edger and Becker quickly received settlement
Farmers based on the limits of their policies, both
blamed their agents
for not having told them before the fire about higher
levels of coverage
they could have purchased. The disclosure was required
that took effect in July.
Separately, the two protested, with Becker writing
letters directly to
Farmers and Edger asking the California Department of
investigate. By last week, both had convinced Farmers
upgrade their coverage.
But their situations are alike only on the surface.
complaints involved only the extent of his coverage with
Farmers, not his
treatment after the fire. And where Edger remained
uncertain late last
week, anxious to see her guarantees in writing, Becker
said he was
satisfied that Farmers would keep its word to him.
"They're doing right by me now," said Becker,
33, who owns a direct
mail business in Costa Mesa. "I don't have anything
in writing either,
but I'm sure there won't be any problem."
Edger said her difficulties with her insurers began
before the ashes
of her 2,600-square foot house were even cold.
On Oct. 28, the day after the fire, she tried to reach
agent by phone from Illinois. Hoping for advice about
what documents to
bring when she flew out to view the damage, she waited
for his call,
pushing her departure back several times, she said. The
called back four days later.
To make matters worse, when she finally arrived in
Laguna, she was
given conflicting information by her adjuster, Bill
Ellis, and other
Farmers representatives about what her "standard
form" fire insurance
policy would cover, she said.
At one point, assured by a regional adjuster that she
would be able to
rebuild, Edger bought decorating magazines and spent the
about her new house. The next day, she said, she was told
would not be enough after all.
Farmers' Millen said he could not discuss the details of
complaints about her treatment. "But when honest
mistakes are made, we're
going to work closely with our customers to resolve
those. We're all
people and people make mistakes," he said.
In Edger's request that the California Department of
investigate, she told officials she had been stunned to
learn of the new
law requiring insurers to inform new homeowners or those
policies about the availability of better coverage. She
had renewed her
policy by mail in August, one month after the law took
Department of Insurance spokesman Bill Schulz said that
complaint came relatively early in the insurance process,
but that she
appeared to have reached a dead end in her dealings with
Farmers. At the
least, she was not getting "the basic kind of
assistance one ought to
expect at this juncture," Schulz said.
Aware of the investigation, Farmers did not wait for a
the state before opting to give her extra coverage,
retroactive to the
time of the fire.
But Millen said Edger's new coverage may not cover all
upgrading her house to meet building codes enacted in the
years since it
was constructed in the 1940s. That coverage is not
normally part of the
"landlord protector plus" policy Edger will now
have, but he called the
"This is not a broad, wide-open code upgrade offer,
but what we'll do
in terms of building her place obviously will meet
current codes," Millen
The company's decision to increase Edger's coverage well
$206,000 limit in her original policy was based on the
circumstances involved in her claim, he said.
When Edger and her children moved out of Laguna in 1980,
her homeowners policy to reflect the fact that the Buena
Vista Way house
had become a rental property.
Six years later, the agent who sold her the insurance
He passed his clients on to agent Dennis DePrete. But
since Edger never
made a claim, she had little contact with DePrete and
never met him. Each
year, she renewed the policy by mail.
DePrete referred questions about Edger's situation to
manager Thomas Scheetz, and ultimately to Millen.
"She bought this policy from one agent, then she
moved away and in the
meantime her policy was transferred to another
agent," Millen said. "If
you don't have the opportunity to meet with someone,
things can get
garbled from time to time. But we're going to take care
of her. Given
these very unusual circumstances, we try to lean in the
But Farmers officials also told Edger they could put
writing for some time.
Still concerned, Edger was trying hard to feel reassured.
"I think I'm just going to have to try to trust
them," she said. "I'd
like to see it in writing, but I do think now they have
of doing what they have to do, if only to keep me
---- START OF CORRECTION ----
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 23, 1993
Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk
2 inches; 52 words
Type of Material: Correction
Fire insurance--A Dec. 7 story on fire insurance concerns
Beach incorrectly implied that Farmers Insurance Group
violated a new
state law that requires insurers to inform new and
about the availability of better coverage. Although the
took effect July 1 for new policies, it does not apply to
after Jan. 1.
---- END CORRECTION TEXT ----
PHOTO: COLOR, Workers from ECCO Equipment clear some
of the charred
debris on Buena Vista Way in Laguna Beach.
PHOTO: COLOR, Loretta Edger and architect David Hohmann
her home on Buena Vista Way in Laguna Beach and discuss
possibilities of her replacement house, above. Julie
Ireland, top left,
and Edger take photos at site of Edger's home, destroyed
by Oct. 27 fire.
The photos are necessary for insurance reasons.
PHOTO: COLOR, Debris is cleared from house, above. A
Conservation Corps worker carries bags to be used in
right. An undamaged mailbox rests on charred tree, below.
Burger and Edger discuss home design options, far right.
PHOTOGRAPHER: GAIL FISHER / Los Angeles Times
Type of Material: One in a Series
Descriptors: LAGUNA BEACH (CA); BRUSH FIRES -- ORANGE
COUNTY; PROPERTY DAMAGE; INSURANCE CLAIMS; DISASTER
Copyright (c) 1993 Times Mirror Company