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Tuesday, December 7, 1993
Orange County Edition
Section: PART A
Page: A-1

Insurance Top Concern for Laguna Fire Victims;
Rebuilding: Residents of neighborhood assess coverage and compile
comprehensive lists of pre-blaze property.


Loretta Edger insists that she is not distrustful. She doesn't
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 insurance.

Since Oct. 27, when the Laguna Beach fire consumed her two-story
stucco house on picturesque Buena Vista Way, Edger's emotions have
soared, then crashed, lifted, then plummeted again, based each time on
talks with Farmers Insurance Group. Even now, despite a hard-won promise
from Farmers that she can rebuild her house, she remains wary, afraid
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 coverage has
assumed paramount importance for the 405 families whose homes were
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 Way's fire
victims--or "fire survivors," as they like to be known--are spending long
hours compiling comprehensive, minutely detailed lists of every picture,
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 photographs of
their houses and valuables. And they are working with architects to
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 and
belongings they lost, small but significant changes along their street
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 gawkers.
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 city
finished clearing the nine burned-out lots, sweeping the street clean and
carting away tons of broken concrete, tangled metal and other debris.
"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 better, too."
Edger, a friendly, straightforward woman with short, graying hair,
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 cleared the
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 security--now gone,
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 from a
devastating loss.
Farmers spokesman John Millen said he was reluctant to discuss the
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 Illinois after
spending nearly a month in Laguna, Farmers officials had provided her
with some details of her new coverage. The new policy will substantially
increase the amount the company will pay toward rebuilding her home and
add to the amount she will receive in lost rent and landscape
Other burned-out residents of Buena Vista Way have avoided similar
difficulties in dealing with insurers in the days since the fire.
Thomas Homan, a businessman who carried top-of-the-line coverage on
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,"
he said.
Other residents, like Christian Werner, a German-born, UC Irvine
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
specific complaints.
"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 comes relatively
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 adjuster, but
because they haven't. The Allens said they carried a guaranteed
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 now-destroyed
rental house on Buena Vista Way and also was covered by a Farmers policy,
it took almost no time to understand that they were badly underinsured.
Although Edger and Becker quickly received settlement checks from
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 under legislation
that took effect in July.
Separately, the two protested, with Becker writing letters directly to
Farmers and Edger asking the California Department of Insurance to
investigate. By last week, both had convinced Farmers officials to
upgrade their coverage.
But their situations are alike only on the surface. Becker's
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 her insurance
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 agent finally
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 evening dreaming
about her new house. The next day, she said, she was told her coverage
would not be enough after all.
Farmers' Millen said he could not discuss the details of Edger's
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 Insurance
investigate, she told officials she had been stunned to learn of the new
law requiring insurers to inform new homeowners or those renewing
policies about the availability of better coverage. She had renewed her
policy by mail in August, one month after the law took effect.
Department of Insurance spokesman Bill Schulz said that Edger's
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 decision from
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 costs of
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
distinction minor.
"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 beyond the
$206,000 limit in her original policy was based on the special
circumstances involved in her claim, he said.
When Edger and her children moved out of Laguna in 1980, she changed
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 policy retired.
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 regional claims
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 customer's
But Farmers officials also told Edger they could put nothing in
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 every intention
of doing what they have to do, if only to keep me quiet."

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 in Laguna
Beach incorrectly implied that Farmers Insurance Group violated a new
state law that requires insurers to inform new and renewing policyholders
about the availability of better coverage. Although the disclosure law
took effect July 1 for new policies, it does not apply to renewals until
after Jan. 1.

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 stand atop
her home on Buena Vista Way in Laguna Beach and discuss the design
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 California
Conservation Corps worker carries bags to be used in sandbagging effort,
right. An undamaged mailbox rests on charred tree, below. Architect Tom
Burger and Edger discuss home design options, far right.

Type of Material: One in a Series


Copyright (c) 1993 Times Mirror Company


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