Embers residents receive unexpected bills due to July 19 tornado
Some residents at The Embers are facing thousands of dollars in moving fees following the July 19 tornado due to an insurance technicality.
Vicki Bogner, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit Embers retirement community, 1211 W. State St. said the staff has had to quickly respond to some of the many needs of the building and displaced residents. The facility sustained $10.5 million in damages from the tornado – nearly twice the figure initially estimated and reported by the Times-Republican in September.
The storm required the 107 residents to temporarily relocate while the building was professionally cleaned and restored by ServiceMaster, By Rice with residents moved back in by mid-November.
Some residents have recently received unexpected bills for the moving and storing of their personal belongings, as reported by the Des Moines Register on Monday.
Bogner said an agent from the Embers’ insurance provider, Nationwide, had verbally told her they would cover ServiceMaster’s costs for packaging, removing and placing personal items in storage while the building was being rehabilitated, then bringing the items back into their respective apartments. She shared this with residents, but the insurance agents later said they wouldn’t be covering the costs, Bogner said.
“It was all a verbal agreement,” Bogner said. “I think (our agent) had the best of intentions in telling us that, but his boss changed Nationwide’s mind on it.”
Nationwide issued a corporate statement to the Register.
“Our hearts go out to the people affected by the tornadoes that hit Marshalltown and other Iowa communities in 2018. Nationwide worked with the residents of the facility, including those who were uninsured, to find alternative housing once the facility was declared uninhabitable,” officials said in a statement. “Nationwide was unaware of any concerns that residents of the Embers Retirement Community had prior to receiving this inquiry. Nationwide continues to be in contact with the facility and residents to address any open issues.”
Pieces of pulverized glass were found shattered throughout the entire facility, requiring all the carpeting to be removed and replaced and the walls to be stripped and repainted.
Residents were strongly encouraged to evacuate their residences after the tornado, but it was not required. Bogner signed a form giving ServiceMaster permission to enter residents’ apartments, pack belongings and place them in storage, which included the underground parking garage and portable storage units on the premises.
Residents had until July 27 to access their units and remove any personal belongings they wouldn’t have access to once things were packed away. Staff also allowed a few people back into their apartments to retrieve essential items they’d forgotten, such as medications and checkbooks.
Bogner said it wasn’t practical to get each resident’s individual consent for entry as they were in all different locations after being displaced.
“It was never a case of me trying to keep them away from their stuff. It was a safety issue,” Bogner said.
Bogner hosted meetings with the residents and their families twice a week initially following the tornado, then once per week.
“I told them ServiceMaster is going to come in and take pictures of all your belongings, pack them up and put them in storage,” she said.
Discrepency with individual insurance policies
Each resident faces a unique situation with his or her insurance policy if they were insured.
Bogner said ServiceMaster charged the industry standard for its services. The average resident now faces around $5,000 in packing/moving/storage charges, with the higher end of the bills exceeding $11,000. Some other residents only had to pay a $500 deductible.
Resident Venita Connley, who has renters insurance, said she was surprised to receive a bill once she was able to move back. She came back to 88 boxes in her room and some of them were not packed full all the way. Her dolls from her collection were each placed in their own box with paper filling the rest of it, she said.
“I think there is some unhappiness with the residents about this, and it should be pointed out,” Connley said.
Bogner shared a similar sentiment on how the packing was done, but felt ServiceMaster’s focus was protecting the items. She has told disgruntled residents to directly contact Nationwide for further questions and concerns about having to cover moving costs.
“I don’t feel like it’s my fault. I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. (The insurance) told me they were going to take care of it, and that’s what I told my people,” Bogner said. “We thought their bills would be a couple thousand dollars to get everything packed up. It turned out to be more than that. A lot of them had a lot of collections so it took a lot of packing stuff.”
Apartments of people who didn’t have renters insurance were given priority in the cleanup process because they didn’t have insurance to cover alternative housing. Bogner said 13 displaced residents who had been staying at the Willows were able to move back in by Aug. 19. In addition, Bogner set up a payment plan for them.
The Embers charged the uninsured residents a full month’s rent, but they only applied half of it to rent expenses and the other half to their ServiceMaster bill, Bogner said. She said they will continue to offer this payment plan.
Currently, 85 people reside at the Embers and repairs are still in progress. Bogner said some of the decrease in residents is due to death, residents deciding to remain with family or moving to facilities better equipped for their health needs.
When a person moves into the facility, he or she is encouraged to obtain renters insurance, but this type of insurance is not required by law. The Embers tenant agreement states: “Neither Owner nor Management shall be held liable for lost or stolen property or loss due to fire, windstorms, or any other hazard.”