Hurricane Survivor Feels Lucky, Despite Hassles

October 4, 2004

Betsy Gunderson isn’t living in her Coral Gardens neighborhood these days. Hurricane Frances rendered her home unfit for habitation. Then came a second slap for good measure from the remnants of Ivan, and the final punch in the gut was delivered by Hurricane Jeanne.
It will be weeks before Gunderson, a teacher at J.D. Parker School of Science, Math & Technology, can go home to a new roof, ceilings, walls and carpet to replace the soggy mess waiting on the side of the road for the trash truck.

But she hasn’t given up. With schools closed because of storms and damage until Monday, she has been volunteering at the Martin County Emergency Operations Center, feeling very much the veteran as she fields questions from callers who rode through Frances unscathed and are learning the meaning of the word “disaster” with Jeanne.
“Taking all these calls, I feel lucky,” she said last week. “I have insurance. My house will be fixed.”

She’s hearing from people who have no idea what FEMA is, let alone how to apply. She’s talking to those who don’t even know if they have insurance and whose only frame of reference for deductibles is how many kids they can claim on their income tax return.

But Gunderson is also learning hard truths about dealing with contractors, insurance companies and government bureaucrats.
Her contractor and her insurance adjuster are far apart on how much they estimate it will cost to restore her small, wood-frame home to its pre-hurricane status.

Paperwork comes in the confusing jargon of engineers and builders, breaking down costs room by room and square foot by square foot. The detail is numbing.

Resetting the ceramic toilet paper holder: $14.41.

Who decides such things?

Checks come, but for what?

One mentions “personal property,” but the adjuster hasn’t “adjusted” the personal property. A summary of costs mentions $7,900 in prior payments as part of the structural damage payout, but Gunderson said she hasn’t received anything but $500 for carpet removal on her structural damage.

She worries the paperwork is lumping her living expenses in with the structural costs, something she has been going around and around with the insurance company on since the beginning.

Back to the insurance tent for more discussions with the teams sent in to deal with such issues.

But overall, she’s doing well.

She and her cat, Orangee, are staying at the downtown Stuart Holiday Inn. She had running water, air conditioning, cable television, a pool and a restaurant at her disposal when she finished her stint as a Red Cross volunteer at the Port Salerno Elementary shelter during Hurricane Jeanne.

She was worried about her mother, who had to evacuate her condominium in Jeanne, and her grandmother, who had heavy damage to her Hutchinson Island mobile home in the second storm. They made it through, a little shaken, but unhurt.

Gunderson said she got a reality check by reading about the thousands who perished when Jeanne swept through impoverished Haiti.

“I put so much focus on getting my house fixed and there are people who died,” she said. “I think I’ve just been focusing on my own problems too much.”

She’s looking forward to going back to work. Her students have been talking and writing about the storms and their feelings and studying newspaper reports.

And like thousands of other Treasure Coast residents, as the hectic pace of preparing, enduring and cleaning up wanes, Gunderson is finding new levels of exhaustion.

“I slept until noon today,” she said Friday. “I have never in my life slept until noon. I get up at five o’clock every day.”

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