Dungog flood victim's fight with insurance company

Water flooded Hooke Street from the near the monument (right at the back) right through to the Wittmann's house (not visible on the right)
Water flooded Hooke Street from the near the monument (right at the back) right through to the Wittmann's house (not visible on the right)

Kathryn Wittmann from Hooke Street in Dungog was just one of the many families who have been left homeless after storm water flooded their home.

Here is her story.

On April 21, 2015 our lives and the community of Dungog changed completely. 

Just before 7am, 50 centimetres of stinking, icy-cold storm water run-off rose in our house and destroyed our home. One hundred and seventy-five centimetres of it in our backyard ruined both our cars and everything inside our garage and my studio.

Our hens survived by floating on their perches but the fences at the rear boundary were damaged where four metres of stormwater moved garbage and debris from higher up the normally dry gully. Our house was the last house up the Hooke Street hill to have water enter. 

My husband Ralf rescued Don and Thea Redman from inside their home, next door to us. We had just settled the elderly couple in our house when we realised we would need to evacuate to higher ground because the carpet beneath our feet had begun to bubble and float on rising water. When we opened the front door mulch from the front garden floated into the house. 

Ralf Wittmann rescuing Don Redman from his flooded house.

Ralf Wittmann rescuing Don Redman from his flooded house.

Once we waded the Redmans, our daughter and dog out, we returned through the cold brown water to try to salvage valuables. We didn't know if the water level would continue to rise.

The feeling was of adrenalin-fuelled but quiet panic as we tried to remember where the most important objects in our lives -paperwork, favourite toys, clothes - were.

Shock only set in when we had put up as much as we had room for, into high shelves and on top of the table, and waded back out again. We stood shivering in the road, in wet clothes and with no shoes on, and marvelled at the volume of water and tried to grasp the enormity of the new day. We had saved only a fraction: our lives had changed completely in that hour. 

It didn't feel like our home anymore, but a place that caused pain and anger and was always hard work.

In the 10 weeks since, we have lived in temporary accommodation, two rooms in a generous friend's house. We have eaten donated food and wear donated clothes and we drove a borrowed car for weeks.

From the moment the water receded we started removing carpet and have since removed all the floor coverings, kitchen cabinets, bathroom, ruined furniture, bedding, whitegoods, toys and the stuff that makes up a home that was destroyed by the filthy water that entered the house.

 It didn't feel like our home anymore, but a place that caused pain and anger and was always hard work.

My husband has forfeited paid work hours to stay in Dungog and work on our house.

We had help - recently Blazeaid volunteers made our yard secure and the donations from the very first days of food and clothing and hugs via the community centre have been invaluable. Our family has been patient and they, friends and strangers have been kind beyond imagination. 

Other people have suffered in ways we don't know about: we have been too busy working in our house, stripping walls down to the frames to stave off the fast growing mould. People tell us that "mould is the new asbestos" and that's not something I take lightly.

Worried that we might lose the offer they made us, last week we accepted an offer that falls almost $90,000 short of our claim.

The town has heaved with displaced people and outside volunteers and although it's not the same, things are moving on and the place is tighter knit than ever. 

Most people who lost contents and had their homes damaged by the stormwater have been paid speedily by their insurers.

We were covered for stormwater but not for flood. Our insurance company seems to be the only insurance company that is arguing the damage was done by flood water. The water levels were unprecedentedly high: media descriptions called it a 'Superstorm' or a category 2 cyclone.

Not in more than 100 years had there been such an event in Dungog, and the news spread internationally. I was told by an insurance company’s legal advice line that I would need to “prove that the event occurred”. 

In this time we have had five different insurance assessors appointed to our claim.

They hired a hydrologist whose report detailed, for 15 pages, the extent of the excessive rainfall and catchment areas of stormwater (two normally dry gullies meet near the rear of our block). The report came to the contradictory conclusion that the damage to our property was caused by flood. It made no sense.

The report completely ignored the massive build-up of stormwater that, aided by debris-blocked drains, filled the town gullies and restricted escape of further stormwater. Plain to any local and visible by the pattern of damage to public areas of the town, like the tennis courts, and to the Blazeaid volunteers who fixed our stormwater overrun fencing, commenting on the obvious direction of the water, this damage was not done by rising floodwaters from the Myall Creek. 

Worn down by arguing with our insurance company and wasting our time calling assessors who suddenly didn't work for the company anymore, and worried that we might lose the offer they made us, last week we accepted an offer, after considering advice from Legal Aid, that falls almost $90,000 short of our claim.

Our Legal Aid lawyer negotiated a 'reservation of rights' on the insurance company’s offer, which allowed us to feel that we could accept the offer without agreeing that the water that entered our home was flood. We might be able to return to our house before Christmas. 

We were over-insured. Our claim came to less than half what we were covered for, although we lost almost everything. We were not greedy. Our mistake, after choosing this particular company as our insurer, was that we weren't covered for flood, in an area that had never been flooded, at a time when the accumulated stormwater was over 2.6m higher than any prior recorded level.

I needed to become a 'squeaky wheel' to have our claim addressed.

If we had chosen another popular insurance company, our house would be humming, like the houses around us are, with the sound of tradesmen replacing the walls, kitchen, bathroom and we'd be able to replace the furniture and be back in our home by mid-August, as the people behind us have been promised by their insurer.

 How can it be that one insurer can make a decision so different to other insurance companies? 

There are many people since the storm who have been struggling with the same issues with their insurance company. I needed to become a 'squeaky wheel' to have our claim addressed.

Until I began to ask questions, registering a complaint with their dispute resolution service, and subsequently requesting the help of Legal Aid, our insurance company did not contact me at all. 

I have paid for insurance all my adult life. I have not made a claim in the last 20 years. This damage was not of our making, it was a storm event that effected many people.

I have lost countless items of sentimental value that I could not put a value on, in addition to the things I can buy again.

The additional stress caused by this company in this very difficult time is quite unacceptable. When we tell people our story they are shocked at the actions from a company that promises you the world but doesn’t deliver.


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