Julie Tunnell remembers standing in her debris-strewn driveway when the tall man in blue jeans approached. Her northern San Diego tudor-style home had been incinerated a week earlier in the largest wildfire in California history. The blaze in October and November 2003 swept across an area 19 times the size of Manhattan, destroying 2,232 homes and killing 15 people. Now came another blow.
A representative of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest home insurer in the U.S., came to the charred remnants of Tunnell's home to tell her the company would pay just $220,000 of the estimated $306,000 cost of rebuilding the house.
"It was devastating; I stood there and cried," says Tunnell, 42, who teaches accounting at San Diego City College. "I felt absolutely abandoned."
Tunnell joined thousands of people in the U.S. who already knew a secret about the insurance industry: When there's a disaster, the companies homeowners count on to protect them from financial ruin routinely pay less than what policies promise. Insurers often pay 30-60 percent of the cost of rebuilding a damaged home--even when carriers assure homeowners they're fully covered, thousands of complaints with state insurance departments and civil court cases show.
Paying out less to victims of catastrophes has helped produce record profits. In the past 12 years, insurance company net income has soared--even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Property- casualty insurers, which cover damage to homes and cars, reported their highest- ever profit of $73 billion last year, up 49 percent from $49 billion in 2005, according to Highline Data LLC, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm that compiles insurance industry data.