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Thu March 20, 2014
Watertown Shootout: Paying Homeowners To Repair Damage
After police announced they had caught the surviving Marathon Bombing suspect, after the shrill sound of police sirens receded into the distance, and after the car horns ceased honking in celebration, homeowners in Watertown were left to face bullets and shrapnel embedded in their homes.
"The damage was ten holes on the west side of the house," said Andy Fehlner, who, with his family of four, lives on Laurel Street in Watertown. "Some of the bullets came all the way through the house. Some of them are lodged kind of like in the ceiling and floor, going from one floor to another."
In the early morning of April 19, Watertown police exchanged bullets with Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Several slugs from police penetrated this two story home.
In the children’s bedroom, at least three bullets came through the walls. The living room did not escape damage. And I’m looking at the ceiling where some bullets crashed through, letting in unwanted light.
"So, right away I went up with duct tape and I covered the holes up, because it was during the spring, and yellowjackets were flying around looking for a place to live, and there was concern that it had damaged electrical wires, and possibly hit a gas line," Fehlner said. "But it turned out it was all damage to the siding and the wood structure underneath and damage to the sheet rock on the inside."
So Fehlner did what most of us would do — he made a phone call to his insurance company, Quincy Mutual.
"The process starts where I just made a phone call that was an inquiry," he said.
The next step was to get an estimate of the damage, which Fehlner believed was about $15,000, but an adjuster working for Quincy Mutual initially offered less than $5,000.
There’s something about insurance companies and the way that these claims are filed that I don’t understand.
Fehlner says it would take a Master’s Degree to understand.
"Maybe it just comes down to company policy wanting to pay as little as you have to," he said. "But it was definitely a very long, arduous process for me to get reimbursement."
But this wasn’t your ordinary claim. This wasn’t a tree falling on a house or a kitchen fire or a fender bender in the snow. This was the fallout from a street battle with guns and improvised bombs, a chase and a manhunt that left one of the suspected Marathon bombers dead and a community shaken. In the time it takes to get ready for bed, hundreds of rounds struck nearly two dozen homes, including Kayla DePaulo’s.
"My whole house is just doors and windows and so I just crouched down in my doorway," she said.
DePaulo and her uncle live in a house just down the street from Fehlner’s that was caught in the cross hairs of the gunfight nearly one year ago.
"I saw bullet holes start flying in the living room and the kitchen," she said.
I asked her if she thought the fire came from the Tsarnaevs or the police.
"It was all from the police," she said. "It was all friendly fire. It didn’t feel so friendly at the time."
But Depaulo says she doesn’t blame the police.
"They were just doing their job," she said. "I don’t want to say, 'Well, you shot my house and you should pay for it,’ when you were just trying to protect me. I really think the insurance companies should have just stepped up and made it an easy thing and just say 'Look, they put their lives on the line, we’re more than happy to take care of this.'"
But that’s not how insurance companies work, regardless of the circumstances. A spokesman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which represents insurance firms, told WGBH News: “An event such as the marathon bombing can produce claims that are complicated and insurance coverage questions ultimately depend on the specifics of the individual policies.” Since most of the damage was caused by police firing on suspected terrorists, who should pay to repair the homes and cars?
"We at least wanted to get the deductibles paid for," said Watertown Police Captain Raymond Dupuis, who commanded officers the night of the shootout. Town officials say the violence that night could never have been anticipated.
"The town's insurance company said something similar, that it was due to no fault of ours, due to no negligence on the part of the town’s," Dupuis said.
So whose responsibility was it? That was the question that DePaulo and her uncle were left as they started combing through their homeowner’s policy to figure out who should pay for the damage to their house.
"The insurance company was fighting with the town of Watertown and saying the town of Watertown should pay for it, the town of Watertown wanted to say the FBI should pay for it, a lot of questions, a lot of interviews," she said. "It was a pain."
It was a similar pain for Felhner, who says for months he experienced the same runaround, but says dealing with the town and his insurer were different experiences altogether.
"The town was the very opposite of the insurance company, they were quick and easy to deal with," he said.
Dupuis says police approached Watertown officials and asked them to pay some of the costs incurred by homeowners.
"We weren’t obligated to do it," he said. "But they said that if we wanted to explore the possibility of helping the residents out, they would support us."
And the greatest out of pocket costs for dozens of families were deductibles.
"Some insurance companies did come forward and waived the deductible," said Angie Kounelis, who serves on the Watertown Town council. "Others did not."
"It was a financial hardship for them dealing with the insurance companies and facing deductibles, whether it be $500, $1,000," Kounelis said.
A handful of the 33 or so homeowners were satisfied with their interaction and payouts from their insurance companies, including Christine Akilian.
"They paid for everything and come over took a look at the house and we were very happy with everything," Akilian said.
Akilian was represented by an insurance broker in Watertown. Her home was punctured by bullets and shrapnel from a pressure cooker bomb, but unlike some of her neighbors her insurance experience was pleasant.
"I heard a lot of people that used the e-insurance didn’t fare so well," she said.
One Watertown insurance broker, Brad Michals, represented some of the residents whose homes were shot up and warns that anyone can find dirt-cheap insurance, but in the final analysis it’s about having the right coverage — even under these circumstances.
"A lot of the time that’s the problem with big, huge agencies, and or big direct-writer companies where you get someone on the line from a different state, sometimes an even different company just giving you price," he said. "And insurance is not price. It’s about coverage."
Fehlner says it’s also about process. And perhaps no Watertown resident went to such heights as Felhner.
"There was definitely a lot of back and forth, including an email I got from the insurance company that asked me to cut off a section of my house and mail it to a certain address," he said.
Which required Fehlner, a teacher and sometimes carpenter, to get up on a ladder with a saw.
"So I got up on a ladder one morning and cut a chunk of aluminum siding, and there were little things like that that happened for a very long time," he said.
Felhner says for nearly five months he was being “being nickled and dimed” by his insurance company.
"In the beginning they paid us not even enough to side that one side the original check was $4,500 dollars," he said " … I would guess closer to six or seven."
But that was just for one side of the house. Felhner says he was ready to play hardball with his insurer Quincy Mutual:
"I did have a couple of trump cards that I was ready to play if I had to," he said. " … I have a photograph of a bullet hole above a 2-year-olds bed. I never went to the media on this and showed them these images. No ones really seen them except for my family. That’s a card that I was willing to play if I had to in order to get the insurance company to stop playing games."
Felhner’s insurance company, Quincy Mutual, declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson told WGBH News that “additional compensation is available to the Fehlners, even if they did some of the repairs themselves, so long as the work is completed within a two year timeframe.”
Today I’m standing in front of the Felhner home on Laurel Street, where brand-new aluminum siding reflects the hope of spring but at an out of pocket cost.
"At the end of the day we ended up having to pay several thousand dollars, which I don’t think is fair," he said.
Fehlner says, "call me naive if you like,” but he thought that the violent events of April 19, 2013 — unprecedented and shocking as they were — would have produced a different insurance outcome.
"I definitely thought it would have been a simpler process than it was," he said. "I think it should not have been as drawn out as it was. I think there should have been a little more sympathy on behalf of the homeowners for what we’d gone through."
Nearly a year after the Boston Marathon bombing and the wild shootout in Watertown, life has returned to normal in this community. All of the homeowners whose residences were riddled with gunfire have settled with their insurance companies.
Quincy Mutual told WGBH News that it wants the Felhner family "to understand that if they are not satisfied with the payment plus the supplemental, they are always welcome to talk directly to Quincy Mutual to discuss their concerns.” Meanwhile, some families told us that these days they pay a lot closer attention to the small print on some policies that read “in the event of terrorism.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount Quincy Mutual initially offered Fehlner, and misstated Bret Michals name. The story has been updated to reflect the changes.
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