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In Alabama, Tornadoes Wiped Out Uninsured Homes

Neighbors look over the devastated Smithfield Estates neighborhood in North Birmingham, Ala.
Tanya Ott for NPR
Neighbors look over the devastated Smithfield Estates neighborhood in North Birmingham, Ala.

Across the South, crews are clearing debris and starting the rebuilding process after last week's deadly tornadoes. Early estimates put the amount of insured damage at up to $5 billion across the region, but that doesn't include all of the uninsured damage, which could be extensive.

Robert Jamison's house in the Smithfield Estates neighborhood of North Birmingham has been wiped out.

"It all the way demolished. The wind blowed everything out there," Jamison says as he and two friends pick through what's left of his home. Furniture, clothing, appliances — all ruined. The roof is missing, as is one wall. The floor joists are bowed and the whole place looks like it could collapse at any minute. Jamison says it feels like his whole world is falling down around him.

"I dropped the insurance on the house because I couldn't pay it no more. The economy got me," he says.

Jamison says he owns a pool hall and cafe, but business has been bad the past two years. He wasn't able to make equipment upgrades, so the health department closed the cafe. The income from the pool hall isn't enough to keep him afloat, so last year — when he paid off his house mortgage — he dropped his homeowner's insurance policy.

Now, the 67-year-old sleeps on a foldaway bed at the pool hall. He says he will probably be a renter the rest of his life.

Jamison is not alone. Just down the street, a woman who inherited her house from her parents also didn't have insurance. The place is now a pile of rubble.

According to Ragan Ingram with the Alabama Department of Insurance, it's still too early to put a number on how much the damages will be in Alabama. He estimates up to a quarter of Alabama's homeowners don't have property insurance.

Mortgage companies require it. But once a mortgage is paid off, some homeowners choose to drop it, either because they self-insure out of personal savings or because they can't afford the premiums.

Jim Donelon, who became Louisiana's state insurance commissioner shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, says that while not having homeowners insurance may seem unthinkable to most property owners, for some there may be no choice.

"That's truly a socioeconomic issue, where those folks are struggling with low incomes and the high cost of property insurance, in particular homeowners insurance, it can be a challenge for low-income property owners," Donelon says.

And it's not just property owners who are affected. Even though the average renters insurance policy costs about $250 a year, most renters don't have one. A national survey by the group Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America finds that more than half of renters had no insurance.

There is federal aid through FEMA. There are grants to pay for rent and emergency home repairs and low-interest disaster loans to help cover uninsured expenses. But it may not be enough to get people like Robert Jamison back on their feet.

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Tanya Ott