A tarp covering Maxine Uttal’s kitchen rattled the house, but the Hilton Head Plantation resident remained calm as she talked about the kitchen cabinets installed not long before Hurricane Matthew hit.
Uttal is trying to return to her life before the Oct. 8 storm — the days when she held dinner parties, spent hours working on her art, and volunteered with Heroes on Horseback, a nonprofit that provides programs for people with special needs.
The days after the storm have been very different for Uttal and others on the island still displaced from their homes while they battle insurance companies and wait on contractors to fix damage inflicted by the Category 2 hurricane.
“The first month or so I was in shock,” Uttal said. “In recent months I was occupied with lists. It has felt like an overwhelming job.”
A New York native, Uttal said a private adjuster estimated the damage to her home, which she moved to in 2005, at nearly $400,000. She rents a house a few streets away as she waits for her wood home, which she said has been deemed uninhabitable and a complete loss, to be demolished and rebuilt.
Mold has begun to spread in her home. Sticks entwine with wires hanging from the ceiling.
Peter Kristian, Hilton Head Plantation’s general manager, said there is an unknown number of community residents who have not returned to their still-damaged homes.
“I really don’t have my arms around the exact number,” he said. “But there are still people waiting on insurance. There are also homes that have been settled, but they are waiting for contractors to move in.”
Officials with the Sea Pines, Long Cove and Windmill Harbor communities say they also have displaced residents.
Uttal said the continual battle with her insurance company has been a burden. She said she has struggled more than six months with her insurance company, Federated National Holding Company, to get the funds to demolish and replace her home. After lodging several complaints with the S.C. Department of Insurance, she said she hopes the end might be in sight.
“They want me to hire contractors to get the cost of demolition and rebuilding first,” Uttal said. “For so many months I have been saying at the end of this month I should know something.”
Andrew Lambert, Federated National director of claims operations, said the insurance company has paid the up-front-cost limits under Uttal’s policy. Any additional costs, such as demolishing the house, will be paid by the company once the “expenses are incurred” by Uttal, he said, citing policy language.
“I am using this example as a way we can grow,” Lambert said. “It is a chance for us to look at this situation and talk about how to process claims faster. It has been long enough. There are a lot of people at the upper levels of this company tracking this file at this point.”
The town has identified 2,822 structures that sustained enough significant damage from Hurricane Matthew to require a repair permit, said Teri Lewis, the town’s Land Management Ordinance official. Permits have been issued for 986 buildings, or about 35 percent of the total, he said.
“It gives us reason to believe there are a lot of people who have not gotten far enough along to pull their permits because of financial reasons, insurance, or they are unable to find a contractor,” said Charles Cousins, town director of community development.
Kristian estimated about a half dozen homeowners have abandoned their homes in Hilton Head Plantation because they were unable to cover the costs of the hurricane damage.
“They technically still own the property, and the banks are slow to foreclose on their homes,” he said. “They are not paying assessments and not taking care of the property. We have made attempts to contact them, and in some cases they have said they have already mailed the keys to the bank and have walked away.”
Officials at other gated communities on the island said they were unaware of abandoned properties in their neighborhoods.
Uttal said she isn’t abandoning her home.
“I am old enough to know everything passes, and I know I will be OK,” Uttal said moments before a insurance surveyor vehicle rolled down her street, only to park in front of a neighbor’s house.