As thawing temperatures begin to release Texas from the record-breaking deep freeze that has gripped the state over the past week, the devastating financial toll from broken water pipes, downed trees, wrecked automobiles and related weather-induced destruction is becoming clear.
Insurance industry executives say they anticipate the price tag for recovery could approach that of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 — which resulted in $19 billion in insured losses in Texas, primarily along the Gulf Coast, and is considered the costliest storm in the state's history.
One big difference between then and now is that the current weather emergency has impacted all 254 Texas counties, a trend manifested in the large number of claims statewide that already have begun pouring in to insurance companies.
"It's clearly going to be a very costly event given the historic scope, intensity and duration of the cold wave," said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist with a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This impact is compounded due to the large cities and populations that were affected."
Still, Smith said he will be surprised if the damages surpass that of Harvey, because "hurricanes are typically the most costly weather disasters to impact the United States."
A precise financial estimate of the destruction isn't available yet, partly because the tally will keep growing over the coming days as broken pipes hidden in walls and cement slabs thaw, and as property owners and repair people are able to move around enough amid the previously frozen landscape to assess conditions.
“Just about every Texan was impacted, whether through power outages or an accident on icy roads," said Camille Garcia, communications director for the Insurance Council of Texas, a trade group.
“It is unique in so far as we have not had (an event) in years in Texas that involves claims from the entire state," Garcia said. "We are confident that we are looking at hundreds of thousands of claims" once final numbers come in.
Garcia said she thinks the ultimate amount of insured damages statewide will rival Harvey's price tag, a figure that equates to about $20 billion today when adjusted for inflation.
She and some other insurance industry experts are advising policyholders to begin filing claims as soon as they can, but also not to delay essential repairs.
“I would never wait to make a repair of significant damage — if I have the opportunity to get that repaired, I would take it," Garcia said.
Still, she said property owners should keep receipts and document everything through photos, videos or written notes, and also contact their insurance providers as soon as possible.
That last piece of advice is being heeded, with insurance agencies across the state reporting large volumes of claims in recent days, including in Central Texas.
“It’s lots of broken pipes and tankless water heaters that are on the outside of homes and can’t handle these freezing temperatures,” said Stacy Reed, manager of the Reed Agency Group in Austin. “People have two inches of water on their first floors and caved-in ceilings.”
Reed said typical policies won’t cover the pipe itself but will cover the damage done to flooring, dry wall and ceilings.
“This has been devastating for a lot of people, and for many it happened in the middle of the night when the pipes freeze and they wake up and have water coming out of a wall," she said. "There has been more than one person crying on the phone.”
Reed advises property owners to take as many photos as they can to document the damage. Then get plumbers and contractors out as quickly as possible to get estimates. Pay out of pocket if you can and keep all receipts and documentation.
Chris Pilcic, a spokesman for State Farm insurance, said it will be weeks before the full extent of the damage is known, but calls are already coming in. State Farm customers can get claims started virtually and have the option for video walkthroughs with agents, something the company has been doing since spring of last year.
“When you see a severe weather event, even in terms of a hurricane or tornado outbreak, generally speaking, they tend to hit a couple of somewhat isolated areas. This really impacts across the entire state of Texas. A lot of major metropolitan areas and rural areas, we have customers reporting damage and damage mostly from frozen and burst water pipes or something associated with water. There’s no area of the state that’s been spared."
Even the most minor cracks could have consequences. An eight on a inch crack can spill about 250 gallons of water a day Pilic said. The insurance company is also expecting claims related to structural damage to walls, ceilings and floors.
“We've just now started to thaw all across Texas and we really encourage homeowners to be extra vigilant as it gets warmer because if there is damage, it could become more noticeable,” Pilic said.
Farmers Insurance Group agent Craig Straube said he has received dozens of calls at his Lakeway office over the past two days. But he recommends that customers call contractors first.
“Don’t bother with your insurance company — they’re not experts. The first thing the (insurance) adjuster will ask is if you have any estimates, so get those as soon as you can,” Straube said. “If you are fortunate enough to have someone to do the work, take 'before' and 'after' pictures and keep records on the scope of what was done so you can present that to your insurance company.”
Most policies will cover not only your structure, but also your personal belongings such as furniture, he said. What typically isn’t covered is fallen trees or other outdoor issues that haven't caused structural damage.
Straube said the damage caused by this deep freeze is unprecedented in Central Texas, so it will take time to work through all of the issues.
“I have three phones going at a time and the calls keep coming,” he said. “It will take multiple months for us to get through this. It starts with actually being able to find someone to make the repairs. Plumbers are going to be very hard to find.”
On that note, Garcia offered a word of caution to property owners regarding unsolicited offers to repair damage right away. Fraud always picks up in the wake of such weather disasters, she said.
"People should be very careful of solicitations" and should research individuals and companies before doing business with them, Garcia said. "The good guys are probably already booking and filling their schedules, so you just have to be very careful of those that are soliciting.”
But even if people are able to find contractors, there is a possibility that workers won't be able to get the parts they need. Repair work on heating and plumbing systems is currently being stymied by a shortage of supplies.
After losing power for three days, Johnstone Supply, a wholesale distributor of heating, ventilation and air conditioning parts and equipment, was able to reopen its Metric Boulevard store on Thursday.
“We’ve got contractors needing equipment to get people warm again,” said Pat Repa, branch manager. “They need parts for furnaces, blower motors, igniters — everything.”
Unfortunately, Johnstone can only sell what it has in stock.
“Our distributor in Dallas is closed down,” Repa said. “We probably don’t have enough inventory to meet demand right now.”
(Additional material from American-Statesman reporter Kara Carlson.)©2021 Gannett Co., Inc. Visit at statesman.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.