Insurance headaches add to the nightmare for Hawaii volcano victims

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Associated Press

Patricia Deter moved from Oregon to Hawaii to be closer to her two daughters, but the Kilauea volcano burned down her home only a month after she bought it.

Now Deter and others who have recently lost homes to the lava-spewing mountain are on an urgent quest for answers about insurance, desperate to learn whether their coverage will offer any help after molten rock wiped out most of what they owned.

The eruption has destroyed about two dozen homes in the Leilani Estates subdivision on the Big Island.

Authorities on Tuesday local time reported a new fissure opened in the adjoining Lanipuna Gardens subdivision, bringing the number of cracks in the ground spitting out lava and toxic gas to nearly 20 since the eruption began May 3. 

Another fissure that opened up last weekend was sending molten rock crawling toward the ocean at about 18 metres per hour. 

An ash plume from within Kilauea volcano's summit crater rose as high as 3,658 metres above sea level, prompting geologists to issue a "red" warning for pilots and air traffic controllers as the ash could disrupt flights.

Few insurance companies will issue policies for homes in Leilani Estates because it is in an area deemed by the US Geological Survey to have a high risk of lava.

But homeowners are not without options. One possibility is the Hawaii Property Insurance Association, a nonprofit collection of insurance companies created by state lawmakers in 1991 to provide basic property insurance for people who are unable to buy coverage in the private market.

The horror of seeing houses turned to ash has motivated some people who had no insurance to scramble to purchase a policy. The association announced last week that it would issue policies to uninsured homeowners in the affected area - but they will have to wait six months.

Some homeowners believe fire coverage will suffice for homes burned by fire from the lava. And a list of frequently asked questions from the Hawaii Insurance Division supports that idea, saying that lava damage may be covered "as a fire peril".

If lava came down the hill, and they have lava exclusion and trees catch fire, which burn the house, that's not covered"
Judy Moa, insurance broker

However, there are exceptions. If policies specifically exclude lava damage, the fire coverage will not apply, said Judy Moa, an insurance broker who specialises in catastrophic coverage for Hawaii.

"The cause of damage is lava at the end of the day," she said. "If lava came down the hill, and they have lava exclusion and trees catch fire, which burn the house, that's not covered."

Deter's daughters live in the same area as their 88-year-old mother. They know the eruption risks, so they made sure their mother's home was covered by a policy that included lava.

The family's Hawaii-based insurance agent assured daughter Vickie Pruitt that her mother's house was fully covered for lava.

But a phone call from an adjuster on the US mainland told them it looked like the damage was from an earthquake - not the lava - and that the home would not be covered.

"I'm like, 'What?'" Pruitt said. "I'm laughing hysterically. But it's not funny. It's tragic."

They were waiting for a follow-up call they hoped would provide more clarity.

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