Georgia nears $700 million in Hurricane Michael insured losses as victims begin recovery

As Hurricane Michael was headed toward Macon, Katherine Preston was lying in bed scrolling through Instagram.

The 26-year-old Macon woman planned to be awake and praying when the brunt of the storm was supposed to hit about 1 a.m.

But the worst came early for Preston and her fiance Jamaal Neal as a huge oak tree crashed into their upstairs bedroom.

“I honestly thought it was the end of my world. I was terrified,” Preston said.

Neal’s “baby,” a 75-inch television went dark. They heard a boom, and the room started to shake.

“Next thing I know the roof is caving in,” the 27-year-old Neal said. “It happened that quick.”

Neal snatched Preston from the bed as the massive tree trunk tore the dormers from the roof and cut through the attic, sending an avalanche of snowy white insulation throughout the room.

“In a whole frenzy of just panic, covered in insulation, it was just awful,” Preston said last week.

The tree ripped Preston’s walk-in closet from the front of the house, sending her clothing and shoes down into the front yard.

The large trunk clipped the bed not far from where their heads had been moments earlier.

“Had we been asleep we probably would have been dead,” Preston said. “My side of the bed, it could have been crushed.”

Feeling like they were in a scene from a horror movie, the couple scrambled to get Preston’s 6-year-old son and a house guest from the other upstairs bedrooms and out of the house in the torrential rain.

They came down the stairs headed for the front door.

“When I opened the door, all I saw was trees and branches, top to bottom,” Preston said.

Most of Bibb County was spared serious damage as Hurricane Michael was losing strength approaching the midstate, but Neal’s home was virtually destroyed and may have to be razed.

He is one of thousands of Georgia storm victims who have filed 35,000 property-related insurance claims.

Insured losses were initially estimated to hit a total of $250 million in the Peach State, but that figure rose to nearly $700 million by the end of October, according to Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.

Georgia’s governor is calling lawmakers back to the Capitol next month to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.

Gov. Nathan Deal notified Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston that he wants to convene a special session of the Georgia General Assembly on Nov. 13. The Georgia budget needs to be amended to cover the cost of storm relief, Deal said in a news release.

“Georgia was severely impacted by Hurricane Michael and many communities across our state sustained heavy financial losses,” Deal said in the release.

Deal hopes to work quickly to support counties in southwest Georgia and southern portions of Middle Georgia that were hit hard by the major hurricane that decimated the Gulf coast of Florida and tracked across Georgia.

The quarter of a billion dollar estimated losses does not cover damage to Georgia crops.

Cleanup in Middle Georgia

A little more than a half-dozen Bibb County homes were damaged in the storm.

Macon-Bibb public works employee Sean Clairbush, who traveled the county picking up storm debris, couldn’t believe the condition of Neal’s home.

“The worst,” Clairbush said. “That’s major.”

Neal has filed with his insurance company, which is what all storm victims should do first, Bibb County Emergency Management Agency director Spencer Hawkins said.

Tuesday, Hawkins traveled to Dublin to meet with FEMA and GEMA representatives about recouping public funds spent during the storm.

“We’re beginning the process,” Hawkins said. “With Irma, I didn’t finish going through my reimbursement process until probably May of this year, and that’s a good turnaround time.”

In September 2017, Irma’s damage generated about 100,000 cubic yards of debris. Michael’s damage was somewhere near the 10,000-15,000 cubic yard range, said Chris Floore, Macon-Bibb assistant to the county manager for public affairs.

An accurate count is not available because yard waste had piled up prior to the storm, Floore said.

After Michael, public employees cleared 136 roads and cut up the downed trees in the right of way.

As of last week, crews like Clairbush’s cleared all 41 debris removal requests entered through See, Click, Fix, Floore said.

Those who still have debris to clear need to contact the county for pickup.

Tree limbs and branches less than 4 inches in diameter must be stacked at the curb in 4-foot lengths.

Larger trunks typically require an extra charge for special cleanups, but Macon-Bibb County is waving those costs through Oct. 31, Floore said.

Houston County EMA director Jimmy Williams said his area saw about twice as much damage as Bibb County. The center of the storm’s circulation actually passed through Houston, he said.

Houston saw more than two dozen homes with structural damage due to falling trees but did not meet the threshold to receive individual disaster assistance from the federal government.

“We really just don’t have the numbers per capita to get in on individual assistance,” Williams said.

Thirteen counties in southwest Georgia made the list due to extensive damage.

Houston County answered 204 calls for trees and power lines down.

“God was good to us. We were very blessed,” Williams said.

Neal and Preston also are counting their blessings.

After getting initial estimates of up to $17,000 for cleanup, the once towering oak was removed, leaving a gaping hole in their home like the back of a doll house.

“The next morning I wanted to cry, but I told myself it’s all right. We got out. I’m really grateful,” said Preston who vows to be praying through the storm next time.

They both realize how close they came to being crushed.

“It was a blessing just to make it through,” Neal said.