On Aug. 18, 2020, a category EF2 tornado tore through a 4.6-mile swath of northern DeLand. Over the course of 14 minutes in the late afternoon, winds of up to 135 miles per hour snapped tree trunks and poles like twigs, uprooted large oaks that crashed onto roofs and vehicles, and sent dangerous debris hurtling through the air.
Oakdale Cemetery and some businesses, but mainly residential homes, suffered catastrophic damages.
Most of the homes had been built circa the 1960s. Hardest hit was an area northwest of Woodland Boulevard to North Garfield Avenue, near East Plymouth Avenue.
The estimated total cost of the damage was $8.1 million, according to the US National Weather Service in Melbourne.
Now, more than a year later, houses that suffered major damage are either still undergoing reconstruction, or have just started the repair process. Some residents are still waiting to go home.
For some, the day the tornado touched down marked the end of normalcy and routine, and the beginning of a long and taxing process of haggling with insurance companies and contractors.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” homeowner Dan Matuszczak said. “That day, Aug. 18 — I’ll never forget it.”
Matuszczak’s home is on North Garfield Avenue. When the tornado hit, he was home with his two young children, now ages 2 and 4. A tree crashed into the living room, destroying the roof and the wall.
“I just grabbed them, one under each arm, and we just … hunkered down,” Matuszczak said.
The damage to his home was extensive, and a falling tree had totaled his car.
“Once the tornado was basically inside the house, we had windows and door glass explode, as well as all of our inside decór being involuntarily rearranged for us,” he said.
The aftermath was another kind of whirlwind, Matuszczak said.
The rental market in DeLand was impossible, especially for a family of four looking for housing on short notice, Matuszczak said. They found a rental in Palm Coast, and started the process of navigating the world of property insurance.
“No one tells you what to do,” he said. “One thing I realized, as a father with a family, is that I had to be the one to make the moves.”
But several factors have made everything much more difficult. The tornado was followed by months of rain. And, although the insurance paid out, hiring contractors and negotiating prices for the work was hampered by rising construction costs and labor shortages.
“I don’t know if this is actually what a normal experience would be, because COVID impacted everything,” Matuszczak said. “At the time, no one was even leaving the house — we didn’t know if we could get [COVID] from the surface of a table.”
Matuszczak and a contractor could agree on a price, but by the time the job was ready to begin, prices for lumber might jump as much as 10 times, he said.
Matuszczak estimates 70 percent of his home was damaged — and while the insurance covers that, his policy limits are currently maxed out.
“I don’t know if people realize that although property values have gone up, the coverage amounts do not,” Matuszczak said. “You set your rate at the beginning of the year, but the problem is the market is so fast-paced right now. It doesn’t reflect the value in real time.”
On top of all that, Matuszczak was self-employed as an event coordinator, at a time when no events were occurring.
“It was just a perfect storm, even other than the actual storm,” he said.
“All the neighbors I have talked with are fighting with insurance,” resident Chris Bautista said.
Bautista was luckier than others. His home was hit only by flying two-by-fours wrapped in wires.
Unlike Matuszczak’s policy, Bautista’s insurance includes a “right to repair,” as in, the insurance company has the right to repair the property, rather than the homeowner hiring their own contractors.
“The problem is that they really drag it out,” Bautista said. “They delay the process, and the more they delay, the more the homeowners will do it on their own.”
It took six to seven months to repair his roof, Bautista said.
“A lot of these companies — their staff are overworked, or are not knowledgeable,” he said.
“It’s a long, tedious process,” Pastor Julio Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is pastor of the DeLand Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church at 1010 N. Alabama Ave., near the direct path of the funnel.
The steeple of the church blew off, and roughly a dozen antique Italian stained-glass windows were destroyed. A tree fell on one the the church’s three buildings, a food pantry. Two elderly volunteers were inside at the time.
“We are blessed that no one was injured,” Rodriguez said.
Replacement windows need to be up to the current building code, Rodriguez said, and the new steeple had to comply with current fire regulations. A new lightning-prevention system had to be put in.
Each one of those steps involved a long back-and-forth with insurance, Rodriguez said.
“It’s been about half a million dollars of work, a little bit here, a little bit there,” he said.
“It’s just a process. And it’s tedious, to say the least.”
After the emergency responders finished their work, a different group of people began theirs, including assessors for the insurance companies and contractors.
“For us, they are like first responders,” Matuszczak said. “But for all these people, it’s just a job – the secretary takes a call, does some paperwork, puts it in a pile, like, I’m just doing my job. Maybe the contractor gets the call to come fix some sockets, and it’s like, just another job for him.”
“But for us, it’s more than a job. It’s our lives,” Matuszczak said. “It’s returning to normalcy, returning to our routines.”
Matuszczak said he feels solidarity with everyone whose lives were upended a little more than a year ago.
“I feel like we’re in this together. All the people who were impacted, in our little corner of the town, the little neighborhood. Even if I don’t know them, or we don’t talk to each other, we all went through the same thing,” he said. “And I know all of us want to get back to normal.”
Matuszczak is still several months from returning to his home, although he and his family were able to move back to DeLand to send their children back to school.
Tips from insurance pros
We spoke to local insurance agents about what homeowners need to do to adequately protect themselves in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster, like last year’s tornado.
Our local agents agreed: The increasing costs of construction and labor mean it may be time to review your dwelling-coverage limits.
“Your dwelling coverage amount should be based on what it would cost to rebuild your home based on the local construction and labor costs,” Michele Seals of Page Insurance & Financial Services said.
If the costs associated with construction rise throughout the year, your dwelling coverage limit set at the beginning of the year may be insufficient.
That amount can be changed in the middle of a policy term, advised Christine Etts of Lane Insurance Inc. Only the hurricane deductible amount may not be changed in mid-term.
The premium may rise with an increase in the coverage limit, Etts said, but “sometimes much less than you think,” she added.
Seals advised knowing the term “replacement cost.”
“This is the kind of insurance that pays the full cost of replacing your dwelling or personal property, up to a maximum dollar amount. Most standard policies offer replacement cost, but you want to be sure the maximum amount is high enough,” she said.
Also, delays that may be caused by negotiating with contractors, as well as by shortages of materials, mean you should check your additional living-expenses insurance, also known as “loss-of-use coverage.” That will pay for the cost of living somewhere else if your home cannot be occupied.
“There is a delay in delivery of all materials — so make sure your loss-of-use coverage is adequate in the event of long delays in construction materials. Some materials are taking up to four months,” Etts said.
Another reason to make sure your coverage limits are adequate, Seals said, is that certain situations, like the 2020 tornado, can cause a spike in rebuilding costs.
“Suddenly, your dwelling coverage amount could be insufficient,” Seals said.
Etts also suggested reviewing your deductibles — the amounts you must pay before your insurance company will begin to pay.
“A lot of people take higher deductibles to reduce the premium, but when there is a claim, the out-of-pocket cost is a hardship,” she advised.
Stephen Gould of the V.W. Gould Agency offered some advice for what to do if a storm does hit.
“After a tornado be sure to keep yourself and others safe before venturing out of your home,” he said. “Be aware of any structural damage as well as downed power lines, dangerous debris, and any other unsafe situation.”
Once it’s safe to venture out, Gould said, it’s OK to make temporary emergency repairs to protect your property from further loss. First, however, contact your insurance agency and document your damage.
“After your damage has been assessed, schedule permanent repairs quickly and beware of storm-repair scammers,” Gould cautioned. “Only use local, licensed and insured contractors, and ask for a current certificate of insurance before any work begins.”