Home owner Mel Deacon surveys the damage to her Proserpine home one year on from Cyclone Debbie.
Home owner Mel Deacon surveys the damage to her Proserpine home one year on from Cyclone Debbie. Jessica

One year on and still fighting

AS MEL Deacon surveys her cyclone-devastated Telford St home, the utter exhaustion is apparent through her body language, her glistening eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

It has been more than 12 months since Cyclone Debbie hit the region and caused $1.565billion in property damage, making it the second most costly cyclone in Australia's history, second only to Cyclone Tracy which hit Darwin in 1974.

With the anniversary came encouraging comments from the insurance industry about the number of claims finalised, but this means little to the Proserpine photographer who is still waiting for an "adequate" insurance settlement.

Ms Deacon said her on-going "battle" with her insurer YOUI had consumed her life to the point it affected her business, relationships and health.

"I am utterly exhausted," Ms Deacon said. "This has been like a full time job."

The building she once called home stands gutted.

Tarps cover the wooden beams where the roof once was, water damaged walls and scarce possessions strewn in a bedroom are a legacy left by looters.

 

Mel Deacon's cyclone damaged house has had a tarp over the roof 12 months.
Mel Deacon's cyclone damaged house has had a tarp over the roof 12 months. Jessica

Ms Deacon still pays a mortgage and rates on the property, despite not being able to live in it since TC Debbie.

And for this Ms Deacon blames her insurer.

However a spokesperson from YOUI insists the company has done everything to help.

One of the main issues for Ms Deacon was she did not have contents insurance and ended up losing more than $30,000 of possessions.

The night before Debbie hit, Ms Deacon contacted YOUI to buy contents insurance but industry safeguards meant the policy couldn't be finalised before the cyclone hit.

A YOUI spokesperson said insurers place embargoes on policies to prevent insurance only being purchased when an event is likely to take place - like a cyclone for example.

"This prevents situations where people might buy insurance when the risks are elevated, and then cancel cover after the risk passes.

"It would also affect how the risk is priced. For example, when an event is expected, the probability of that risk occurring and claim being lodged is high."

Ms Deacon's list of complaints have been documented through hundreds of emails between her insurer, her lawyer, the Insurance Council of Australia and the Financial Ombudsmen Service.

A survivor of the civil war in Zimbabwe, Ms Deacon said she had seen the horrors of a conflict zone first hand and yet it was this experience with Cyclone Debbie and her insurer which still left her shaking when she spoke about it.

"I find it really, really, really difficult," she said. "It has definitely been a case where they have tried to wear me down - it seems like a tactic."

 

Mel Deacon in her cyclone damaged lounge room.
Mel Deacon in her cyclone damaged lounge room. Jessica Lamb

Ms Deacon rode out the cyclone in Cannonvale, huddling with a former housemate, her mother and 15-year-old daughter.

She couldn't get through to Proserpine for days and it was a neighbour in Telford St who told her she had damage to the house.

One of the small acts of human kindness which got her through was a painting close to her heart which at the time the Proserpine SES brought out for her.

Ms Deacon's roof damage in the cyclone meant the asbestos material became unsealed and the contents inside were covered in hazardous material.

After a wait for an asbestos inspection YOUI organised to have the roof removed by builders.

Ms Deacon said during this time she could not enter the house due to asbestos contamination and could not retrieve her belongings.

 

Mel Deacon claims she didn't have to lose over $30,000 worth of possessions.
Mel Deacon claims she didn't have to lose over $30,000 worth of possessions. Jessica

Ms Deacon said her windows were blown open in Debbie and not secured so her home was open to the elements.

"We started nagging them for a 'make safe' certificate," she said. "We had calls that there were people hanging around. I was in a bad state I was quite traumatised and in shock."

YOUI claimed all Ms Deacon had to do was contact the insurer to receive permission to enter the building, so YOUI could check the safety of the building before entering.

"What the contractor did was they put a tarp on which was inadequate and didn't touch the side. They wrapped it around the satellite dish at the back of the house, we then had a lot of heavy rain," Ms Deacon said.

"It gathered in the tarp and it was saggy like swimming pool and it kept pouring water into the house in area which hadn't been damaged."

Ms Deacon's timeline is spotted in back and forths with YOUI over discrepancies with quotes and scopes of works, allegedly thwarted at every attempt to settle the claim until she escalated the matters.

She claimed, prior to August, each time work was done or attempted at the house she was not told of the contractors' arrivals or who they would be.

"The house was looted - whatever wasn't wet was looted. The contents side of it - I didn't need to lose $35,000 stuff. I know I lost the bed and lounge suite otherwise the water missed the rest of it," she said.

"I didn't have contents insurance but I didn't need to lose all my possessions. If you see the house now it is just horrific."

 

Mel Deacon said her house was looted shortly after the cyclone.
Mel Deacon said her house was looted shortly after the cyclone. Jessica

After escalating her matters to YOUI's Internal Dispute Resolution Service and then further to the ICA and FOS, Ms Deacon said she was left frustrated through lack of communications.

YOUI spokesperson said they supported the adjustments recommended by FOS, and continued to work with Ms Deacon every step of the way.

YOUI said discrepancies could sometimes occur between an insurance service provider quote and one obtained independently, when items were not quoted on a like for like basis.

"We aim to replace everything damaged on a like for like basis. For example, if you have laminate floors, we will quote for laminate floors," the spokesperson said.

"This is in line with the insurance principle of putting the customer back in the same position as before the incident."

 

The roof of one of Mel Deacon's bedrooms, the sky visible through holes in the tarp.
The roof of one of Mel Deacon's bedrooms, the sky visible through holes in the tarp. Jessica

In December Ms Deacon said money appeared in her bank account which was less than she thought would cover the cost of fixing her house based on her own independent builder's quotes.

"I made sure I blatantly said in writing this means I do not accept the claim however YOUI then sent us a notice saying the claim was closed," she said.

"I haven't touched the money because the claim is not closed and I do not accept being forced into it."

However YOUI said it was important to settle claims as soon as possible so customers could get repairs under way.

"That doesn't mean a settlement can't be contested," the spokesperson said. "But it's important to help customers get priority repairs underway as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, time has ticked on and Ms Deacon has sent through for another decision to FOS with her home open to the elements including Tropical Cyclone Iris currently threatening the Whitsundays.

Ms Deacon said she wasn't alone, there were others in her position who were too afraid to speak due to the backlash it might cause their claims.

"I am left between a rock and a hard place ... for me it's been very exhausting - just utterly exhausting," she said.

"I want to tell my story because this shouldn't happen to anyone else, we should have regulating bodies for insurance which are not funded by the insurance industry."

 

"I want to tell my story because this shouldn't happen to anyone else,” Mel Deacon said. Jessica

What do you think? Email editor@whitsunday times.com.au


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