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LONG BEACH, New York (Reuters) - Standing in the driveway next to the charred shell of his house on Long Beach, Long Island, with the hood open to his water-logged, brand-new 2012 Subaru Outback, Bill Long heard the words so many in the path of superstorm Sandy have been hoping to hear: "I'll take care of that."
The words came from Matthew Stewart, a total loss specialist for insurer USAA, who took just a few seconds to see the tell-tale debris of water damage that will likely spell disaster for many cars in Sandy's path. Some 325,000 cars flooded during Hurricane Katrina, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and a similar number could come from this storm.
By the next day, Long expected to have a check in his account for the value of the car.
Adjuster Rich Giardelli also didn't need much time to call Long's house a total loss, since it had nearly burned to the ground. A bank deposit would also be coming to the Longs for the insured value of the house, plus temporary living expenses for Long and his wife Margaret, both in their mid-30s, and their twin 3-year-old boys. The family would most likely receive a payout for 75 percent of the insured value of the contents of the house up front, and could recoup 100 percent of the policy value if they keep receipts as they buy replacement items.
Despite their losses, the Longs are among the lucky after the storm. They have an insurer, and they've been visited by an adjuster just a few days after the storm hit Monday. USAA, just one of many major national insurers in the area, had over 31,000 claims as of Friday afternoon, and the number was growing by the hour. State Farm was up to 65,000 at the same time.
Adjusters are making their way through their lists, triaging by the severity of the loss. And the numbers suggest it will be a long slog for both insurers and victims. Disaster modeling company Eqecat estimated Sandy caused up to $20 billion in insured losses and $50 billion in economic losses, double its previous forecast.
Those who have made direct contact with their insurance companies can expect, like the Longs, to have money in hand shortly. Others wait.
There were have-nots just a few doors down from the Longs. The fire there actually started in a car in the driveway next to the Longs, which likely sparked when water hit the electronics. The blaze claimed seven houses altogether. Long and his neighbors tried to douse the flames for hours at the height of the storm by using the floodwaters, but the winds carried the flames and overwhelmed them. Even the fire department and the National Guard, once they arrived, had trouble containing the flames because the of flood and winds.
Dan Wermelinger and Sean Darrow, both 29, were renters without renters insurance, and their claims process involved shifting through the rubble with a shovel, trying to find anything of value. On Friday, they weren't having much luck, just a melted sneaker, a strip of comforter and part of a hockey mask. They called FEMA, but had not heard back.
"I'm not frustrated yet, but talk to me in a week," said Darrow.
The prospects for them getting any sort of cash value for their goods was low. It would depend if the owner had proper insurance for the house as a rental property, and what the policy said about contents that don't belong to him. The owner, as of Friday, was out of the country, and his tenants had not heard from him.
On the other side of the street from the burnt houses, Lisa Falciano, 50, and her son Nicholas, 22, hadn't even called their insurance company yet. They were busy trying to deal with their business, which had flooded and had no power, and were just starting to deal with the water in their basement.
A few miles away in Breezy Point, Queens, along the same strip of barrier islands that was hit hard by Sandy's rampage, Mary Henley, 41, was pushing a cart up to her beach-front house, now with a lawn of sand that reached right up to the living room. Flood waters had torn through her whole first floor, making the house unstable - although, remarkably, the Halloween cards on the fireplace mantel had not been disturbed.
She had been trying to reach her insurance company, Castle Point, but had no luck getting through - the number was always busy. Reuters also could not reach Castle Point for comment. She left a message with FEMA, but had not had a response yet.
A few hundred feet away in the parking lot of Kennedy's Restaurant, now a shell of a building with sand where tables used to be, Henry Kassebaum, 81, was yet another insurance have-not. He had a claim number and tale of woe, but was trying to figure out how to get an adjuster to show up in person. His basement was flooded, and he wanted to hire a company to clear it out, but he wanted to make sure it would be covered.
His insurer, Allstate, had been in the parking lot on Thursday, but had moved further down the road on Friday. After days of being displaced and stressed out, Kassebaum was frustrated trying to navigate the phone system. While he was able to get a human being on the phone in one minute, and got an almost instant response from Twitter with a location for the Allstate trailer, that didn't help him get approval for a contractor to come to his house. More than 100 houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point, and dozens of others were completely totaled. So he was going to be down the list.
The Longs' came first because their house is a complete loss, and an adjuster was available in the area. USAA had landed its "Eagle One" catastrophe response trailer in that parking lot in hard-hit Breezy Point, about five miles away, on Friday morning. MetLife and Liberty Mutual were also there.
But given the time it took to get to the Longs' property and assess it, an adjuster like Giardelli could only reasonably do a couple of properties a day.
With the number of claims still rising, Stewart estimated that he and his adjusters would be in the area through November, and possibly into December.
For some, that could mean a long wait.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Vicki Allen