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Eye of the Storm designed to answer ‘Was it wind or water?’

Was it wind or water? That has been a huge issue regarding insurance for homes and businesses on the Gulf Coast struck by Hurricane Katrina. An entrepreneur in Benton has developed a video surveillance system called Eye of the Storm designed to answer that question in future hurricanes.

Steve Davis, president of Eye of the Storm and Mississippi Plastic Molders Inc., got the idea after watching a resident on the Coast who only had a slab left and had been told that his wind insurance wouldn’t pay anything because the damage was all caused by water.

“I really felt for the guy,” Davis said. “And I was looking for something to do with my tool shop. I thought it would be a good mix to meet that need for that guy or someone like him for the next time, and give us more work here, too.”
A typical homeowners’ policy covers wind, fire and theft damage. Flood insurance is not included. An estimated 60% of people in Hurricane Katrina’s affected areas did not have flood insurance.

“If it is up to homeowners to prove how their house was damaged during a hurricane, then homeowners must have the ability to provide real video evidence of when the damage occurred and how it was caused,” Davis said. “That’s why Eye of the Storm was invented.”

Eye of the Storm is the black box for the hurricane. It is designed to be very sturdy and flood proof, and has a seven-day capacity to run the camera and digital video recorder. The device that can double as a security camera is powered by a 12-volt DC battery that is recharged by an electrical line from the house. Each unit has a 30GB hard drive capable of reading up to two months of video with the ability for continuous loop video storage. The base unit costs about $4,000.

The device is made to go underwater if the storm surge goes over it, and will still record as the storm surge retreats, Davis said.

“It also has wireless Internet capacity, so you can monitor the house when you leave for the storm,” he said. “If lines are still intact, you can pull up the Web site and see what happened to your house. If there is damage or someone is looting, it will record that. If it takes several days get back to your house, it will record all of the events that take place from the start of hurricane.”

The camera, which has infrared for night vision, is encased in a round stainless-steel case that is imbedded into the ground with concrete. Davis said structural engineers gave him advice on building something that could survive even if a home or other building is totally destroyed.

Most fire hydrants on the Coast were intact after the storm.
“This is similar to fire hydrant,” Davis said. “The round design means it doesn’t provide much friction for wind and water. They just go around it. In my plastics business, we build parts for telecommunications. This looks similar to what we build out of plastic for fiber optic connections in subdivisions. This is designed to fit into a subdivision, and not be an eyesore.”

Davis said there has been a lot of interest in the system since he unveiled the prototype in the middle of May. A Coast television station did a story on the device when the company participated in the Governor’s Housing Expo in August.

“People said they came to the expo just to see this,” Davis said. “They had questions like asking how you get power to it, and at what stage of building a home do you get it installed.”

One problem with marketing the device on the Coast is that many people are having problems getting insurance payments to rebuild. But Davis isn’t confining marketing to Mississippi. He believes it could also do well in Texas, Louisiana, Florida and other states prone to hurricanes. The units will all be manufactured at Mississippi Plastic Molders’ Jackson and Benton facilities.

David Baria, a partner with Baria, Hawkins and Stracener, PLLC, Bay St. Louis, said he thinks Eye of the Storm is a good idea.

“It sounds to me like the idea of putting video cameras in patient’s rooms at nursing homes,” said Baria, who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina. “That proves conclusively whether there is wrongdoing in cases of patient abuse. Likewise, a video camera or other type of surveillance would prove whether wind or water came first. As an attorney, that would be invaluable. It seems to me having videographic proof of how the house was destroyed would be conclusive. It would be very hard then for an insurance company to deny your claim.”

Baria said at present if a homeowner can’t prove conclusively their home was destroyed by wind before the flood surge came, most insurance companies are denying coverage, which he believes is wrong.

Another Coast attorney said he doesn’t think it should be the responsibility of the homeowner to pay for high-tech equipment to prove a claim. Christopher Van Cleave of Corbin, Gunn & Van Cleave, PLLC, Biloxi, said homeowners should only have to notify the insurance company that they had insurance and lost their home.

“It is a mistaken concept that it is the insured’s duty to prove the home was not destroyed by an excluded peril,” Van Cleave said. “An insured’s duty is simply to place the insurance company on notice of a claim when there is a direct physical loss. If the insurance company is then going to say their policy doesn’t provide for flood, it is the insurance company’s duty to prove the loss was caused by the excluded flood instead wind.

“The insurance companies are merely trying to avoid paying these devastating claims. They are doing whatever they possibly can think of to avoid that liability because they know it is extensive.”

Van Cleave said insurance companies have actuaries who have run estimates showing that they are going to make more money in the long run denying claims because most people are going to accept less than what the insured value. Only a small percentage of people will retain a lawyer and sue for the full value of the policy.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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