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Wupperthal: 1 in 55 destroyed homes are uninsured

By Danielle van Wyk

The recent weeks have been ablaze with tragedy as wildfire struck the town of Wupperthal and the Overberg strand. Having left more 200 people homeless resulting in more than R200 million in damages, the question is: how will they rebuild?

This week Justmoney chatted to insurance experts, fire victims, and key role players to discuss the way forward.

Insurance seen as unnecessary

With some of the Wupperthal homes dating back to more than a 100 years ago as property has been passed down through generations, this small town is feeling the loss both sentimentally and financially. This especially as only 1 in 55 of the destroyed homes was covered under home insurance, says resident and ex-principal of Wupperthal Primary, Hernice Heyns.

Heyns, also affectionately known as Meester Heyns, says his house, and another belonging to Aldrie Wynand, are the only ones erected less than 50 years ago. Every other home dates back well over 100 years.

In maintaining the historical uniformity of the Moravian mission station, Wupperthal consists of small white-washed, thatch-roofed homes. With 60% of the residents relying on a social grant of R1700 per month, as the majority are pensioners, and a further 30% working as small-time rooibos tea cultivation farmers, most residents are living just below the breadline.

“Home insurance has never been a necessity for the residents of Wupperthal. That and the fact that we have thatch roofs. Have you ever tried to insure a thatch-roof? It costs a fortune. A fortune that none of us can afford,” says Heyns.

Merle Borcherds , the daughter of ex-residents Karel and Hanna Zimri, spent her formative years in one of the oldest houses in Wupperthal. Growing up as one of nine children who were raised and schooled there, Borcherds also agrees that home insurance was not considered necessary in the community.

“It was not common for anyone to have home insurance. We have made use of candles, primus stoves, Welcome Dover stoves, and oil lamps for years and not one house has ever burnt down. Insurance simply wasn’t necessary,” says Bircherds.

However, in hindsight she agrees that insurance would have given residents peace of mind and financial security, as shops and a few of the guesthouses burnt down as well, leaving some without jobs.

The Zimri family home was destroyed in the blaze and although no one was living in the home they “did not think to have home insurance”.

Numerous organisations assisting to rebuild

“For more than 70 years there has been no disaster, and now this. The estimated damage on just our home is around R300,000. We do not have the money to rebuild it on our own. This is a position that all of the affected residents are in,” says Borcherds.

 Both Heyns and Borcherds feel that the Moravian church should step in to contribute to the rebuild.

 “The church should play a big role in the rebuilding because there can be no church without its congregants. Their dues and financial support through the years kept the gospel ship afloat. But I think the residents will have to bear the bigger financial burden unfortunately,” says Heyns.

While the Moravian Church in Southern Africa (MCSA) has not officially come forward and pledged an amount towards the rebuild, religious institutions and communities nationwide have. 

Other role-players include the department of Western Cape local government, which coordinates the bulk of the issues relating to Wupperthal, alongside the West Coast District Municipality, Cederberg Municipality and other national and provincial departments.

Through the help of these entities, progress in assisting residents with basic services has been made, says James-Brent Styan, spokesperson for Anton Bredell, the minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs, and Development Planning.

“Services such as water, electricity, and communications networks have been restored. The department of housing in the province is dealing with emergency housing for those affected on a site already identified.

“Cederberg municipality has provided mobile toilets and a large tent for storing goods and donations on the site. The department of education has also been to the area a number of times and has made arrangements for accommodating the learners affected by the hostel that was burnt down,” says Styan.

On the building front there are ongoing experts looking into the possibility of rebuilding.

“Among them are structural engineers. The philanthropist Johann Rupert has also sent several experts to do an analysis and he has indicated interest in helping the community in its rebuilding efforts. It does seem at this stage that a few of the buildings may be recoverable,” he adds.  

Styan says the West Coast district also has machines on standby to demolish the other buildings considered dangerous. Timeframes are being coordinated with the municipalities and the church.

The insurance industry weighs in

Christelle Colman, executive for High-Net-Worth Solutions at Old Mutual Insure, says the industry is aware that smaller towns often do not have the engrained necessity for products like home insurance.

“The industry is working hard to find insurance solutions for the emerging markets. While great progress has been made, there is still a long way to go,” says Colman.

“Fire is a peril insured by our policies. As was seen in places like Knysna and St Francis Bay, the insurance industry paid out significant amounts of money to policyholders to rebuild their homes and replace the contents thereof,” she adds.

Colman explains that buildings insurance covers the rebuilding or repair of damage caused by fire. Household goods or contents policies will cover the repair or replacement of the contents of a home damaged or lost in a fire.

But will living in a smaller town like Wupperthal, that may be at higher risk for fires, be a cause for higher premiums? Colman says that fire rates are determined by the construction of a building, such as the roof and walls. 

“We do not charge more for risks situated in rural towns,” she says.

“The cost of damage varies according to the size of the home, as well as the standard and type of building. The types of fittings and finishes therein or thereon as well as the extent of damage to the home are also considered. Claims can be minor, requiring only remedial work; others are more extensive, requiring demolition and rebuilding of the home,” says Colman.

In this case, should the residents affected have had policies in place, they would have been eligible for alternate accommodation. The policy will specify the extent of the cover available, but most policies provide for alternate accommodation of a similar type to that damaged and for the period required to rebuild the home.

What to do in claims stage 

“The first step is to report a claim to your insurer as soon as possible. The insurer will then appoint experts, such as loss adjusters, engineers, building contractors, and quantity surveyors, to measure the extent of the loss or damage,” says Colman.

“Once this is determined, the insurer will enter into discussions with the policyholder regarding the settlement of the claim. Insurers have the right to elect how they will do this. It may be via a payment or alternatively the insurer may repair, replace, or reinstate lost or damaged property,” she explains.  

Advice for you and your home

Both Colman and Styan offer the following as advice:

  • The best action is to firstly prevent fire from being able to spread to your home. You should therefore ensure that bush and shrubs around the house are controlled and gutters are kept clean.
  • Where possible, appropriate fire-fighting equipment must be maintained.
  • It is also a good idea to provide copies of relevant documentation (house and asset valuations, invoices, valuation certificates, etc) to your insurance broker for safe keeping. Alternatively keep the documentation offsite or better yet, digitally.

 “It is vital that you read your policy document and that you do not only look at bottom-line premium savings, but also consider excesses, as well as all the other terms and conditions in your policy schedule

“It is better to be proactive and ask the right questions, than trying to resolve complex cover issues at the time of the loss. Ensure you adhere to the policy requirements, keep your home in a good condition and ensure your premium is paid up to date.  You never know when tragedy can strike,” she adds.

Fire claims are especially traumatic for the owner and family, but the financial stress can be alleviated to some degree. If you do not have home insurance as yet, contact us and apply through Justmoney today.

Want to donate to the fire victims?

Contact Fruitful Futures and the South African Red Cross Society find out how you can get involved. 

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