Tens of thousands of tourists who expected to be relaxing on the beaches of Hatteras or Ocracoke islands will be burning vacation hours instead arguing with real estate, insurance or credit card companies, trying to get their money back.
“I’m not paying $5,000 for something I’m not receiving,” said Krista Berg, who was supposed to check into a rental house in Salvo, on Hatteras Island, on Saturday with her husband, three children and some extended family. The Bergs, who live in Buffalo, N.Y., had never been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and were looking forward to the trip.
They boarded the dog. They loaded up the car. But as they were getting ready to head south last week, Berg got a Facebook message from a friend saying power was out to the southern Outer Banks. Wasn’t that where she was going?
Berg called the real estate company. She called Dare County’s emergency services.
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“They all reassured us,” she said, saying that visitors had been evacuated from Ocracoke, but Hatteras Island remained open. Thinking Hatteras Island might be evacuated too, the Bergs waited more than eight hours past their planned departure time. Finally, they hit the road.
Nearly halfway into their 12-hour drive, they heard that Hatteras, too, would be evacuated. They would never even see the house.
Now, Berg says, the real estate company is refusing to give the family their money back.
“They say they will take your name and number and give it to the property owner, and if the property owner wants to refund it, they can,” Berg said. “They won’t even tell you who the owner is.”
Real estate companies that handle rentals along the North Carolina coast encourage vacationers to purchase travel insurance. The real estate companies usually have arrangements with a particular company, and they get paid a percentage on every policy bought. Renters can decline the coverage, but are told that if they they do and have to cancel their trip, they will not be entitled to a refund.
The policies vary, with some paying out if renters lose time from their rentals because of illness, injury or car accidents. Many people buy the insurance in case there is a hurricane, which is usually a specified payable claim.
The policies don’t usually mention power outages, such as this one caused when PCL Construction severed two main power transmission lines while building a replacement for Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet early Thursday.
“They’re saying it’s not a natural disaster, so they’re not going to cover it,” said Tom Young, who with his wife, Lynn, and their two children, also were planning to spend this week in a rental house on Hatteras. It had a pool and a hot tub, and it was to be the highlight of the Youngs’ summer, well worth the haul from their home in Darlington, Pa.
They should have checked into their $3,800, four-bedroom slice of paradise on Saturday. Instead, they called around to try to find something they could afford to put on their credit card. They ended up in a single motel room in Ocean Isle.
“We told the kids we were coming to the beach,” said Young. “We were going to find a way to go to the beach.”
Since they got there, Young said, the couple have spent many hours on the phone trying to find out whether they can get a refund from Surf or Sound Realty or even a credit for another week next summer.
Disgruntled customers of some real estate companies have formed their own Facebook pages, where they compare notes and complaints.
More than 750 people have joined Surf or Sound Power Outage Renters on Facebook, and 60 have joined Outer Beaches Realty Support.
Ann Wood, spokeswoman for Surf or Sound Realty, said in an email that the company is encouraging its customers to file a claim with its insurance company, Travel Guard. Wood said the insurer has told Sound or Surf that it is reviewing claims. Travel Guard is a subsidiary of AIG.
Kenny Juarez, a spokesman for AIG, issued a statement Tuesday night, saying: “We have been working with our customers impacted by the situation at the Outer Banks. We’ve already initiated the payment process on a number of claims, and we will continue to consider claims based on each client’s particular coverage and circumstances.”
Hatteras Realty on its Facebook page was instructing guests with travel insurance to file claims, saying some “would be entitled to reimbursement.” The company also said that for those without trip insurance it would contact the owners of individual homes to request refunds but could not guarantee the outcome.
The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office is accepting complaints and said it is monitoring the situation. Laura Brewer, spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Stein, said customers should contact the North Carolina Department of Justice via http://nando.com/4u1.
Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said his group has had calls from some people upset about not being able to get their money back on beach house rentals. The organization’s website www.outerbanks.org/, which has links to rental properties along the Outer Banks, is being more frequently updated, Nettles said, to help people find other places to stay outside the areas affected by the power outage. A search for properties this week and next on the visitors bureau website and those of several rental companies each turned up a handful of available homes.
“The northern Outer Banks are open for business as usual,” Nettles said, and businesses hope tourists will continue to come. About 70 percent of Dare County businesses’ income is earned during the summer months, he said.
On such short notice, Berg said she couldn’t find anything suitable on the Outer Banks that her family could afford if they aren’t able to recover the money they put down on the first place. They ended up at Myrtle Beach, renting from a homeowner they found through VRBO who was willing to give them a price break.
“They keep talking about their income,” Berg said of the Outer Banks businesses. “And I am sympathetic to that. I want to come to Hatteras and spend money with the local businesses. But they’re closed, so I can’t. And that $5,000 is my income, too.”