In Tornado’s Wake, City of Dallas Wants Renters to Get Insured

A North Dallas home devastated by the October tornado.
A North Dallas home devastated by the October tornado. Lucas Manfield
If you're looking for a lesson to take away from last month's tornado that flattened homes and demolished businesses in North Dallas, try this: get insured.

That's according to Rocky Vaz, Dallas' emergency management director, who said getting apartment dwellers signed up for insurance is a big priority in the wake of the storm.

"We're doing a big push to educate people on how critical and important renters insurance is," he said.

Nationally, the percentage of insured renters trails far behind homeowners. A 2018 survey by the Insurance Institute found that only 46% of renters had insurance, compared with 91% of homeowners.

And Texas has some of the highest insurance rates in the country, according to the Institute. In 2016, the average rental insurance premium in Texas was $241, fifth highest among all states.

Vaz said the city had been looking into the issue for months, following a series of large apartment fires that occurred earlier this year.

Texas has some of the highest insurance rates in the country, according to the Insurance Institute. In 2016, the average rental insurance premium in Texas was $241.

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A three-alarm fire in northern Dallas destroyed 16 apartments in March. Many of the 70 people displaced by the fire were Asian refugees. Then, in August, a child playing with a lighter ignited a four-alarm fire, destroying a 24-unit apartment complex.

The Oct. 20 tornadoes — including one EF-3 that struck northern Dallas neighborhoods with wind speeds of 140 mph — brought the issue further into the spotlight.

Vaz said his office is dispatching inspectors, distributing flyers and launching a billboard campaign to get the word out. He'll be briefing Dallas City Council on the plans later this week.

In the case of the Dallas tornado, homeowners and renters should expect little federal aid. Although the storm caused an estimated $300 million in damages, it is unlikely that the number of destroyed uninsured homes across the region will exceed 800, the threshold that would trigger additional FEMA aid for individuals. There were only 255 such homes in Dallas, according to the city's initial damage assessment.

Matt Stillwell, a spokesman for the Texas Insurance Council, emphasized the storm's importance as an educational opportunity.

"We don't want to use those tragedies to sell insurance, but we definitely want to use them as a cautionary tale about what happens if you don't have it," he said. "It's a fine line that we walk here."

Marc Hill, a Dallas State Farm agent, said, "The wake-up call may be for renters, who are living in apartment complexes and think nothing is ever going to happen to them."

But, he said, it's less of an issue today than in the past, now that many apartment complexes require tenants to obtain liability insurance.

Liability insurance alone, however, will not cover for loss of your belongings in the event of a fire — or a tornado. Vaz noted that many people may not be aware that they're underinsured. Everyone should review their home and auto coverage, he said, and make sure they're aware of what it covers so that they're not surprised in the wake of the next storm.
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Lucas Manfield is an editorial fellow at the Observer. He's a former software developer and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Contact: Lucas Manfield