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Post Offices Gird for New Run on Earthquake Mail

March 01, 1985|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Valley-area postal officials will have extra clerks on duty Saturday morning when a new wave of homeowners is expected to descend on local post offices to claim certified letters about earthquake insurance coverage.

About 2 million of the letters were mailed to California residents 12 days ago by two major insurance companies because of a new state law requiring the companies to notify policyholders that earthquake coverage is available.

The letters are accompanied by delivery receipts to prove that the insurers complied with the law.

But as many as half of the estimated 200,000 letters addressed to Valley-area residents could not be home-delivered by mail carriers because no one was home to sign the receipts, according to postal authorities.

Long Lines at Windows

As homeowners have found notices in their mailboxes instructing them to claim the certified letters themselves, long lines have developed at postal customer-service windows. The crowds were especially large last Saturday, the first time that thousands of working homeowners were able to visit their local post offices.

Many returned home empty-handed rather than stand in lines for up to two hours. Others who waited complained later that the notices were nothing more than advertising pitches.

"It takes a couple of minutes to search for the letters," acknowledged Dick Richard, manager of window sales at the Valley's main post office in Van Nuys. "Some people reacted negatively to the lines. But, on the whole, I've been very pleased with the customers."

Jim Kester, operations services manager for seven post offices in the northeast Valley, said the mailings have had "quite an impact" on homeowners who remember the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, which damaged thousands of homes in his postal area.

"You wouldn't believe the way they came down on us last Saturday to pick up their letters," Kester said. "We expect another rush this Saturday. We're staffing to minimize the wait in line."

Additional Premiums

The new state law was spurred by, among other things, insurance-industry concerns that homeowners were able to collect for earthquake damage even though they did not have earthquake insurance. The letters from insurers notify customers that they must pay additional premiums to get earthquake coverage.

A major earthquake could cause damages of from $50 billion to $70 billion in Southern California, but only 5 to 7% of homeowners have earthquake insurance, a 1980 survey showed.

Postal officials said some policyholders had not yet received their earthquake insurance letters.

Among those still waiting for his letter this week was Robert F. Canfield, a manager at State Farm Insurance Co.'s regional office in Westlake Village. Ironically, Canfield was one of those responsible for the mailing of about 300,000 of the letters to State Farm policyholders from Los Angeles to Modesto. Statewide, the firm has mailed 1.3 million notices.

148,000 Receipts Returned

"We think that the outlying areas of Southern California got them first," Canfield said. "But I live in Thousand Oaks, and mine hasn't come yet."

As of mid-week, about 148,000 of the postal receipts had been returned to State Farm's Westlake Village office, he said.

Among those, Canfield said, was a stack of Glendale-area receipts that apparently had been signed by a single mailman instead of by individual policyholders, as is required.

"It makes you wonder what he did with them--put them in the trash can?" the insurance executive said of the letters, which cost State Farm $1.67 each to mail.

90% Not Home to Accept

Canfield said reports have come in from Camarillo that mail carriers in that Ventura County city have simply given up trying to deliver the letters.

But Camarillo Postmaster William Scott said Thursday, "We're attempting to deliver them all." About 90% of Camarillo's certified insurance letters have been returned to post offices because no one was home to accept them, he said.

Scott said he assigned extra crews to service windows and to work at certified-mail sorting shelves to handle the resulting lines of customers. He said he has instructed postal clerks to retain the insurance letters longer than the usual 15 days before returning them to their sender.

Reports From Other Firm

The other major company to mail out earthquake insurance letters was the Farmers Insurance Group, which two weeks ago sent out about 950,000 letters statewide. That company also has received reports of delivery problems, a company official said.

"We've gotten calls and letters from people who complained that the postman didn't knock on their door when they were home and left a pickup notice instead," said Grover Brown, director of fire services operations at the company's Los Angeles headquarters.

"People have complained that the post office told them that, if postmen stopped to knock on every door, they wouldn't get the mail delivered."

Postal officials said smaller insurance companies doing business in the state began mailing their certified letters months ago.

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