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Loss adjusters’ diary: Helping to pick up the pieces

During a busy 2017 hurricane season, Global Risk Dialogue followed AGCS claims adjusters as they supported businesses devastated by Harvey and Irma in the US. What’s a “day in their life” like? Actually, it’s a lot of waiting, driving, appointment setting, attending meetings, inspecting losses and working hard to get businesses back on their feet, all while working out of cramped hotel rooms. And they love it.

Call to duty: Harvey

Sunday, Sept. 3

In the middle of a three-day US Labor Day holiday, “all hands on deck” calls come in to AGCS claims adjusters. Hundreds of thousands of people in Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the US, are without electricity or running water after Hurricane Harvey came ashore near Rockport, Texas, on August 25. The entire AGCS North America claims team is mobilized.  

“As the water recedes,” says Steven Kennedy, AGCS Regional Head of Property, Engineering and Energy Claims, North America, “our experts will be assessing risks, helping customers dry out their premises and providing damage estimates in order to minimize disruption and get their businesses running again.”

AGCS adjusters – most of them regional general adjusters (RGAs) experienced at working natural catastrophe claims along all product lines – rendezvous in San Antonio, Texas, about 200 miles (322 km) west of Houston. The prospects for safely getting into impacted areas are daunting. Some report driving over 100 miles (160 km) just to buy groceries.

Chris Anderson, AGCS RGA, is assigned several large Bassett furniture stores in Houston which suffered water damages. He’s agreed to meet the business onsite the following Tuesday.

Tuesday, Sept. 5

As Anderson nears Houston, heavy traffic and significant flooding slows him down. The typical three hour drive takes almost all day. He meets with one of the store managers but can’t get to the other stores until the next day. The trip back to San Antonio takes six hours.

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Gary Anderson, with Bassett Furniture manager, Gabriella Brito

Other adjusters don’t even have Anderson’s luck. David Melton, AGCS RGA, remarks that travel is almost impossible. He is turned away by the National Guard more than once. “It may be weeks before we get into some areas,” he says. “We’ll keep trying.” Melton tells of meeting families displaced by the hurricane who have relocated temporarily to his hotel. “It’s sad seeing all the children who are left with nothing but the clothing on their back.”

Already, insurance industry publications are weighing in on this “once-in-a-thousand-year event” and predict that extensive business interruption (BI) claims will probably lead to coverage questions that may affect future wordings vis-à-vis ‘flood’” as opposed to “surface water”.[2]

Wednesday, Sept. 6

Anderson leaves the hotel early to inspect the other three stores. Heavy traffic and road closures daunt him. He sees significant water damage, but hardly any wind damage. At least in the Houston area, Harvey was a water event. Further down the coast, however, James Byrne, AGCS RGA, sees significant wind damage near where Harvey’s eye made landfall.

 

Friday, Sept. 8

A week after the storm, adjusters can access some areas but not the worst ones, where it could take another 10 days or more. They are working six or seven days a week and up to 14 hours a day to handle the load.

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Property damage was widespread along the Texas Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

$13trn value of insured property within the US located in a coastal country

Monday, Sept. 11

Media estimates predict total property losses of up to $200bn due to Hurricane Harvey and Irma – a new, stronger storm – to be comparable to Katrina in 2005.[4] Even if a specific property is not damaged, the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other authorities could deny entry or exit, creating a non-damage business interruption (NDBI) scenario impacting normal operations.[5] It could be a while before Harvey’s BI/NDBI impact is known. Although Irma makes landfall in Florida on September 10, Harvey claims notifications continue. Some adjusters carry on working Harvey claims for some time yet, even as others are pulled to help out in Irma once it is safe to enter damaged sites. Still others, once they have conducted onsite inspections, return home to continue the settlement process.


Call to duty: Irma

Friday, Sept. 15

Meanwhile, in Florida, where Irma swept ashore on September 10, Ralph Gillmore, AGCS RGA, has found a hotel in Boca Raton with power and water. The Atlantic coast of Florida was impacted by Irma’s strong winds, although landfall was many miles to the west on the Gulf Coast.  Gillmore gets one of the last available rooms on the 14th floor overlooking the Atlantic. A nice view – but he isn’t on holiday. Damage is widespread.  Many roadways are impassable. Cleanup and power repair crews are everywhere.

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Debris and storm damage near the hotel in Ft. Lauderdale where AGCS claims adjusters stayed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Gillmore schedules an appointment with a winery owner in Ft. Lauderdale around noon. The drive takes an hour longer than it should due to debris and road closures. Schnebly Redland’s Winery, the southernmost US winery and brewery, is a retail and storage complex with several buildings used for storage, production, coolers and offices, as well as adjacent restaurant and retail space. Around 45 full-time employees work here.  The operating office is missing a roof. Most of the desks, chairs, tables, filing cabinets and computers are wind- and water-damaged. Generators, air compressors, circuit boards and cooling fans are also damaged.

Gillmore meets with the insured for two hours, including a policy review. Back in his hotel “office” a few hours later, he returns over 30 emails and phone calls. He checks in with his wife and goes to dinner. “A long, exhausting day,” he writes his manager. “It starts again tomorrow – Saturday.”

Monday, Sept. 18

Some adjusters still in Houston are dispatched to Florida to help clients. One, Kathy Underhill, AGCS RGA, drives to Boca Raton from San Antonio starting on Sunday, slowed by heavy traffic as Irma evacuees return home. After visiting a clent's business – a hotel – in Orlando she arrives in Boca Raton where Gillmore and other adjusters are working. She checks into her room and falls asleep.

Tuesday, Sept. 19

Underhill wakes early, takes a cold shower because there’s no hot water, and sets up her laptop to document the previous day’s inspections at the Orlando hotel. Moisture issues behind interior and exterior walls. She contacts Allianz Risk Consulting (ARC) and orders thermal imaging assistance, which helps adjusters see if there is a possibility of water trapped between the walls, exterior stucco or interior drywall.

She is assigned four new claims in the area. The afternoon is spent reviewing coverages, appointment-setting, and attending conference calls. She teams up with colleague Jean Hargrove, AGCS RGA, who has arrived from her home in Maryland. Most claim adjusters in the US work out of their homes, scattered around the country.

Wednesday, Sept. 20

Hurricane Maria makes landfall near Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, as a powerful Category 4 storm. It is the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico, a US territory, in decades.

Underhill’s first inspection is at the offices of the not-for-profit Urban League of Broward County where underprivileged people get personal skills training to get back on their feet – in one of the wealthiest zip codes in Florida. Jean-Claude Touissant, the VP of Finance and Administration, shows them around. There is roof damage, water intrusion, drywall and carpeting damage, as well as ruined electronics and waterlogged furniture.

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AGCS RGA, Kathy Underhill, visits with Jean-Clause Touissant of the Urban League of Broward County, Florida, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Friday, Sept. 22

Underhill and Hargrove travel to Miami, for three inspections, amid waves of tropical downpours. They cannot access damaged roofs, so arrange for additional inspections and engage drones for an aerial inspection of one building. They also visit Jose Arcia of M&M Farm, Inc., a wholesale tropical fruit distributor, which sustained minor roof damages.  After a long day, they return to the hotel. The 180 mile (290 km) roundtrip including three inspections takes eight-and-a-half hours.

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AGCS RGA Kathy Underhill assessing roof damages with Jose Arcia of M&M Farms, Inc. after the passage of Hurricane Irma


Saturday, Sept. 23

Sunny, for once. Underhill and Hargrove drive to Sebring, Florida, a  hour drive, to inspect a tile and granite factory that experienced blown out skylights, damaged gutters, downed satellite dishes and other wind damage.  

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AGCS RGA Jean Hargrove climbing up the side of a factory building in Sebring, Florida, to assess roof damages after the passage of Hurricane Irma

Tuesday, Sept. 26

Eleven days after first coming to Florida, Hargrove departs for her home in Maryland. Underhill, returning to her home in Tennessee, makes one last stop in Jacksonville, Florida, to inspect a damaged commercial building and parking garage.  

Moving on

After Harvey and Irma, the tired adjusters return home. Some have been away for weeks, others for just a few days. Hurricane Maria has crippled Puerto Rico and damaged businesses around the island are still inaccessible; meanwhile, wildfires are devastating California. No one knows where their next assignment will be.

Melton is immediately dispatched to Napa, California, to work wildfire claims. “There is serious devastation in Napa and Sonoma,” he writes. “We are working with many customers who have lost their homes and businesses and are trying to help them rebuild their lives.”

“I have been doing this job for 27 years,” he says. “I enjoy helping people. I still get calls and letters from businesses I have helped, thanking me. This makes it all worthwhile.”

Hargrove also is dispatched to California. “I’ve been at this for 30 years and counting,“ she says. “I love travel, but mostly it’s about helping businesses in need.”

Like Melton and Hargrove, Anderson goes to California the week the fires took off. He only got to inspect two losses – all of the others were behind closed roads and could not be reached. “Having been in this industry for over 28 years,” he says, “and working catastrophe duty off and on since Hurricane Hugo in 1989, I know how important it is to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. My family understands that I sometimes need to be away for long periods of time. They know I’m helping other families who are suffering from devastating storms or fires.”

Underhill has been back to Florida to assist on an inspection and then “desk-adjusted” a constant stream of wildfire claims for a while.  “Knowing you’ve assisted and helped people back to some sort of normalcy during these catastrophes makes the travel and long hours worthwhile. I guess you could say it’s in my blood – and has been for over 20 years.”

Gillmore hasn’t been back to Texas or Florida because he hasn’t been needed onsite again. “I like the feeling of helping customers through all types of catastrophes,” he says. “It’s been my life’s work – for 43 years, now.”

Where to next? Who knows? It’s a day at a time with claims adjusters. All in a day’s work. And they love it.

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[1] AGCS Global Claims Review 2015: Business Interruption In Focus. Based on the analysis of 1,807 business interruption insurance claims
[2] Business Insurance, Insurers expected to withstand Harvey’s claims, September 5, 2017[3] AIR Worldwide, The Coastline at Risk: 2016 Update to the Estimated Insured Value of US Coastal Properties
[3] AIR Worldwide, The Coastline at Risk: 2016 Update to the Estimated Insured Value of US Coastal Properties
[4] ABC News, Hurricane Harvey and Irma may have caused up to $200 billion in damage, comparable to Katrina, September 11, 2017
[5] Business Insurance, Property, business interruption, expected to top hurricane claims, September 12, 2017
[6] Munich Re Natural Catastrophe Review, January 4, 2018
[7] The Texas Tribune, Coastal officials say feds failing Harvey victims on short-term housing, January 4, 2018
[8] AGCS Global Claims Review 2015: Business Interruption In Focus
[9] The Guardian, Hurricane Irma strongest ever Atlantic storm causes “major damage“ in Caribbean, September 6, 2017
[10] Munich Re Natural Catastrophe Review, January 4, 2018