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Hurricane Maria one year on - "We can be better prepared than we were this time"

Hurricane Maria was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century, resulting in close to 3,000 deaths and the longest power blackout in US history. Some estimates calculate the cost of damage to be as much as $100bn. Throughout, AGCS’ only full-time claims expert on the island, Jackie Otero, helped customers prepare for the storm and pick-up the pieces afterwards – even working out of her car as she handled hundreds of claims.

In the days leading up to September 20, 2017, Jacqueline Otero, Senior Claims Adjuster, AGCS, the “face” of Allianz on the island of Puerto Rico – since she is the only Allianz employee there – is busy prepping and planning. She has relocated her 89 year-old parents from the interior to her walk-up flat in San Juan even as she works to prepare customers to weather the storm.


Aerial view of hotel damages in Puerto Rico after Maria. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Otero reaches out to brokers to action-plan – reviewing policyholder coverages, wordings and contact details. In Puerto Rico, insurers can’t directly contact policyholders, so her brokers must approve her contacting policyholders directly after the storm. She shares her personal contact details and agrees to regularly visit brokerage offices after the storm to collect notifications in case internet or telephones are down.

A few weeks before, on September 7, a strong Hurricane Irma passed north of Puerto Rico, leaving widespread flooding, a few insurance claims, and around a million people without power – 80,000 of them still in the dark by the time Maria approaches[1].

In the early morning of September 20, the wind and rain ramp-up considerably as Hurricane Maria strikes. Otero and her husband huddle at the dining room table, monitoring weather reports and hoping against the worst. Well known in the broker community, Otero knows she’s helped her customers prepare as much as possible. Preparation is key. She learned that lesson long ago.

Weaned on Hugo

On September 9, 1989, Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Hugo, leaving 12 dead and losses over $1bn[2]. Before Hugo, Otero worked as a receptionist in the claims department of a small, local insurer. After, she learned the claims business on-the-go and never looked back.

Over the years, Otero has settled thousands of claims – averaging five to 10 per day (considerably more during major events). Eventually, she handles just marine business – cargo (shipment/storage), marine-related onshore property, construction equipment and ship’s hull and marine liability exposures. She went to work for Allianz in the mid-1990s.

Recovery begins

Otero’s apartment survives the storm, with some water damage – but she’s without power. Mobile coverage is limited, but she is able to text message her manager, Adam Kotara, Property Claims Director, AGCS, in the US.


The US Army and Puerto Rico National Guard had to filter water and provide it to residents for months after the storm Photo: iStock

After the storm, Otero contacts customers. Everywhere there is total devastation from severe wind and flooding. Trees are down and most powerlines. As most houses on the island are wooden, the majority are heavily damaged or gone completely. Bridges are washed away – including the one Otero crossed a few days earlier bringing her parents from the interior. Most supermarkets are closed; the few that are open have long queues outside. At first, stores only sell one packet of rice and one jug of water per customer. Many stand in line for up to 24-hours just to buy gas and food.

As it turns out, Maria significantly impacts the power grid, already stressed due to the island’s government’s defaulting on a $123bn debt in May[3]. There is no power for months – the second longest power blackout in world history[4]. Incredibly, Otero will not regain power for 44 days – on November 2. Rolling power outages and blackouts continue well into 2018 – a major one on April 17 plunging the entire island into darkness again.

What Otero immediately needs is a generator, but none is available. She works from her car to charge her mobile and laptop. She asks Kotara to purchase a generator with money that she will send him. To her surprise, she soon receives one donated by AGCS.

“The generator was a godsend,” Otero tells Kotara weeks later. “I can’t imagine doing my job without it. We even ran a few fans to overcome the heat and humidity.”


Flooding in Loiza, Puerto Rico, after Maria. Some areas received more than 15 inches of rain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Otero’s post-Maria issues are technological:  Most of the island’s cell towers are lost; 95% of service is unavailable – by mid-December only 85% of the towers are operational[5]. When she can, Otero starts calling or visiting brokers and assigning claims to the eight private adjusters AGCS hires to help her with initial onsite visits to inspect damage. Notifications come in to Otero’s nine-person US support team. On the ground, Otero sees significant wind and water damage due to blown-off roofs on most buildings. After power is restored, Otero notices an increase in power surge claims which businesses can trigger if their operation experiences a power-down or if power outages or surges from another location leave them without a means to continue business.

According to Kotara, Otero probably touches some part of each of AGCS’ 230 claims – which represents about 68% of AGCS’ business in Puerto Rico. Claim set-up, policy information, broker follow-up, independent adjuster follow-up, Spanish translation – Otero does it all after Maria.

Otero assures brokers she will work to get customers back in business as soon as possible. About three-quarters of claims notifications are marine-related (inland marine, which is not the same as ocean marine). Coverages include commercial property such as contractors equipment for machinery and construction site building supplies, radio and antennas, damage to many statues and public art installations at town squares throughout Puerto Rico, medical equipment in clinics, hospitals, medical laboratories, etc. and valuable papers and art, as well as business income and extra expense exposures due to significant business interruption. AGCS’ highest claims value is around $40mn, a total loss by a local television station to antennas, satellite dishes and broadcast equipment.

[1] NBC News, Hurricane Irma Skirts Puerto Rico, Leaves 1 Million Without Power, September 7, 2017

[2] Washington Post, Deadly Hugo slams Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, September 19, 1989

[3] New York Times, Puerto Rico declares a form of bankruptcy, May 3, 2017

[4] Daily Kos, Puerto Rico continues to struggle as its blackout becomes the second largest in world history, April 17, 2018

[5] E&E News, 3 months after storm, Puerto Rico’s grid is struggling, December 20, 2017