What every adjuster should know before working in a catastrophe zone


Catastrophe duty can be a rewarding experience for adjusters, but they need to be properly prepared.

Catastrophe duty can be a rewarding experience for adjusters, but they need to be properly prepared.

A major hurricane has swept up the East Coast with heavy rains and 125-mile-per-hour winds from Georgia to Connecticut.

Flooding is everywhere. Rivers are roaring over their banks, electricity is out for more than 1,000 square miles, and hundreds of communities have been devastated.

Your company has thousands of policyholders in the affected areas and is prepared to send hundreds of adjusters to begin working on claims. Some are seasoned professionals who worked Katrina and Sandy, as well as Wilma, Rita and Charley. They know the dangers they will encounter, how to prepare and the harsh environment that awaits.

For adjusters who haven't experienced total devastation, it may be hard to imagine.

Electricity can be out for days or weeks at a time. Water, gasoline, food and other essentials may be difficult to locate. Hotels in the hardest hit areas are damaged and can't be used until they’ve been cleaned, restored or even rebuilt. Roads and bridges may be washed away, and street signs are probably gone with the wind. A GPS will only be able to take you so far because fallen trees and downed wires will be everywhere. Even flying into an area can be difficult if airports in the immediate vicinity are closed.

However, it is also an opportunity for insurers and their adjusters to demonstrate to policyholders the value of trusting in their company.

“Catastrophe duty can be the most rewarding time for adjusters,” explains George Burgee, CPCU, AIC, quality assurance manager and executive general adjuster and catastrophe manager for Lakewood Ranch, Fla.-based Johns Eastern Co. Inc. “Adjusters have the opportunity to assist policyholders in their greatest time of need immediately following a storm. Many insureds the adjuster will encounter during a catastrophe may have never experienced a loss prior to this event. The adjusters must be mindful that they are delivering on the promise that the agent sold the insureds when they purchased the insurance policy.”

He says that adjusters should be prepared to educate policyholders about the claims process and help to manage the insureds’ expectations, while demonstrating empathy during the inspection and maintaining the integrity of the claims process.

Burge explains that advanced preparation includes the adjusters understanding their capabilities and capacity to handle claims. “This means working with management to have a mutual understanding of the severity and volume of losses to be managed during a catastrophe. The adjuster should be able to utilize the estimating software efficiently and seek additional training if needed well in advance of the storm.”

Any issues that arise during the event that are outside of the adjuster's level of expertise should also be communicated to management says Burge. “Claims above the adjuster's threshold should be re-assigned as appropriate. Additional training prior to catastrophe duty will include a comprehensive review and analysis of applicable policy forms with an understanding of applicable issues that may be encountered during the catastrophe. The adjuster should work with management to identify appropriate vendors to assist with claims investigation including engineers, mitigation companies, dry cleaners and ALE providers,” he adds.

Emergency supplies

Catastrophe adjusters should make sure they have plenty of essential supplies and the appropriate tools before heading into a catastrophe zone. (Photo: iStock)

Practical issues

John Herr, head of estimating for Sterling, Va.-based Jenkins Restorations recommends that contractors and adjusters go to City Hall to get a permit to access an area if it has been locked down. “You need to know what the rules of the city are and what the hours of access are for an area,” he explains.

Anyone going into a catastrophe area should consider bringing MREs, food bars and plenty of bottled water, because food can be scarce. Fast food probably won't be available (although Waffle House has a catastrophe team that works hard to reopen any restaurants in a damaged area as soon as possible.) But grocery stores and other outlets won't be able to restock quickly when a large area is affected.

“If you are renting a car, be sure it is reserved and even then don't count on it being there ... renting cars during a storm is difficult,” says Rusty Amarante, CR, vice president of operations for Birmingham, Mich.-based Belfor Property Restoration. “Buy a gas can and keep extra fuel, and always keep your tank filled since gas stations in the heart of the storm area will be out of fuel.”

Hotels in the affected area will probably not be open for business, so be prepared to stay several hours away from the main disaster area. And since traveling anywhere in a storm-impacted area takes longer than normal, that is another reason to keep vehicles fueled.

Burgee says adjusters should take a number of critical items to a catastrophe zone including:

  • A telescoping ladder.

  • Roof shoes and steel-toed boots.

  • Camera.

  • Smart phone.

  • Digital measuring device.

  • 25-foot tape measure.

  • Shingle gauge.

  • Hard hat.

  • Safety vest.

  • Computer.

  • Estimating software.

  • Copies of applicable policy forms.

  • Batteries for phones and computers.

  • A vehicle AC adapter.

  • Cellphone apps — pitch gauge, scanner & mobile claims management software.

Amarante also recommends bringing a first aid kit, enough medication to last several weeks (prescription and over-the-counter) because drug stores will be closed, as well as batteries, flashlights, extra clothing and laundry soap.

Jason Coleman, vice president of Jenkins Restorations suggests that adjusters familiarize themselves with an area before heading out to a claim. “You can't count on technology and should make sure to have the ADC map books or some other hard copy map of the area. Before you go to a claim, be familiar with alternative routes to the location and have them mapped out ahead of time so you can see what is around that area. Have multiple routes to get to where you are going. Work it out geographically and logically since it will be difficult to get around because of blocked roads and missing street signs.”

Scheduling will be a challenge and policyholders may not be easily available. “Think about how to communicate with them given the circumstances,” says Coleman since cellphones may not work in the area if cell towers are down or service has been interrupted. “And make sure to have coverage information for the policyholder so you can tell them what is or isn't covered.”

Coleman also advises that adjusters and contractors be prepared for additional costs. “Everything costs more when there is a major catastrophe,” he says. “There are mobilization fees for adjusters and vendors who are away from their businesses and families, additional fuel costs because fuel is hard to find and it takes longer to get any place, and prices for smaller suppliers and lumber yards increase because of the catastrophe. Restocking supplies that are already in demand can become even more of a challenge.”

He also says that it is important to focus on one claim or situation at a time. “Be there and take care of them. If you try to do too much at one time, it will just create more work for you later.”


Before heading into a catastrophe zone, make sure your vaccinations for tetanus, typhoid, meningitis and hepatitis A and B are current. (Photo: iStock)

Safety first

“A catastrophe area has the largest volume of work and confusion,” says Herr of Jenkins Restoration. “There will be an influx of people into the area — good contractors and fly-by-nights. Contact reliable contractors in the area who will be available for your adjusters and who you know you can trust.”

He also says to be prepared for a lot of tension. “It is very easy for you to become a target. You need to be mentally prepared for the accountability and for a hostile environment. People will go from being happy to see you and thinking you can help them to wondering why it took you so long to get there.”

As mental and physical fatigue set in for residents and responders, things can get more hostile as the days go by. “People get yelled at. The environment is emotionally and physically exhausting for everyone involved. Their normal support system isn't there because everyone is impacted and dealing with different stages of grief,” adds Herr.

Amarante stresses the importance of being aware of safety issues. “There will be downed power lines, contaminated water, flood waters, atmospheric contamination, as well as security and protection issues to consider.” He advises traveling in pairs if possible or at the very least letting others know where you will be traveling.

“Keep your vehicles well maintained and make sure they are current on their safety inspections,” emphasizes Coleman. “It won't be easy to get replacement parts or auto service in a catastrophe area.”

Safety also extends to any buildings being inspected. “Do not be quick to go into a building,” cautions Coleman. “Perform an exterior perimeter evaluation before going into a building — look for major cracks that could indicate damage, broken windows or doors, or other signs of building weakness.”

Health experts recommend that individuals working in a catastrophe area have current tetanus shots, as well as hepatitis A and B, typhoid and meningitus shots to provide some measure of protection against the micro-organisms and other contaminants found in flood waters. Take antibacterial sanitizers and frequently wash your face and hands to prevent the spread of viruses or contaminating any food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infection and illness.

Preparation is also important for those adjusters and other responders leave at home. “Arrangements should be made well in advance of storm duty for family needs during the adjuster's absence. The adjuster should prepare to be away from home for several weeks at a time. Preparations may include dealing with mail, bills and services at home including lawn maintenance or snow removal,” says Burgee.

While working a major catastrophe provides a lot of opportunities for adjusters and vendors to demonstrate their expertise, the situation presents some very real hazards that must be addressed to keep everyone safe. In a catastrophe, working smart starts before anyone ever leaves home.

Originally published on PropertyCasualty360.

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