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Sandy challenged claims adjusters and taught new lessons in claims management


Superstorm Sandy presented claims adjusters with some supersize challenges. And those challenges can serve as valuable claims management lessons for future natural disasters.

After the storm struck in late October, basic services were shut down across broad swaths of the New Jersey shore, Manhattan and Long Island. Getting claims personnel into the affected areas was difficult. And once adjusters were there, finding lodging for them was problematic. On top of that, there was the challenge of access to damaged properties as authorities assessed public safety issues.

“On Monday, it was lodging; on Tuesday, it was gas. It seems like they were coming one after another,” said Bud Trice, vice president-catastrophe services at Crawford & Co. in Atlanta, recalling the adjuster challenges.

James Wheeler, vice president-commercial insurance property field claims for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in Richardson, Texas, which is the headquarters of the Boston-based insurer's central regional office, said the insurer was somewhat challenged by the timing of Superstorm Sandy, which occurred “right in the middle of our realignment of claims operations.”

But, he said, the adjusters had more than a week to plan operations. “We made use of every hour, every minute” to communicate and to “know our organization inside and out,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Crawford's Mr. Trice said from a strategic level, the proper placement of adjusters had to be determined.

“We had damage running from Delaware to Rhode Island. Probably the biggest problem was making sure you had enough adjusters at the right location,” he said. The adjusting company chose a location in Allentown, Pa., for its managers.

Among the biggest issues were dependencies — lodging, gasoline and the overall issue of transportation, Mr. Trice said. Gasoline couldn't be pumped where there was no power; long lines formed where fuel was available.

Liberty's Mr. Wheeler said the insurer was prepared for the gasoline issue. “I'd been there before,” he said.

The insurer rented two gas tankers, which were positioned at central locations in Long Island and New Jersey, he said. “We knew gas was going to be a crisis; we wanted to make sure adjusters didn't waste any time in gas lines.”

Issues hampering adjusters included “limited lodging, damages to the infrastructure; you couldn't get gasoline on Long Island,” said Hart Hubbard, vice president-catastrophe services with Cunningham Lindsey in Columbia, S.C.

He said because of the limited lodging available, “we had people living in New Jersey who had to cross a toll bridge every day to get to Long Island.”

Another lodging problem arose from the storm's timing, he said. Some adjusters use recreational vehicles as combination offices and homes while on the job, and the RV parks had already closed for the season.

Access to damaged property also emerged as an issue for adjusters.

Some states have clearances so that adjusters can get through a secured zone, Crawford's Mr. Trice said. But even then, the passes are good only for a few days, he said.

Access presented some issues, particularly at first, said Greg Raab, manager of integrated services at Utica, N.Y.-based public adjuster Adjusters International Inc. and a member of the board of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.

“A lot of our guys have state ID cards; we have pretty liberal access to most of the places,” Mr. Raab said. “Some of the places were so fully damaged, you couldn't walk in and take pictures of the structural damage.”

Limited access allowed by authorities was an issue in some parts of New Jersey, said Cunningham Lindsey's Mr. Hubbard. Damaged infrastructure meant that authorities would allow homeowners in for only brief periods, he said.

Adjusters had to get passes, and sometimes authorities would bar access to damaged areas, Mr. Hubbard said. For example, bridges to barrier islands were blocked.

Despite the challenges, planning paid off, Liberty Mutual's Mr. Wheeler said.

“We wanted a three- to five-day turnaround in all inspections, and we certainly exceeded that,” he said.

That involved a heavy commitment to communications, he said.

“We wanted to make sure we communicated with our agents and brokers,” he said. “Once Superstorm Sandy hit, we had a steady flow of conference calls with our agents and brokers.”

“I don't think in a disaster situation you can overcommunicate,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Afterward, Liberty Mutual heard from agents about how well the claims process had worked. Good claims handling provides a competitive advantage, he said.

“We want to be first in and first out,” he said, meaning the first to complete the claims-adjusting process.