Filed Under:Claims, Catastrophe & Restoration

Staying safe: A Hurricane Harvey survival guide for claim adjusters

For insurance pros traveling to Texas, "safe" and "smart" are the watchwords. Here's how to avoid trouble.

The roof of a gas station sits in flood waters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Aransas Pass, Texas. Harvey rolled over the Texas Gulf Coast on Saturday, smashing homes and businesses and lashing the shore with wind and rain so intense that drivers were forced off the road because they could not see in front of them. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
The roof of a gas station sits in flood waters in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Aransas Pass, Texas. Harvey rolled over the Texas Gulf Coast on Saturday, smashing homes and businesses and lashing the shore with wind and rain so intense that drivers were forced off the road because they could not see in front of them. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

When the floodwaters finally start to recede in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, hundreds if not thousands of insurance adjusters will be heading to Texas and surrounding areas to begin adjusting billions of dollars in losses.

Homes, businesses, schools and vehicles were flooded, and forecasters are predicting significant rainfall for the next few days where the amount of precipitation will be measured in feet.

More than 300,000 residents are without power, and that number is steadily growing as more information comes in from areas decimated by the storm. At least 5,000 flights were canceled at Houston Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby airports. Both airports are expected to be closed for several days as the airports and the roads leading to them are under several feet of water. More than 1,700 flights have been canceled nationwide because of Hurricane Harvey.

The last major hurricane to hit Texas was Hurricane Ike in 2008, which caused $37.6 billion in damage and was responsible for at least 74 deaths. The Category 2 storm made landfall near Galveston, Texas, and caused a 15-foot storm surge equal to a Category 5 hurricane. Hurricane Charley, which made landfall in Southwest Florida in 2004 and caused more than $15 billion in damage, was the last Category 4 hurricane to reach the U.S.

For adjusters who haven’t experienced total devastation from a major catastrophe (CAT), the impact from Hurricane Harvey may be difficult to comprehend. As the infrastructure collapses under the weight of floodwaters, utilities are affected, roads are blocked or washed away, and many highways are impassable by anything other than watercraft.

These conditions will make any sort of travel next to impossible for days, if not weeks. Adjusters traveling to Texas and working in the impacted areas should take a number of precautions to keep safe.

Related: Catastrophe safety 101

Police officer checks abandoned cars during Hurricane Harvey

A police officer checks an abandoned vehicle as the last of Hurricane Harvey passes the area, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) 

Before you go to Texas

Areas affected by Hurricane Harvey will not have operating hotels, stores, banks, rental cars, restaurants or other services like electricity or clean running water. Issues to consider before traveling to Texas include:

  1. How will you travel to the impacted areas?
  2. Where will you stay and how far away will it be from the areas you need to reach?
  3. How will you travel around the area?
  4. What will you eat and drink while there?
  5. How will you charge any electronics?
  6. Will your cell phone or computers have service in the area?
  7. How will any curfews affect your ability to travel into some of the areas?
  8. Do you need permits to access different areas within the CAT zone?
  9. What kind of support will your office be able to provide while you’re in Texas?
  10. How will you contact your policyholders?

Electricity will probably be out for weeks; water, gasoline, food and other essentials will 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 have been washed away, and street signs are 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 the area will be difficult since airports in the immediate vicinity are closed.

After Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, those working in the aftermath encountered numerous hazards because of contaminants in the water. E.coli from sewage, gasoline, oil and other contaminants from underground storage tanks that have ruptured present a number of dangers to claims adjusters and others responding in flood-stricken areas. Check with a physician to verify what immunizations are recommended, but the most likely ones will be tetanus boosters, Hepatitis A&B, as well as typhoid and meningitis.

Because ATMs probably won’t be working, banks may not have reopened and any vendors open may not be able to accept credit cards, plan to bring a sufficient amount of cash for critical needs.

There are a number of apps available to assist adjusters with scoping a loss. Download them before leaving because internet service in the affected areas may be weak or nonexistent.

Other supplies to consider bringing include:

  • Bottled water & sports drinks
  • Meals ready to eat (MREs)
  • Energy bars
  • First-aid kit & medications (prescription/over-the-counter)
  • Smart phone and extra batteries
  • AC adapter for vehicle to charge phones & laptops while traveling
  • Computer, backup battery and charger
  • Hard hat
  • Safety vest
  • Face mask and dust mask
  • Steel-toed shoes and rain boots
  • Flashlights and batteries
  • 25-foot tape measure
  • Work gloves
  • State road atlases and maps (GPS may not work)
  • Extra clothing
  • Laundry soap
  • Personal hygiene items, for example, toothpaste, soap and shampoo
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wipes
  • DEET-based mosquito repellant
  • Sunscreen
  • Satellite phone
  • Drone and batteries

Related: 5 factors to consider for catastrophe claims

Woman surveys damage after Hurricane Harvey

Jennifer Bryant looks over the debris where her family business once stood in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Katy, Texas. Harvey rolled over the Texas Gulf Coast on Saturday, smashing homes and businesses and lashing the shore with wind and rain so intense that drivers were forced off the road because they could not see in front of them. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

On-site dangers

Massive flooding displaces a lot of items, including local wildlife. There have been reports of alligators in some neighborhoods, and snakes are frequently an issue after a flood. Other vermin such as rats, ants and bees can pose a threat, as well as wild animals that have been chased from their habitats.

Downed trees and electrical lines, loose boards and unstable materials, rusty nails, gas leaks, household chemicals, pesticides and broken glass can create dangers to adjusters as they walk through a structure. Be alert to hazards from moving water, loose debris and holes in the ground.

Mold can begin to form in a structure after 48 hours of damp conditions, so adjusters should beware of any mold-contaminated buildings and make sure to have appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when accessing these sites. Before entering any building, walk around the exterior to identify any possible dangers such as cracked foundations, broken windows and ruptured gas lines. Given the extent of damage and the numerous dangers that could be encountered, it would be wise for adjusters to work in pairs to provide an added measure of protection.

To reduce the risk of infection, wash your hands frequently, especially before eating or drinking. Avoid rubbing your eyes or ears with dirty hands. Be aware of what you’re touching, and keep your hands away from your face.

Traveling from one site to another will take far longer than anticipated. Allow plenty of travel time between claims and make sure to get the policyholders’ cell phone numbers so you can reach them if delayed or lost. Make sure to take enough pictures to accurately capture the full scope of the loss, especially since it will be difficult to remember all of the details when adjusting such a large number of losses.

Related: 5 best practices for valuing water-damaged items

Take care of yourself

Working a catastrophe is exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Make sure to get enough rest, drink plenty of water, take frequent breaks and know the signs of heat exhaustion. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be an issue for staff and policyholders. The sheer extent of the devastation and the continuous exposure to loss can take a heavy emotional toll. Talking to co-workers, members of the clergy or a mental health professional can help an individual deal with the stress.

Be aware that stress affects each person differently, and cumulative stress can affect a person’s ability to function socially, physically and psychologically. Stress management techniques can include exercise, relaxation, meditation and other activities.

Even though adjusters are in the area to serve their policyholders, the insureds’ response may range from gratitude to extreme anger and frustration. The longer policyholders have had to cope with the devastation and loss, the more difficult their reactions may be.

Prudent adjusters will be well-prepared for most eventualities, be cautious about entering buildings or examining vehicles, and not knowingly place themselves or colleagues in dangerous positions. Hurricanes provide insurers with a unique opportunity to help policyholders, but keeping their adjusters safe should be a priority.

Additional resources:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Texas Department of Insurance

Texas road conditions and closures                                                                                                     

 

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