Robert Wooley, commissioner of insurance for the State ofLouisiana during Katrina, discusses with NU/PC360 Editor-in-ChiefShawn Moynihan the long days and nights following “The Storm,” thewisdom of not making unrealistic promises in the face ofdesperation, and lessons learned for the insurance industry fromthe most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

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Wooley, who has more than 20 years of extensive governmentalrelations experience, joined the multidisciplinary law firm ofAdams and Reese in 2006 and serves on thegovernmental relations team of its Special Business ServicesGroup.

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Shawn Moynihan: Let’s talk about the daysleading up to Katrina, because, as I understand it, you knew thatit was going to be bad but nowhere nearly as bad as the storm was.There was really no precedent for a catastrophic event of thatscale.

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Robert Wooley: Actually, we were supposed toattend a conference in Biloxi on Monday or Tuesday; I told thepeople who were going, “Let’s watch that storm, because right nowit looks like it’s going to skirt the coast of Florida and go in atthe elbow.” All weekend long, they kept moving the cone furtherwest, further west, further west until finally, Sunday is when theydecided to evacuate New Orleans. So that’s when we knew that it wasgoing to be an event, but we’d had a lot of events in the yearsleading up to it.

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And in fact, people had gotten kind of lax in preparing forstorms, because we had some false alarms where people would leave,and then they would come back, rake up a few leaves and it just waskind of a non-event. So people were a little lax, I think, becausewe had had so many close calls that really didn’t hit and so Idon’t think people took it as seriously until the mayor and thegovernor and a lot of other people got on TV and said, “We’ve beentold by the National Weather Service that this is going to bebad.”

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Shawn: Do you remember the moment when youfinally realized that this was a serious event that was nothinglike the city had seen before, and knowing that you were going tobe at the center of it?

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Robert: I got a phone call from Terry Lisotta,who was at that time running Louisiana Citizens Property InsuranceCorp. He lived in St. Bernard Parish and he told me, “St. Bernardis under about 12 feet of water.”

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Then you’d start to hear reports about levees and whetherthey were failing or overtopping, but nobody was really sure, butwater was starting to flood into the city. It was pretty immediate,and then you started seeing some of the first helicopter pictureswhere they were flying over the New Orleans Marina and showed theSouthern Yacht Club on fire and just burning to the waterline. Youstarted to get reports bit by bit.

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Above: Floodwaters fromHurricane Katrina pour through a levee along Inner HarborNavigaional Canal near downtown New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005, a dayafter Katrina passed through the city. (AP Photo/Pool, VincentLaforet)

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A resident is rescued by the U.S.Coast Guard from the roof top of a home in New Orleans on Aug. 30,2005. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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Shawn: A lot of the people I’ve talked to aboutthat time credit you as being the one who was the anchor, the onewho was able to marshal the troops and be that calm focus in thecenter of everything. Do you remember the whole process that youwent through to keep it together for everybody else?

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Robert: Yes. I called my senior staff and Isaid, “Right now they’re in the rescue phase, but we’re going to bethe most important part of the recovery phase, because that’s wherethe money is coming from. The federal government is going to put upsome, but the insurance industry is going to put up most of themoney that’s going to rebuild the city of New Orleans and we needto be there to help make that go smoothly.”

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We actually came in [to work] right away. We had generators. Wemanaged to get the word out and asked our employees — even thoughmost of the employees were being told to stay home — if they couldcome in, and they did. I was amazed. They all showed up, they allwere ready to go.

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We sat down and had several meetings where we just kind ofdiscussed, what are we going to do? We can’t get overrun on thephones. We’re going to have tens of thousands of phone calls a dayor maybe a week. We didn’t know, quite frankly.

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We started immediately and set up a phone system and a phoneline. We actually had an overrun system. We bought a phone bank inanother state in case our line did become overrun; I didn’t wantpeople put on hold forever, so we made sure that that wouldn’thappen to people because that would’ve been just aggravation uponaggravation for callers.

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My staff was working seven days a week, 12-hour days afterKatrina, taking phone calls from people. One of the things that wetalked about that we did not want to do was tell people, “We knowwhat you’re going through,” because until you’ve lost everythingyou own in a single day, I don’t think you can really understandwhat that’s like.

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We worked 12-hour days all the way probably through New Year’s;we found that the most phone calls we ever got was the Monday afterThanksgiving, and that’s because families got together and startedtalking about their insurance settlements. So our peak call timewas the Monday after Thanksgiving. That’s the one time that we didget our phones overrun and we actually had to use the backupsystem, the Monday after Thanksgiving. It was rewarding to seepeople helping their fellow citizens and not minding it.

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Shawn: How did carriers then come into thepicture?

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Robert: We needed to communicate with theindustry. So what we decided to do was, we wanted to have a meeting[with carrier executives] and have as many people participate asthey could, but we knew we couldn’t have it in Louisiana becausethere were no hotel rooms. So we decided to do it in Atlanta. Sothe week after Katrina, we had a meeting at the airport Hilton inAtlanta, Ga., and it was an amazing turnout. I had never seen somany people.

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Wooley speaks aboutcommunications as he addresses a hurricane emergency insurancesummit in Atlanta on Sept. 7, 2005. Wooley urged insuranceofficials in states affected by Hurricane Katrina to be quick torespond to people's needs and discussed a proposed plan to help tothe storm's victims. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

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I didn’t want to just start putting out [public] edicts thatlooked like I was helping people, when in fact, there were thingsthat the industry couldn’t do administratively. It would beimpossible for them to do. So I wanted input from the industry tomake sure that, if we tell you this is what we need you to do, weknow it’s going to be a hardship, but can you do it, and will itmake a difference in your business, and can it help yourconstituents?

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We had a great meeting; it lasted all day. Everybody was able toprovide input and the biggest thing that came out of that, welearned how to communicate with each other, because — I forget howmany people were there, but it was several hundred.

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A lot of [insurance industry] people might have the samequestions for us, so if they started calling into the office, itwould have been impossible to deal with. So we selected four orfive trade associations that most everyone belonged to, and gavethem the answers to a lot of the types of questions we anticipated.It made a huge difference, because just in the first few days wesaw that we could have quickly become overrun by being asked thesame questions over and over again.

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The other thing that we did that I thought made a tremendousdifference was, we asked the top 10 insurance carriers to send us asenior claims person to live in Baton Rouge and to come to ouroffice every day that my staff was there working the 12-hour daysand they committed to doing that. What that did was, instead of ushaving to call an 800 number, we quickly found that we would getthe same call about the same company six or seven times.

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So when that would happen, my folks would come out of the roomwhere they were taking the phone calls, and walk across the hall tothe company who had their representative there and say, “Hey, wejust got eight calls in the last hour with the same issue.Something’s broken in your system, can you figure out how to fixit?” It made a tremendous difference. You could see things startflowing smoother, the number of calls would drop and it reallyworked well. It was a great thing that we did.

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Shawn: I want to talk about some of thehigh-level decisions that had to be made in the aftermath of thestorm, some of the hard questions that had to be asked aboutcertain areas that would never be the same again.

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Robert: There were a lot of issues that peopledidn’t anticipate, such as, what if some people didn’t come back?We knew there were going to be people that wouldn’t come back thatmoved to Baton Rouge, maybe moved to Houston or another state, andthey probably weren’t going to come back and rebuild. They weregoing to take whatever money they could and start a new lifesomewhere else. So were enough people going to come back [to aparticularly hard-hit area] to, say, bring back utilities to acertain neighborhood. Because if you’re only going to have oneperson come back in a neighborhood, then would it really be worthit to do that?

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A foundation of a formerstructure is seen with new construction in the background in theLower 9th Ward in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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The government started to have to think about those things. Wethought that there might be massive demolitions in St. BernardParish. We found out that the hurricane cleanup crews used a gridsystem, and they would systematically clean up areas. We wanted todo that with adjusters in St. Bernard Parish, so we got theindustry on the phone and we said, “Look, there might be massdemolitions in St. Bernard Parish because of the extent of theflooding. So what we would like to do is just make sure that we’renot just sending adjusters all over the area, if we can [instead]do it in a systematic way.”

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So we set up a grid map, and every week we gave the targets onthe grid map that we wanted the industry to send in their adjustersand start the adjustment process so that we could movesystematically through St. Bernard Parish, in case we did have todo that. Now we didn’t end up having to do that, but at the time weweren’t sure.

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So there were a lot of things like that that the government hadnever dealt with before, individuals had never dealt with before,and so it was a learning experience for everyone.

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In Part 2 of this interview, former commissioner Wooleydiscusses some of the more unusual sights he witnessed in Katrina’saftermath, helping insureds find solace in the face of disaster,and where New Orleans stands a decade after the hurricane.

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Shawn Moynihan

Shawn Moynihan is Editor-in-Chief of National Underwriter Property & Casualty. A St. John’s University alum, Moynihan has earned 11 Jesse H. Neal Awards, the Pulitzers of the business press; seven Azbee Awards, from the American Society of Business Press Editors; two Folio Awards; and a SABEW award, from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers. Prior to joining ALM, he served as Managing Editor/Online Editor of journalism institution Editor & Publisher, the trade bible of the newspaper industry. Moynihan also has held editorial positions with AOL, Metro New York, and Newhouse Newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].