This is Part 2 of a two-part interview series with Robert Wooley. Read Part 1: Meet the man who led the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort.
Robert Wooley, Commissioner of Insurance State of Louisiana during Katrina, discusses with NU Editor-in-Chief Shawn Moynihan some of the more unusual sights he witnessed in Katrina’s aftermath; helping insureds find solace in the face of disaster; and where New Orleans stands a decade after the hurricane.
Wooley, who has more than 20 years of extensive governmental relations experience, joined the multidisciplinary law firm of Adams and Reese in 2006 and serves on the governmental relations team of its Special Business Services Group.
Shawn: One of the things that you’re credited for was, saying right off the bat, “There’s going to be no policy cancellations,” which was a key moment in the recovery. I just wanted to know your thoughts on that.
Robert: Well, when the civil authority told people they weren’t going to be able to come back to their homes and their businesses for six, possibly eight weeks, I knew people couldn’t get their mail. So how would you go about cancelling somebody’s policy, because you’ve got to mail them a notice? They don’t have a job; not because of their fault. It was like the first seven days, every day I’d wake up and I’d think of something like that, like, “Wait a minute, these people aren’t going to be able to access their mail. In fact, the post office was closed, so how would you get your cancelation notice and know that you’re being canceled to be able to do anything about it?”
Plus, guess what: You don’t even have a job, so how would you even pay for your premium? There were just a lot of things that came to light when you started sitting down and thinking about the average person coming back and trying to put their lives back together.
(Photo: David Hicks, an insurance adjuster walks around to check a collapsed house in New Orleans, La.AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
I have to tell you, I thought the industry did a great job. I think they stood up to their promises under their contracts, I think that they bent over backward to work with us, to help people get back on their feet. I’ve always said that I was so proud not only of my staff, but I was proud of the industry. I thought they stepped up to the plate. They spent billions of dollars to rebuild our state.
All I asked our legislature to do was, “Look, these people are coming in and they’re paying their claims, let’s try to stay out of their way. Let’s don’t do knee-jerk things to cause them problems because they’re coming in and doing what they promised to do. They’re going to pay claims.”
Shawn: Do you remember the day [now PIA National President] Richie Clements (right) showed up to the Department of Insurance and you gave him a little nook to work in, where he could start processing claims when the storm subsided? Did insureds even know who to call?
Robert: Yes. He called me and he said, “I don’t know why I did this, but I grabbed my file server as I was leaving St. Bernard Parish. I put it in the back of the car and I brought it with me.” He said, “My problem is, I can’t find a place to work. There’s no place to get an office. I’ve called and called and called.” I said, “Look, why don’t you come down here. We’ve got space behind the Hearing Room. There’s an area where we can set you up with a card table. We can get you a phone line and you can start trying to help people pay claims.”
A lot of people didn’t realize that’s where the claims process starts. It starts with the insurance agent. In fact, what we really found out was most people don’t know who their insurance company is. Unless they had a national advertised name that’s on TV every night, they just knew, “Oh Joe’s my insurance agent, so I need to get in touch with Joe.” Well, Joe evacuated too, and he’s not here. So we knew that every agent had an appointment for the company they wrote for. So if you’re an independent agent, you might have five different companies that you were writing business for.
Homes remain flooded to the roof by flood waters from Hurricane Katrina Monday, Sept. 5, 2005 in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
What we’d do is we’d take the insured’s name, we’d take the agent’s name and we would send out a blast e-mail to those five companies he had appointments with and ask when they have a match to send it back to us. So then, we could get back in touch with the person that called in and say, “This is the name of your insurance company and here’s an 800 number that you can call to start the claims process until Joe gets back into town.”
The fact that we did have a few agents that were able to get back in touch with their constituents and their clients themselves, that was great. So if Richie needed some room, I felt like we could probably help him and provide some. He was one of the larger agents in St. Bernard Parish, and that was one of the most devastated areas in our state.
Shawn: He couldn’t even get back into his own neighborhood for weeks, and here he is processing claims for all his clients.
Shawn: Where do you feel the city is now, 10 years later?
Robert: The average tourist hasn’t even noticed it because in the French Quarter and the places where most tourists would go, that’s the high ground in New Orleans that was formed by the river flooding over hundreds of years. It’s out in the suburbs in the Lower Ninth Ward in St. Bernard Parish where you have to go to see still the impacts of the people that haven’t come back. But it’s a resilient city, and even though some people aren’t going to come back, there are other people who say an opportunity and did come to New Orleans.
I think it’s progressed fairly well. In fact, at the time, I looked to another major disaster in another major city and I read a lot about Kobe, Japan, that had had a devastating earthquake, and it took them about 11 years, they said, to build back. So that’s why whenever I would get before the people on radio or TV, I’d say, “Look, this is not going to be a sprint; this is a marathon. So everybody needs to realize that and react accordingly, because you’ll burn yourself out. So we’re just going to have to realize that we have almost a million claims in a single day and it’s going to take some while to sort it out.”
I wasn’t happy about it, but those were the cards we were dealt and we just had to make the best of it — and that’s what we did.
Dr. Rose Bergeron-Birch talks with an insurance claims adjuster outside of her flood-damaged home near the 17th Street Canal Friday, Oct. 7, 2005, in New Orleans. (AP photo/Mel Evans)
Shawn: I’m sure that during the weeks that followed the storm, you were talking to a lot of folks and it was almost therapy for them to be able to talk to you and talk to some other people. Can you talk about maybe what that was like?
Robert: It was interesting that [claimants] just wanted somebody to listen to them. And it was very important for somebody to listen to them. A lot of the phone calls we got weren’t as aggravated as you would think they would’ve been. I mean a lot of people were calm when they would call, they just had questions. Some of them just wanted to tell their story, and so we all decided that we would just be good listeners for that period of time because that’s what people needed was somebody to listen to them.
So we did. And even the ones that were angry, I mean you just listened to them and said, “Look, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but we’re going to try to help you. We’re going to do everything in our power to try and get you some help. We can’t promise we’re going to solve all your problems but we’ll promise you we’re going to try,” and so that’s what we did.
I took some of my campaign funds and bought a used RV, and we set up a satellite dish because a lot of people had no access to the Internet. So we would try to go in some areas and we would take some people with us, and a lot of the people that we took were people that came in from other states. There were consumer representatives from other departments of insurance that knew how to handle these situations, and they were great. They sent us people on a regular basis.
So we would go out to some of the more devastated areas that still didn’t have utilities, didn’t have Internet access and we would answer their questions and give them access to the Internet for the first time in some cases, a month to a month and-a-half.
Shawn: I’m sure you must have an enormous amount of pride in how the industry was able to respond to a crisis of Katrina’s magnitude.
Robert: It was utterly great. I think if you look at it, the meeting we had in Atlanta was important.
(Right: Wooley speaking at the gathering of the insurance industry in Atlanta after Katrina.)
The fact that we brought in the senior claims people from the companies was important. The other thing that we did that was very important: We had a mediation program, and that was actually something that was requested by the insurance industry. They said, “We will pay for a mediation program, because we think it will help move some of these claims along.”
If you recall, our court systems were shut down. The St. Bernard Courthouse had been flooded. They didn’t have access to their own records. The same thing here in New Orleans Parish. There were a lot of records that had to be restored, and so there was no court system. So by having this arbitration system set up, it gave people a forum and a neutral party to listen to their side of the story and make some judgments about what they were entitled to.
I think that was another tremendous thing that was done in this instance that worked out very well.
Rescue boats with members of the U.S. Coast Guard and a rescue task force from California move along Elysian Fields Avenue near the University of New Orleans on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Shawn: We talked on the phone about some of the more bizarre sites. Like you mentioned you’d come in a few weeks later and there would be a boat hanging from a telephone pole.
Robert: Yeah, the sheriff’s deputy picked me up and we were driving in and I didn’t want to ask at first, but I kept seeing these boats hanging from telephone poles. Finally I said, “What’s the story on the boats hanging from telephone poles,” and he said, “Well, when we were rescuing people, our boats ran out of gas so we had no way to get gas to refuel them. So we would find boats floating with their trailers on them. We’d cut the trailers off, we’d hotwire the engine and we would use the boat for rescue until it ran out of gas. When it ran out of gas, we didn’t want them just floating all around and banging into peoples’ houses and things, so we’d tie them off and the tallest thing that was still left above water were telephone poles. So we would tie these boats off on the telephone poles and when the water receded, they would just be hanging from or kind of lying on the ground with a rope up in the air.” It was a surreal sight.
I’d never seen a 3,000-square-foot brick house moved, foundation and all, a mile from where it was built. I mean the force of water is just an unbelievable thing that you don’t really appreciate until you see things like that.
Shawn: There were some good things came out of this storm. We drove around for two days back in January and we were looking at a lot of the progress that’s been made. Some of the beautiful state of the art schools paid for with FEMA money are just incredible.
Robert: Yes. In fact, after the storm, the first cabinet meeting that I went to with the governor and everyone; they were scared the state was going to become bankrupt. I said, “I watched Florida in 2004, and the one thing that I did learn there is that you’re going to have sales tax revenue that you never have seen before in your life because everybody is going to be replacing cars. Because when they evacuated they only took one car and a lot of people have two and three cars. They are going to be replacing appliances in their home. I mean, just think of the rebuilding effort alone, and the sales tax that that’s going to generate.”
I said, “If I were you, I would be taking a look at infrastructure projects in New Orleans that you always wanted to do but you never had the money to do, because you’re now going to have money to do some things that you’ve never had access to before. You’re going to have some money to do some good things with.”
And they did. They did some planning. Not as much as I thought probably should’ve been done but it was substantial. And like you said, we’ve got some nice things to show for it. It’s been a good experience in the end.