Eyewitness to Destruction, Hope: TOPA Insurance CEO Shares Caribbean Hurricane Experiences

By Amy O' Connor | October 4, 2017
This image made from video shows several damaged houses by Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Hurricane Irma weakened slightly Thursday with sustained winds of 175 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm boasted 185 mph winds for a more than 24-hour period, making it the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm was expected to arrive in Cuba by Friday. It could hit the Florida mainland by late Saturday, according to hurricane center models. (AP Photo/Ian Brown)

When Topa Insurance Group President and CEO John Donahue arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) just a few days after Hurricane Irma hit, one of the first things he noticed aside from the utter devastation was the look in the eyes of those who had been through the storm.

“This lady walked up to me and said, ‘You weren’t here during the hurricane, were you?'” Donahue recounted. “I said, ‘How do you know that?’ and she said, ‘I can see it in your eyes.’ And I told her ‘I can see that you have.’ They had a look – it’s a very tired look the people had. That struck me.”

He had no idea that just a few days later as he worked with his employees and customers on recovery from Irma, another catastrophic storm would come through – Hurricane Maria – and he too would have that look.

“I saw one of those guys in the mirror today when I was getting ready to go to work. It is just this, ‘what just happened?’ kind of feeling. It takes a little bit of time to shake it off,” he said. “I definitely see that the people that have been through it twice, I can see that it’s a ‘did this really just happen again?’ kind of look. People are anxious to get back to normal and I’m hoping that starts sooner rather than later.”

Donahue arrived in the USVI from the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, Calif., where Topa is headquartered, on Sept. 12 to help with recovery efforts and assist the carrier’s employees based there with claims handling from Hurricane Irma. The storm was a category 5 storm when it barreled through the Caribbean region on Sept. 6. Loss estimates for the U.S. and the Caribbean have ranged from $25 to $55 billion, according to various catastrophe modeling companies.

John Donahue
John Donahue

Donahue said he felt very strongly that he personally needed to go to the islands to ensure everything was being done to help the Topa Group’s USVI team, including its 22 employees living on the islands, and said sending himself was the “logical choice.”

“I didn’t feel right about not being here to support the team on the ground, assess our losses, get in front of our customers to reassure them that we’re here, and to get in front of the Department of Insurance and make sure that they know we’re dedicated to getting these people back and paid, trying to get them back to as normal as possible,” he said.

Topa Insurance Group, through its subsidiary, Dorchester Insurance Company, Ltd., writes a wide variety of policies on the U.S. Virgin Islands including personal auto, commercial auto, homeowners, business insurance and specialty jewelers coverage. Dorchester is the second largest writer of commercial lines in the VI and the fourth largest overall. It has about 5,000 customers between St. John and St. Thomas, and just about 30 policies in St. Croix, the three territories that make up USVI. Lloyds of London is the largest writer.

Donahue estimated the company had fewer than 1,200 wind policies affected by the storm between St. John and St. Thomas from Irma, and not all of those would become claims.

Arrival on the Islands

Donahue knew Hurricane Irma had been severe and caused destruction, but he was not at all prepared for what he saw when arrived by a Cessna aircraft that Tuesday.

“I landed in St. Thomas and it was really an amazing sight. There were several planes overturned on the tarmac or on the side of the tarmac,” he said. “The first thing I really noticed was this was a beautiful, green, plush island and now it’s brown…There was no green left. All the leaves were gone – the plants were blown away,” he said.

As he made his way through St. Thomas he took in more of Irma’s destruction that littered the island: structures with their roofs torn off, a completely demolished post office, boats on the beach or upside down. Electricity was spotty, but mostly out, so there were no working traffic lights, yet he said he was struck by how everyone was working together to keep traffic flowing and helping pedestrians get across the street.

Donahue went from St. Thomas to St. John, and said he was even more shocked by what he saw there, calling the damage “startling.”

“There’s a certain area of St. John where homes are just gone. In the downtown, the roofs are off a lot of the buildings. The commercial buildings took quite a hit,” he said. “It’s all bad from what I’ve seen, but that actually surprised me how bad that was.”

Donahue got to work with his team to begin taking claims, but said without electricity or phones working, it was difficult for customers get through.

“We don’t have electricity and our generator was destroyed, yet our people are sitting at a table and they’re using natural light. The neighbor lent us their extension cord so we can run a copy machine and we’re getting the First Notice of Loss done… We’re confirming coverage through our paper files and we’re assigning the adjuster,” he said.

He first spoke with Insurance Journal on Sept. 18 from the top of a hill where he could get cell reception. He said then adjusters had just started seeing properties and Topa was working on getting some funds to clients.

“The thing that has been the best part for me is sitting at the table, listening to people say they have a claim and they’re glad we’re here. They appreciate that we’re here,” he said.

Donahue and customers were even able to keep a sense of humor and enjoy some lighthearted moments.

“I had a gentleman in his 80s come in and ask if we could make him 30 years younger under our policy form, but I told him that that’s not covered,” he said. “But he was telling me that I should reread the policy and I promised him I’d do that.”

Topa’s employees have had to deal with their own recoveries while helping their customers. Donahue said some lost their homes and the company has been doing what it can to help, including redirecting funds assigned to go to two internal events to its employees in the USVI.

“That’s the hard part. People have been impacted personally, and we’re asking them to step up, so we’ve been very lax on trying to give them the ability to figure it out for themselves and know that we’re here to support them and what we do is important… we’re trying to balance all of that,” he said.

And Then Came Maria…

What Donahue wasn’t expecting when he arrived to the USVI was that Hurricane Maria was waiting in the wings. Just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, Maria battered St. Croix, about 40 miles away from St. Thomas and St. John.

Donahue hunkered down in a closet of where he was staying on St. Thomas with a bed of pillows on the floor, listening to the house straining and feeling the pressure changing in his ears.

“It was my first hurricane and I’m hoping it’s going to be my last hurricane,” Donahue said on a call with Insurance Journal days after Hurricane Maria passed through. “That experience was not one that I was banking on when I came down here after Irma. It was quite an experience. Something I don’t wish on anybody, actually.”

He said after Maria there was frustration among residents that another storm wiped out all of the clean-up efforts and progress that had been made toward recovery from Irma.

“All the cleanup that we did is back to where it was right after Irma. The streets look like they did after Irma. It took me three hours to drive 7 miles today to get to work because there’s so much debris in the road,” he said. “It’s frustrating for the people here because you go through the first one, you cleaned up…then you’re looking at your phone going ‘This can’t be coming right at us,’ but it’s exactly what happened.”

“Yeah, it was a punch in the gut because you make this progress and now, you got to start over…We’re talking about hosing down sidewalks, scraping with shovels, getting the mud out. We just completed all of that, so now, we’re doing it one more time,” he said.

But the people there are resilient, he said. “It’s amazing, people are just back to work. It’s the same guys that were cleaning the street are back cleaning the streets and trying to get back to normal again.”

St. Croix took a significant hit from Maria, but the good news for St. Thomas and St. Martin was that the while the storm brought heavy winds and rain, the islands avoided major damage. Donahue said their downtown office in St. Thomas had water damage from storm surge and the team got to work as soon as possible drying carpets and getting the mud out of the offices.

“I think we’re making great progress… We’re taking claims, we have adjusters out there; we’re trying to get people their benefits under their policy as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “[Maria] is just a setback but it’s not something that’s going to stop us from getting things done.”

Raising Awareness, Overcoming Obstacles

Donahue said he hoped to get the message out to those on the U.S. mainland about how bad the Caribbean is suffering in the wake of the recent storms, and residents on the islands are “genuinely frustrated” by the lack of awareness in the U.S. about what Irma did to the USVI.

“It’s totally appropriate to talk about Houston and Florida and the people impacted. But the feeling here is, ‘Hey, what about us? We’re part of the United States, too,'” he said. “That’s why I wanted to do this interview, just kind of get that out – that the USVI is really, really reeling. Their whole economy is based on tourism. The tourists are obviously not coming right now.”

In an effort to raise funds and awareness, Topa set up the Topa Insurance: Aid for US Virgin Islands Fund and Topa plans to match every donation, dollar for dollar up to $250,000. One hundred percent of the funds will go directly to the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI) – Fund for the Virgin Islands, established in response to Hurricane Irma. Topa said the CFVI has been operating in the USVI for more than 25 years and knows the areas that need it most. Every cent is used for those who need it and not diverted to administrative or other expenses. As of Oct. 2, Topa had raised $39,343, before the company’s match. Topa employees have personally donated $6,600 to the fund.

When asked if he thinks the islands will recover, Donahue said they will, but he doesn’t know when.

“I know they will in time. It’s just, how much time?” he said. “Hopefully sooner rather than later the ships will start coming in, the restaurants will reopen, the hotels will be repaired. It’s just going to take some time.”

The islands are safe, he said, but not stable, and getting stability back is a huge part of the healing and recovery process. For residents, stability will mean just being able to go to the grocery store. Donahue said that day he saw a line of 150 people waiting to get in to the store.

“Once it becomes more stable and there is the ability for people to just go to the grocery store and get back to normal, I think things will improve quickly here,” he said.

Donahue, who just left USVI to return to Los Angeles after three weeks on the islands, said the experience was a leadership challenge for him and those working with him on recovery efforts, but he was humbled and inspired by what he saw from residents.

“A couple of insureds came in to me and they were saying, ‘We can take this. We’re used to this. This is what we do. We get back to normal.’ There is that feeling on the island of this is what happens here and we’re going to rebuild,” he said.

“One 78‑year‑old lady said to me, ‘I’m alive.’ She brushed her clothes and said, ‘I’m good.’ That’s an attitude you do see and it’s amazing to watch.”

About Amy O' Connor

O'Connor is associate editor of MyNewMarkets.com. More from Amy O' Connor

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