Most insurance agents in Texas have never faced the damage caused by a catastrophic storm. Thankfully, massive hailstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes have been few and far between in our state. But, Hurricane Rita changed all of that when it struck the southeast corner of Texas during the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 24.
According to the Insurance Council of Texas, Texas Farm Bureau insurance agent Johnny Swafford of Woodville had been keeping a close eye on Rita’s projected landfall. He and his wife live on Lake Sam Rayburn located about 30 miles north of Woodville. As the crow flies, Woodville is 90 miles from Sabine Pass, right where Rita would strike.
Swafford’s in-laws, who are in their 80s, decided to evacuate their home in Groves, just north of Port Arthur, and meet at Swafford’s lake house. As soon as they arrived some 10 hours later, Swafford told his wife and her parents, that they needed to leave for a safer place. The lake house was located five miles back in the woods and they would be stranded there if they stayed. They drove 50 miles away to Lufkin and the four of them stayed at the Lufkin Farm Bureau office for the next two days.
The storm quickly passed over them, but its 100 mile per hour winds damaged everything in its path. Huge trees had toppled over roads, power lines and homes making transportation difficult.
Swafford knew he had policyholders who were going to be in bad shape in Woodville and he had to get back to work as quickly as possible. Eighty percent of his policyholders would file a claim.
He was able to return to his Woodville office Monday morning and he found all power out. He had no electricity to operate his computers, phones, lights or air conditioning.
Swafford’s first call for assistance went to James Anderson, the Texas Farm Bureau agency manager in Conroe. By the end of the day Anderson had purchased an $1,800 generator and the Woodville agency now enough power to operate phones, that were ringing the second the electricity was plugged in.
The agency’s staff of seven either showed up for work Monday morning or was hacking their way through downed trees to make it there. Everyone began taking calls, writing down addresses and phone numbers and offering their insureds a 1-800 number to call in their claims. The staff dressed in shorts and T-shirts and many whose homes had well water went days without a hot bath. They would take calls until the sun went down. Swafford would call it the hottest four days of his life.
Agency secretary Valerie Sisk said there was just so much we could do at the beginning. “The people were patient and very understanding with the situation we were faced with.”
Swafford’s staff answered calls and offered assistance while working in an office in 100 degree heat.
“The homes of most of my staff members had been damaged, but they continued to show up every day and work from daylight to dark,” said Swafford. “They never complained.”
Within three days claims adjusters began arriving. Each adjuster was accompanied by a Woodville agent so they could find the home and discuss the situation with their policyholder.
“I wanted to help the adjusters find these homes. Plus, I just wanted to be there. We rode every day together including Saturdays. We rested on Sundays,” Swafford said. “These people bought their policies from me and they felt better once they saw me.” Many of Swafford’s policyholders were longtime friends and young adults who he had seen grow up in Woodville.
Jerry and Murielene Hatton of Woodville had a huge oak tree come crashing through their home. “Within a week and before the tree had even been removed, an adjuster had come by and had added up our losses,” said Murielene Hatton.
Adjusters averaged about seven claims a day. At the end of their day, they would be forced to drive at least 50 miles to find a place to sleep. All of this time help kept coming in.
Along with a generator Anderson brought three 55 gallon drums of gasoline to power the generators that were working overtime.
The agency manager in Palestine, Sonny Guess, brought much needed fuel and other supplies including ice, water, groceries and clothes. He also brought an electric pumper that worked off a car battery that was used to pump gas into vehicles.
The agency’s staff members assisted people who showed up in person including the man with two grandbabies in his car. With no stores open, the man left the agency with cold water and enough diapers for a week.
FEMA and the National Guard arrived with much-needed cots and drinking water.
Swafford and his family had moved to his son in law’s home in Woodville that was without electricity for the first two weeks. Swafford’s own home had been damaged, but he was happy to have a roof over his head.
Swafford’s agency received several hundred claims and he said all but 40 of them felt satisfied with their compensation checks. “We went back over those 40 claims and agreed to pay them a little more and now everybody’s content,” said Swafford.
Swafford said he has seen every one of his policyholders who had damage and 90 percent of them have been settled. In his 25 years of selling insurance in Woodville, he had never seen anything cause this much damage.
Woodville and Tyler County was expected to have 15,000 claims of the 195,000 claims that were submitted. Insured losses from Hurricane Rita in Texas were estimated at $2.2 billion. More than 400 thousand acres of pine and hardwood trees were either damaged or destroyed at a loss of $833 million.
Discounting the complaints received against Allstate because of their pending case involving ALE payments, the Texas Department of Insurance reports they have received 219 complaints against all other insurers from the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
Two weeks after Hurricane Rita hit, Swafford was visited by the Farm Bureau’s CEO, Vernie Glasson, Executive Vice President Wayne Lee, head of Claims, Steve Williams and state director Albert Thompson who came to offer assistance and their gratitude for his work.
“I can’t say enough for the company I work for. It’s great when you can come through when you’re needed the most,” said Swafford. “To be successful, you treat people the way you want to be treated. If you don’t help the people who got you where you are, you will see them on the way down.”
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