After Storms, Adjusters Blow into Disaster Areas

September 11, 2008

Barry Schoch’s cell phone comes to life with “When the Saints Go Marching In” — a reminder of the nine months he spent assessing damage from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

These days, the independent insurance adjuster is waiting for the jaunty ring tone to send him packing again. After a couple of slow hurricane seasons, he and thousands of other adjusters are set to head to U.S. coastlines and cities struck by heavy winds and strong rains.

“It’s going to be a busy year. No question about that,” Schoch said as he waited to hear whether he’d be surveying Hurricane Gustav claims along the Gulf Coast or staying near his Murrells Inlet home waiting for Tropical Storm Hanna work. As it turned out, Hurricane Ike had him on standby: “You might as well wait for it hit before you come down,” he was told by one company for which he works.

The freelancers, many with backgrounds in construction trades, come into play when big storms outstrip the staff insurance companies have to assess damages, delaying checks being cut and repairs being made. They head off to some of the county’s most beautiful spots each year, but usually when restaurants are shuttered, beaches are flooded and tourist sites abandoned.

They have tricks culled from experience in hard-hit regions and from dealing with people at the height of anguish. Most pack enough clothes for weeks at a time because power and untainted water may not be available. Still, some eschew blue jeans, believing slacks make them look more professional. And many agree that the worst disasters involve tornadoes because often there is so little warning to prepare.

“You’ve got a house and 10 minutes later you don’t,” Schoch said. “They just don’t have the time to get the mental situation resolved.”

It’s not steady work and many of the freelancers rely on handling regular claims from fires or thefts or do something else to make a living in between storms, said Tom Vaughan, vice president of the National Association of Catastrophe Adjusters.

“The money is tremendous at catastrophe time,” he said. Some adjusters can make up to $300,000 in six months — but they work long hours and then can go through some serious dry spells.

“What’s left after taxes and expenses are paid out, you’ve got to live on,” he said. “And wait for the next bad day.”

The past couple of years have been slow, said Vaughan and Schoch, who remember 2004 and 2005 as a couple of the busiest years in decades for catastrophe adjusters.

In 2004, six hurricanes struck the U.S.; in 2005, seven made landfall, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The average, including those two years, is just shy of two a year. In those two years, insurers had more than 5.5 million hurricane claims with losses that topped $81 billion. Hurricane Katrina alone accounted $41 billion in insured losses, according to Insurance Services Office Inc., which tracks insurance industry statistics.

In 2006, no hurricanes made landfall. In 2007, the insurance industry had relatively small losses from Hurricane Humberto and Tropical Storm Gabrielle. So far this year, the industry has handled more than $9 billion in insured losses from floods, wild fires, wind and hail storms and tornadoes, according to Insurance Services Office data.

Hurricane Gustav’s insured damages alone could range between $4 billion and $8 billion, according to Swiss Reinsurance Co., a Zurich, Switzerland-based insurer that serves as a financial backstop for regular insurance companies.

Depending on Hurricane Ike, insurance companies may be dealing with the claims from five storms at once, said Gary Kerney, who worked as an independent adjuster for a decade and is now an assistant vice president for Property Casualty Service, a unit of Insurance Services Office Inc. in Jersey City, N.J.

Independent adjusters follow the claims standards of the companies that hire them, are regularly supervised and get their work reviewed, said Kerney, who estimates there are about 15,000 company and independent adjusters who can handle claims in the U.S.

Some are paid by the hour and others by a percentage of the claims they handle. Some, but not all, tend to work for the same company disaster after disaster.

“Whoever calls first: first come, first served,” said Keith Rawls, a Williamston, N.C., adjuster who said he doesn’t bind himself to any company.

When catastrophes don’t light up his phone, Schoch — like other independent adjusters — has other insurance work to help make ends meet. In 2007, he handled the multimillion-dollar fire claim on the Hendersonville, Tenn., home that former Bee Gees member Barry Gibb bought from the estate of Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Brad Weyandt, who has been chasing disasters around the nation since 1975, was waiting Thursday for Hurricane Ike to make landfall, expecting to work close to his home near Houston.

Work once completed on IBM Selectric typewriters and with Polaroid cameras, is now performed using laptops that can wirelessly transmit digital photos and claims. Still, Weyandt said he prefers retractable tape measures to fancy laser measurement gear. Among his most traveled gear is a 13-foot ladder that collapses to 2 feet and special shoes that grip roofing shingles.

Ron Sanderson, a retired independent adjuster from Florence, said the business has its challenges and its perks.

Being away from home for a year at a time meant counting on relatives to look over his house and automatic bank drafts to keep bills paid on time. And adjusters tend to roll into places when electricity is out, so he bought a motor home and packed it with tools of the trade — computers, printers, calculators. For downtime, he’d pack fishing gear. Handling flood claims in Pennsylvania, he discovered he could catch trout with corn kernels and get them cooked up by another adjuster who traveled with a camp stove.

The experience also gave him some perspective for people when they thought all was lost.

“I’d tell them we can take care of this stuff,” Sanderson said. “This stuff can be replaced.”

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