As three Massachusetts towns continue to face the after effects of a series of natural gas explosions, finding some normalcy may seem nearly impossible. However, this is something MAPFRE Insurance was seeking to offer as it reached out to the impacted communities.
“One of the things we did that was kind of unique is that MAPFRE and our independent agencies provided a couple of televisions so people who were displaced could watch children’s television in the morning, and in the afternoon, they watched the Patriots game,” Patrick McDonald, CEO of MAPFRE Northeast, told Insurance Journal.
The blasts, which took place Sept. 13 in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence – three communities northwest of Boston – killed one and injured 25. As a result of the explosions, nearly 8,000 residents were evacuated and as many as 80 houses were destroyed in the largest natural gas pipeline accident in the United States since 2010, Reuters reported.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating the incident, which Columbia Gas has said affected 8,600 of its customers. Columbia Gas is part of utility operator NiSource, which, according to its website, serves 3.5 million natural gas and 500,000 electric customers nationwide.
In the midst of the chaos, however, MAPRE’s field team was able to spring into quick action, entering the affected area beginning Sept. 14 after the blasts, McDonald said. The company set up tents in designated disaster relief sites and sent its claims field team to work closely with independent agents, The Red Cross, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), local authorities and school districts in helping the community and reaching out to insureds, he said. It wasn’t alone in this approach, either.
“[The insurance industry] has stepped up in a big way, starting with the minute it happened,” said Cindy Traverso, managing member at North Andover, Mass.-based MTM Insurance Associates. “The minute [my partner carriers] heard what happened, they were reaching out to me…it’s very heartwarming. It’s been continual communication and asking, ‘What can I do to help your customers, and what can I do to help you?'”
Traverso said that while many of MTM Insurance Associate’s customers weren’t directly impacted by the large explosions, the agency has seen some claims for basement fires and several of its customers had to evacuate their homes. “The issues were two-fold – first, that they had to evacuate their homes, as did I – but secondly, that although they were allowed back in on Sunday (Sept. 16), many of them still don’t have gas,” she told Insurance Journal a week after the explosions.
McDonald said MAPFRE has seen a number of claims to date as well, and its teams have been visiting the sites that they can enter and paying as many claims as they can. Carla Degnan, president of Lawrence, Mass.-based Degnan Insurance, said the agency has already seen nearly 40 claims so far and the numbers are continuing to rise. Degnan added that in addition to residents, many small businesses in the area were hit hard by the tragedy.
“A business claim is a lot different than a homeowner or a property claim, and you have all of these businesses that can’t operate. They’re just losing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “We have a lot of small businesses here – a lot of restaurants and small mom-and-pop service businesses – that if they can’t operate, how are they going to pay their bills? A lot of people live in the area and have their business in the area. How are they going to survive?”
Degnan added that perhaps one of the most difficult parts has been an ongoing sense of uncertainty.
“That uncertainty that we all have as to when people are going to be able to get service again,” she said. “…that uncertainty is really scary.”
For Degnan Insurance, this uncertainty began the minute the explosions occurred, she explained. As the agency’s office is located in one of the affected areas, employees had to immediately leave the building on Sept. 13 in the afternoon.
“When we left the office building, there were fire alarms going off, you smelled smoke and you knew there were fires, but you didn’t really know what was going on,” she said.
Traverso, who also had to evacuate because she lives in an impacted area, echoed feelings of confusion and uncertainty.
“I was so sad. I was worried. I live in North Andover, have grown up here and been here all my life,” she said. “Initially, we didn’t know what happened, and we didn’t have a lot of communication. We left our home and went to another town and just kept the news on all night. It was so sad. You feel a lack of control. Very few instances in my life have alarmed me to that level where you felt a lack of control and you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
McDonald said that his employees were affected as well by seeing the towns after the explosions happened and the destruction that occurred, particularly to some of the homes.
“It’s a tragic experience for those involved,” he said.
That said, he also believes it points to the importance of the value independent agencies and insurance companies can bring to the table.
“They’re there in the community, and they’re helping out immediately,” he said. “Both us as the insurance company and the insurance agencies that represent us reacted very quickly and understood the challenges faced by those people that were impacted.”
Degnan agreed, adding that her agency’s carriers contacted the agency immediately asking how to help and offering lists of risks the agency may face.
“It has been deemed a catastrophic loss, so they are aware of the severity, and it’s not easy for some of the national carriers with these business claims, for example, because a lot of them are dealing with the hurricanes too at the same time,” she said. “It’s definitely not something that you expect, but everyone’s come together to help out.”
That said, uncertainty was still looming a week after the incident as to its lasting impact, with Degnan and others wondering how long residents and businesses could be without gas and hot water.
“In the long term, they’ll fix it and that’s fine,” she said. “But in the short term, how are they going to resolve it? How long is it going to last? Nobody knows.”
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