For North Carolina-headquartered global insurance broker AmWINS Group Inc., Hurricane Florence isn’t just a storm that will affect insureds – many of its own employees and agents are also directly in the storm’s path.
With 385 employees between Charlotte, Burlington, and Morehead City N.C. and Charleston, S.C., and 7,000 retail agents in the region, the global insurance brokerage was busy preparing this week for what could be one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Carolinas in decades.
“This will be a significant storm for AmWINS, our clients, and the industry,” said Josh Ammons, senior vice president of Property in AmWINS Brokerage of the Carolinas.
AmWINS offices along the coast of Morehead City, N.C., and Charleston, S.C., were closed because of mandatory evacuation orders earlier this week. At the company’s headquarters in Charlotte, AmWINS was taking a “wait and see” approach as of Wednesday until it was known what Florence’s impact on that area would be.
“Safety is a top priority for us. If we have any concern about employees getting to the office or their safety we will make the call to close the office and put their safety first,” said Ammons, who was born and raised in North Carolina.
The hurricane began its landfall as a Category 2 in the Carolinas on Thursday night, but was downgrading to a Category 1 shortly before midnight EST. Florence was expected to reach its peak in the region Friday morning, with heavy rains lingering through the weekend. According the to the National Hurricane Center, dangerous storm surge is expected across the coast of the Carolinas and rain fall of up to 40 inches could occur in some areas of North Carolina. Storm surge of up 11 feet was also possible in North Carolina.
As an insurance brokerage with more than 5,000 commercial and residential policyholders in the region that could be potentially affected by the storm, many employees who were evacuated are now working remotely to assist their clients. Tucker said the company sent a bulletin with preparation and claims info to all retailers with policies in North and South Carolina and a “Hurricane Update” page is up on AmWINS’s website. Tucker said they will be ready to jump in when the storm is over, too.
“Certainly, when the storm passes we will have a lot of work on our hands and we have the resources to handle an event like this,” said Harry Tucker, executive vice president and National Property Practice leader for AmWINS, who is based in New York. “This is our time to shine – this is what we do.”
Ammons said he personally started reaching out to agents and insureds last weekend to let them know Florence was shaping up to be a significant event. Most carriers have binding moratoriums in place so placing new business and renewals has come to a halt. He has been focused on “being proactive” and providing carriers’ claims call-in numbers to clients and “letting them know we are there for them personally and professionally.”
AmWINS staff has been communicating with the company’s coastal agents and offering them a place to stay that is out of harm’s way, including in their own homes.
“I’ve seen so many people going above and beyond,” Ammons said.
As is often the case with catastrophes, some coastal residents will not heed evacuation orders and instead ride out the storm. They will be looking for support from their agents to start the recovery as soon as possible, Ammons said.
“It’s their businesses and homes and their livelihood so there are a lot of people are sticking around,” he said.
The biggest concern he has heard from agents is about the potential for storm surge, how that is defined in the policy, and flash flooding. Ammons said many insureds further inland don’t purchase flood insurance unless they are required to do so by a lender. And many of those who do have the coverage purchase the minimum requirement, which typically doesn’t include business interruption coverage.
With preparations and evacuation orders in effect since early this week and the storm expected to last through early next week, lost income to businesses will be significant.
Ammons said another concern is the large number of homes in North and South Carolina that are wood frame, which may not hold up well to a hurricane of Florence’s magnitude.
The population of the Carolinas has also grown since the last major storm, particularly along the coast, meaning there are more residents that will be affected and fewer who have been through a major hurricane.
“Its difficult to understand the impact of the growth we have seen over the last decade on the Carolina coastline,” he said. “Building codes are updated and we are putting a lot of trust in that … but we still have a lot of condos and single-family residences that are wood-frame construction so this storm will definitely be a test.”
Ammons said because storms like Florence don’t happen every year, people often question what their insurance is paying for.
“It’s frustrating for them, but the reality is it’s for times like these – when it happens our carriers are going to be there to pay the claims,” he said.
Tucker said it’s still too early to tell what the losses from Florence will be, but the insurance industry will play a crucial role in the rebuilding and recovery process.
“For us as professionals we need to do everything we can to make sure the claims get paid in accordance to the policy as quickly as possible and that we bring people’s lives back together,” he said.
AmWINS is also prepared to assist any employees or its partner agents and brokers who could deal with losses.
“At the end of the day we are all human; we are all affected and expect our own AmWINS family could be impacted and will do whatever we can to work with them through this process,” Ammons said.
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