The page has finally turned on the tumultuous 2018 hurricane season, but for the agents who live and work in the Florida Panhandle the story isn’t over – personally or professionally.
“We all still feel like we’re in hurricane mode all the time. When internet and phones are still down, there’s a tarp on your roof, tent cities in our town, and you drive home with big mounds of debris on either side of the road in your neighborhood, it sure doesn’t feel like hurricane season is over,” said Trey Hutt, president of Hutt Insurance Agency.
Hurricane Michael devastated the area when it hit on Oct. 10 at near Category 5 strength. It was the largest storm to hit the region on record, bringing widespread destruction. Nearly two months later, residents are still picking up the pieces and insurance agents are right beside them helping, preparing meals for displaced residents, assuring customers that carriers will take care of them, and acting as a resource for whatever they need.
“There are personal stresses on everyone and we are doing a lot to manage those stresses and panic. I think my job over the past [several] weeks has been 80 percent psychology and 20 percent insurance because a lot of it has just been calming people down and reassuring them,” said Hutt, who has two agency locations in the Florida Panhandle, one in Panama City and one in Lynn Haven.
Insurance agency owner Karen Kirkland, who owns Kirkland Insurance Agency in Lynn Haven, expressed relief that hurricane season is officially over, though she said she didn’t even realize it at first because she has been so busy helping customers.
“This will give us time to focus on the claims on hand and focus completely on them,” she said.
Agents in the area say the last couple months have been the most challenging in their careers, but they also learned some valuable lessons to carry forward into future hurricane seasons.
The impact of this season has taken a toll.
“Hurricane Michael casts a shadow over everything around here, and pictures can’t get that across well,” Hutt added. “I really didn’t expect the drastic impact – I expected what we normally see after a hurricane. This was so much greater than we expected. The magnitude was so much greater and severe.”
One particular challenge agents said they didn’t anticipate was being unable to communicate following the storm. Power was out for at least seven to 10 days, if not longer in some areas, and cell service and internet from the Verizon Wireless, the main provider in the area, were down for a long period as well. That made assisting customers even more challenging.
Hutt said living in Florida means you prepare every year for hurricane season, but the preparations he had in place fell apart when his generator gas line broke, leaving him without power for just over a week and forcing them to resort to taking claims by hand. In addition, his internet and cell service through Verizon was out for 10 days.
Hutt’s Lynn Haven office was also badly damaged by the hurricane and it remains closed. He and his family rode out the storm at that location because the office building is concrete and they thought it was the safest place to be. However, the force of the wind was so powerful it took the roof right off the building.
“We were as prepared as you can be, but we were not prepared for the severity and intensity of the storm,” said Hutt.
Hutt is not alone in feeling he was not totally prepared for a storm like Michael.
“If it had been a lesser storm I would say yes, but since it was a Cat 4 or maybe stronger – I don’t know if anybody speaking honestly is prepared for a storm of this magnitude,” said Anthony DuBose, president of Coastal Community Insurance Agency in Panama City Beach, Fla., and current chairman of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents (FAIA).
With no power or internet, Dubose drove two hours to Alabama to use an internet hotspot. He said FAIA also provided burner phones and supplies to help them in the days after Michael.
“With their help we got on our feet and talked to carriers and clients. … We had to deal with things you don’t think about before the storm,” he said.
Dubose’s agency of 11 employees has about 6,000 policyholders, about 1,500 of whom are experiencing claims from Michael. The losses range from small to substantial, and for the majority of clients it was a wind event and not a flood event.
Several of his employees also suffered losses.
“We were battling issues in our personal lives and trying to take care of customers,” he said.
Karen Kirkland wanted to check on her clients the Saturday after the hurricane but she was low on gasoline for her car. So she rode her bike into nearby neighborhoods to make sure her insureds were alright.
Once it became clear there would not be power or internet for awhile, she relocated to stay with family in South Carolina for three weeks following the storm where she helped more than 500 of her customers – nearly half of her total policyholders – who had claims.
“I knew I would be able to work at that location and it would be a long time until I could operate here,” she said. “Taking my phone and computer to an offsite location [before the storm] was probably the smartest thing I could have done. I worked 14-hour days for three weeks only slowing down some on the weekends because the calls slowed down.”
Internet service at her office only came back on Nov. 21, so until then she processed payments at a friend’s house nearby. She said keeping up with claims and not having internet in her office for so long has taken a toll on her ability to recruit new business – she has gone from issuing 60 quotes a month to just 5 since Michael.
Hutt said he saw about 2,200 claims from his 6,000 policyholders. The majority of the claims were tree damage to buildings, There were also some heavy commercial claims from concrete buildings that were blown through or cinder block walls “completely blown down.”
“I didn’t think that was possible. The physics were both impressive and frightening,” he said.
Taveras Horne, co-owner of a Brightway franchise in Mariana, The Ephriam & Horne Agency, said the Brightway headquarters in Jacksonville was able to take all of his calls while the phone and internet were down for about a week. But it was still frustrating not to have a “decent form” of communication.
“I don’t take the small things for granted anymore,” he said.
Horne said the majority of his more than 1,000 policyholders had some sort of property damage.
Despite some criticism from state officials who have said some carriers are not handling claims expeditiously, the agents say carriers have been very responsive and efficient at handling customer claims.
The ones that have really stood out are those who have communicated with customers and have the resources to respond quickly, said Dubose.
“When you are dealing with people’s homes and businesses and they are displaced, the main thing is to assure them you will get them back where they were before the storm occurred,” he said.
Horne said the response from carriers has been pretty good, but there have also been some complaints.
“It’s a mixed bag. Some people are satisfied with the claims process and some aren’t. The volume of claims is so large that the response isn’t meeting everyone’s expectations,” he said. “Overall from my viewpoint, carriers have responded pretty well but there is always room for improvement.”
Hutt said his agency has filled in the gap for policyholders whose carriers aren’t meeting their expectations. Being able to make direct contact with carriers has been a real advantage.
“The most important thing after a catastrophe like this is you have to move outside of normal networks. It’s important we get access to those with the ability to address problems directly,” he said. “When I get the phone number of a [carrier] senior VP and [they] can directly respond to that bit of information and solve it, it’s invaluable to us as agents and prevents carriers from having major problems down the road.”
Kirkland said carriers have separated themselves by how quickly they provide supplemental payments and close claims.
She said knowing carrier reps has been helpful because she can reach out to people and get answers for her customers. She has learned her work is appreciated.
“I didn’t know how important this was to my customers until I got back [to my office],” she said. “I’ve had a number of customers thank me for the emails and contact I have given them since the storm. Everyone needs a local agent, and everyone needs to know who their agent is because of circumstances like this.”
The agents say they have learned valuable lessons, including what they will do differently going forward.
“I would like to do a better job of making sure that we sit down with clients, not just on an annual basis, but have numerous interactions with customers throughout the year,” Horne said. “We want all of our customers to understand all the details of their policies so there aren’t any surprises.”
Kirkland said every year she sends out an annual review invitation for her clients to go over their policy but not everyone responds. She expects this year all her customers will come in and review their coverages.
She also thinks Hurricane Michael was a growth experience for agents, too.
“Every agent that has gone through this will be a much better agent for having gone through it – hands down no comparison,” she said.
Hutt said going forward he we will have a more extensive plan and back up plan to handle situations that could arise after a catastrophic event, such as a long-term loss of communication.
“I will be doing a rewrite of our Cat plan after this to include a deeper contingency bench; instead of just having a Plan A and Plan B, we will have a Plan A, B, C, D, E,” he said. “We are going to plan a lot better for infrastructure failure.”
Horne said he was touched by all the help from people in the industry who are located outside of the area, including those who donated money and supplies, so he could aid people suffering after the storm. He was able to set up his 500-gallon smoker in the parking lot of a local bank and served 500 hot meals to people who needed it, as well as provided essential supplies like toilet paper and water, thanks to their donations. The experience has made him want to get more involved in charitable efforts going forward.
“It was tremendous and very heartwarming – just neighbor helping neighbor for several weeks,” he said. “What those partners did really touched my heart.”
Though they say the last few months have been some of the most trying in their careers, the agents say this period has also been the most rewarding.
“Professionally, it has been extremely rewarding… it sounds very bizarre, but we don’t get the opportunity to serve like this in this business very often,” Hutt said.
“I can’t tell you how many customers have showed appreciation to get some assistance and guidance, just having an ear and someone to talk to,” Horne said. “They felt helpless for days or a week or two after the storm and they didn’t know where to start, they just saw devastation for miles.”
Dubose said before the hurricane hit, he wondered if he was making a difference being in the insurance business and if it was the right career for him. Now, he says he has no doubt about that.
“This has provided clarity for me,” he said. “I fully understand now that an agent provides an invaluable service in times like this. Unequivocally, we are valuable, and I am very pleased to be an insurance agent.”
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