KRWG

Insurers Gear Up For Deluge Of Claims, Hope To Avoid Sandy Repeat

Aug 31, 2017

Property owners started filing insurance claims before the rain even stopped. They wanted to get to the front of what's expected to be a long line of flood claims, according to Joel Moore, an independent insurance adjuster for Gulf Coast Claims in Houston.

"They filed claims before they evacuated," he says. "So they actually have no idea if there's damage or not. They just wanted to be at the front end of the curve."

Texas officials estimate there are 49,000 flooded homes. Not all of those will have flood insurance, but insurance companies predict tens of thousands will have covered damage.

To work all the expected claims, insurance companies will rely on hundreds of small catastrophe companies that hire independent contractors to work 14-hour days. These catastrophe adjusters spend most of the year waiting for a damaging storm to blow in. When one finally arrives, they load up their vans and campers and drive to where the damage is.

Moore says, "They work real hard for an extended period of time. They're well-compensated for their expertise. And then they may sit for years."

The work is grueling. They go house to house in the mud and heat encountering emotional homeowners who just lost everything. Moore has been adjusting claims for 25 years. He warns his employees to sympathize with storm victims.

"How would you feel if you were in the same situation? You need to slow down, shut up, let them vent, let them cry, tell them you're sorry, and if you're not sorry you need to get out of the business," he says.

But it is still a business. Moore says that to process many claims, cat teams will develop shortcuts, and some will hire inexperienced adjusters who just got their license.

For people who want to become certified flood insurance adjusters, FEMA runs clinics on the National Flood Insurance Program. Anyone can register for the course online and be a certified flood adjuster by the end of the day.

Some in the industry worry that the legions of inexperienced flood adjusters do more harm than good.

One critic says that during Superstorm Sandy, green adjusters overlooked all sorts of technical details.

"These people don't know if there's conduit running on the outside of the wall, that they have a line item for that to put in the estimate. So it's just not going to be in the estimate," says Jeff Major, a public adjuster in New York.

And if it's not in the estimate, homeowners don't get paid.

After thousands of Sandy victims complained about poor adjusting, FEMA reopened 20,000 claims that found more than $390 million in unpaid damage.

After the controversy, FEMA says, the agency learned a lesson and increased oversight over the private carriers that administer the flood program.

"There's much stronger awareness that FEMA has made, and much stronger points that FEMA has made with insurance companies to try and ensure that the consumer's treated appropriately and fairly," says Don Griffin, vice president at Property Casualty Insurers Association, a trade group representing the flood insurance companies that run FEMA's program.

Griffin says FEMA is now holding daily calls with private insurance companies to remind them about new flood policy rules.

These rules apply to those with flood coverage. Those without will have to rely on government aid. Following both Katrina and Sandy, Congress authorized FEMA to spend about $60 billion per storm to help those who didn't have flood insurance.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Texas officials estimate that Harvey flooded nearly 50,000 homes in the state. That number could grow, and most of those homeowners don't have flood insurance. Those who do will soon be filing claims. The insurance industry is getting ready to send in hundreds of so-called catastrophe teams to assess the damage. As Charles Lane of member station WSHU reports, some of those adjusters could cause new problems.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Even before the rain stopped, property owners we're calling Joel Moore.

JOEL MOORE: They filed claims before they evacuated. So they actually have no idea if there's damage or not. They just wanted to be at the front end of the curve.

LANE: Moore is an independent adjuster for Gulf Coast Claims in Houston. Insurance companies hire him to estimate damage costs. To work this many insurance claims, the industry will rely on hundreds of small processing companies who then hire independent contractors.

MOORE: Catastrophe adjusters are a unique breed. They work real hard for a - you know, an extended period of time. They're well compensated for their expertise. And then they may sit for years.

LANE: Their work is grueling, going house to house in the mud and sun and emotional wake.

MOORE: The guy that was my mentor told me - he said, look; your job is to pay claims, granted. But how would you feel if you were in the same situation? You need to slow down. Shut up. Let them vent. Let them cry. Tell them you're sorry. And if you're not sorry, you need to get out of business.

LANE: But at the end of the day, it is still a business. Moore says to process all the claims, cat teams will develop shortcuts, and some will hire inexperienced adjusters who just got their license.

How quickly does it take to get a license?

MOORE: I hate to tell you this but about two hours

LANE: Moore is referring to clinics set up by FEMA, the administrator of the National Flood Insurance Program. Anyone can register for the course online and be a certified a flood adjuster by the end of the day.

JEFF MAJOR: Not being experienced is really bad.

LANE: Jeff Major is a public adjuster in New York. He says during Superstorm Sandy, green adjusters overlooked all sorts of technical details.

MAJOR: These people don't know if there is conduit running on the outside of the wall, that they have a line item for that to put in the estimate. So it's not going to be in the estimate.

LANE: And if it's not in the estimate, homeowners don't get paid. Thousands of Sandy victims complained, and FEMA eventually reopened 20,000 claims that missed more than $390 million. Don Griffin is with PCIA, a trade group that represents flood insurance companies who work with FEMA. He says FEMA and insurance companies learned a lesson after Superstorm Sandy.

DON GRIFFIN: There is much - a much stronger awareness that FEMA has made and much stronger points that FEMA's made with the companies to try to ensure that the consumer is treated appropriately and fairly.

LANE: He says FEMA is exerting more oversight and holding daily calls with private insurance companies to remind them about new rules. But again, this is only for the people with flood coverage. Those without will have to rely on government aid. Following both Katrina and Sandy, Congress authorized FEMA to spend about $60 billion per storm to help those who didn't have flood insurance. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.