Six months on, Cockermouth is still struggling to recover from the floods that destroyed its businesses and homes. We head back to the scene of devastation and speak to the community brokers and insurers, who learned that being local lads meant giving from your head and your heart. Photos by Yiannis Katsaris
For Philip Jackson, director of Bluefin’s Cockermouth branch, the floods that devastated his home town last November stirred up strong emotions that remain close to the surface. “It’s still very raw,” he says.
The flood, the result of a 340mm downpour on Thursday 19 November, affected most people who live and work in Cockermouth, which suffered the lion’s share of the £200m worth of damage across Cumbria. Homes of two Bluefin staff were flooded.
Nearly six months later, the town’s Main Street still resembles a battle zone. Some shops have reopened, but just as many remain encased in scaffolding. Insurance Times has been to Cockermouth for an on-the-spot update on the town’s recovery and how the industry has coped with the UK’s latest flooding disaster.
The flood itself resulted from Cockermouth’s location at the confluence of the Rivers Cocker and Derwent. The narrow channel underneath the town’s historic bridge formed a bottleneck where the water backed up, causing a rapid surge into the adjacent Market Square and Main Street. The waters reached depths of six feet in places.
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the main problem was simply getting around. When the rivers rose, the town centre was cut in two, and with all of the bridges as far as the nearest town of Keswick either destroyed or inundated, just to get to the opposite side of Cockermouth was a logistical nightmare. It took two days for Jackson’s team to access the worst-affected parts of the town, more than 36 hours after the surge.
And it wasn’t just physical communication that was a problem – mobile and internet connections were out too. Problems with accessing the firm’s database meant that Bluefin had to resort to pre-computer age methods. “We produced a big sheet of paper, and drew the streets, marking which were and weren’t our clients,” Jackson says.
Teams of loss adjusters had descended on the town by the next day, along with the less welcome loss assessors. GAB Robins sent 25 adjusters to the town, headed by northern area director Chris Day, who had overseen the firm’s efforts in tackling the 2007 Hull floods. “It was great to have him here,” Jackson says, “because he understood the process and he was able to tell us what to expect.”
Meanwhile, by Monday morning, at AXA headquarters in London the insurer was digesting the scale of its losses. AXA dominates the insurance market in Cumbria thanks to the company’s acquisition several years ago of Kendal-based insurer Provincial. The company’s customer experience director, Paul Meehan, dispatched a mobile home up to Cumbria. Located in the car park of the town’s Sainbury’s, it became a temporary office for the duration of the emergency.
Part insurer, part therapist
It wasn’t just practical help that insurance industry representatives were doling out in the weeks that followed the inundation. Cockermouth is a small-firm town: Main Street is believed to be the UK’s last remaining chain-free high street. The vast majority of the town’s businesses were covered, thanks in large part to Bluefin. As broker to two-thirds of the town’s businesses, the firm’s Cockermouth representatives had a pivotal role to play.
“This was the time when people needed you the most,” Jackson’s fellow director, Andrew Fennell, says. “That requires dedicated attention. As a broker, they want your presence. We were sitting down with people who had carrier bags full of receipts, drawing the claims up for them. It was hand-holding to an enormous degree. Especially for Philip, being a Cockermouth lad, it was really difficult to know where to draw the line.
“With both of us having worked here for 20 years, the expectation level is great. If you monitor the conversation we had with clients, 10% of it was insurance-related, 90% of it was about feelings. There was a lot of emotion. I’ve had clients crying in front of me. Taking a professional approach was quite difficult.”
Jackson agrees that being part of the local community meant the personal pressures were especially intense. “You can’t be found lacking, whatever industry you are in, if you live with people who are in crisis. If you are a community broker, you can’t do it in a half-hearted manner.”
But, as Fennell points out, even with the best will in the world, there are limits to what a broker can do. “At the end of the day, you are still an intermediary; you don’t have the power to write the cheque. The client may not understand his policy and you have to deliver against that expectation. You walk in and know at times that it is not adequate.”
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the level of devastation often made it relatively easy to make snap decisions on whether clients had suffered total losses. Vanessa Grahame of hardware store JD Banks, which has been on Cockermouth’s Market Square for more than 150 years, told her loss adjuster that he had to be at her store by the Monday after the flood because she had ordered a skip to beat the inevitable rush. He was at the shop on the Sunday and was able to make an interim payment decision on the same day.
AXA property claims technical manager David Croft believes that the process for making out interim payments worked well. “We got GAB to explain to us why a payment had not been issued rather than why it had. We wanted to get the money out as quickly as we could. Payments were made as quick as I can remember. You literally had payments being phoned through, and that worked really well. Most customers saw tangible help early on.”
In addition, a lot of Cockermouth businesses were covered by the Platinum product developed by Bluefin with AXA. Added features, like loss of attraction, proved invaluable for those firms
that had not been physically flooded but had nevertheless lost trade as a result of the disaster.
The next step, especially vital in the run-up to Christmas, was finding alternative premises for shops to trade from. Jackson says: “We looked at the possibility of a temporary town centre that we could bus people to, but the logistics and the costs meant that in the end it wasn’t worthwhile.”
There were also concerns that firms in Station Street, Cockermouth’s other main retail thoroughfare, would lose trade and be unable to claim on business interruption because they hadn’t been flooded. In the event, most retailers were able to relocate into the former job centre, which became known as ‘Mitchells on Main Street’.
But it was post-Christmas, when the initial adrenalin rush had died down and the drying process was under way, that was in some ways the most difficult period, recalls Jackson (see ‘Time to dry’, below).
Now, the focus is on hammering out business interruption claims. Working out compensation has been complicated by the recession. But, according to Cumbria County Council floods co-ordinator Sally Scales, the overall level of service provided by insurers has been patchy. She says she has often had to step in to give advice. Scales would like to see more consistency in the level of service. “We need some kind of tool box, so that people know the process from the start.”
Cockermouth Chamber of Trade chairman Jonty Chippendale says: “From the insurance side, the process is understood, but from the general public’s perspective, it’s opaque. They are coming to this as total novices. Sally has had to do an awful lot of hand-holding. She should not be doing the insurance industry’s job.”
And now many householders and businesses in the CA13 postcode area are seeing steep hikes in rates. Chippendale, who owns a toy shop on Main Street, which was flooded, says: “As far as Cockermouth is concerned, the big insurers won’t quote for new business. If all of the big insurance companies take the view that they are not going to quote for new business, we are stuck with our existing insurers and whatever they choose to charge. The likelihood is that premiums will rise substantially. We are fortunate having somebody in the town like Philip Jackson who goes out of his way to help people, but there’s a limit to what he can write.”
Jackson has been able to persuade some firms to substantially reduce their quotes. He says: “We can’t be seen to be a hindrance to the long-term success of businesses. Everybody knows that they are in this for the long haul and businesses don’t expect to pay back what they have received, although they accept they are not the same risk as they were.”
Lurking in the background is the threat that the government and the ABI will be unable to agree an extension to the statement of principles agreement, under which the industry has agreed to continue covering flood risk areas until 2013. “In terms of day-to-day business, I think Cockermouth will recover,” Chippendale says. But he describes the long-term uncertainty as an “elephant in the room” for the town.
Jackson agrees that this uncertainty has massive implications for those living and working in the town. “We are very concerned about the future of Cockermouth,” he says. Fennell says that communication emerged as a key issue. Public meetings should have been held much earlier and more regularly in order to manage the community’s expectations, he argues.
For Jackson, Cockermouth has underlined the continuing value of the embattled community broker. “There’s an element that how you bought, and where you bought, your policy determined the level of service you received,” he says. “Being here in the town has been very important logistically.” Fennell agrees, saying: “It helped being local because we were able to reassure people that we were on their side.” Many of the small businesses in Cockermouth would have been unviable to service from afar, he adds. “We know that we were part of the community and that, in time, it will repay itself.”
Jackson believes that Bluefin’s efforts have paid off. “We have been told repeatedly that our work has been valued.” But he adds that one of the key issues to emerge from the disaster is that brokers must sometimes deliver an unpalatable message. “We can’t profess to being the answer to people’s nightmare scenarios without forcing them to consider catastrophes. I hope brokers see that, at some stage, you have to deliver the message that if you want to nibble away at the cover that you offer, it could have consequences.”
Cockermouth is coming back to life. The Georgian festival, celebrating the town’s 18th century heritage, represented an important staging post in the town’s recovery. At the time of writing, many businesses, including the Bush pub (see ‘Local businesses come back fighting’, below) were planning to be open in time for this.
And, at last, those involved in the recovery have a chance to take stock of the experience. Fennell observes: “I’m a better broker because of it.” IT
Time to dry
Cockermouth’s flood, like most, happened at a bad time for the drying process. “It wasn’t the time of the year to keep the windows open,” AXA’s David Croft observes.
However, the aftermath of the disaster has seen the most widespread application to date of so-called advanced drying systems. Croft says that the use of these systems has speeded up the drying process, thus enabling businesses and homeowners to get back in their properties quicker. So far, there has been no hard and fast cost/benefit analysis of the systems.
But Cockermouth Flood Action Group chair Sue Cashmore has received reports that some householders have suffered from warped floorboards due to rapid drying.
Croft says that the systems should only be used in appropriate circumstances. “We need to make sure that the nature of the damage makes it suitable for an advanced drying system.”
Local businesses come back fighting
The Bush pub’s landlord Joe Fagan remembers when he saw the first water trickling through his pub’s front door just after 3.15pm on Thursday 19 November. “It was a quiet day because of the rain and we’d just finished lunch,” he says.
Fagan has been the landlord of the pub for the past two years, but it has been part of his life since he was knee-high. “I drank here, my dad drank here and my granddad drank here,” he says.
With the waters rising outside the front door, Fagan and his staff put down sandbags to stop the flow. But when the water started entering through the back door too, Fagan realised that he would need more than a new carpet. By 5pm, the water was over the bar. “At that point, we just had to leave,” he says.
Fagan was unable to return to inspect the damage until the weekend. He struggles to contain his emotions when he remembers the scene of devastation that greeted him.
But while the past six months has been difficult, he says his broker has been there to support him. “Bluefin has been phenomenal. They were here right away. If you deal with professionals, you get treated in a professional manner.”
When Insurance Times visits, the pub is a hive of industry, with more than a dozen tradesmen getting it ready for its planned reopening for the Georgian festival weekend. The fixtures and fittings have largely been replaced on a like-for-like basis, except for the floor, which is concrete instead of wood.
The pub’s reopening will be a significant boost for the town, Fagan believes. He worries that some properties remain empty, either because their owners are not returning or because they have suffered too much structural damage. ‘It’s a major worry for the businesses that are there.”
But Fagan feels that the town’s restoration is progressing well. “The town is going to look good,” he says.