It was on my way to Chichester in West Sussex, on Thursday October 12, to examine a Russian sable fur coat when I realised that my working day would be far from normal. Despite the sunshine, I was having to avoid deep puddles in barely passable roads following days of torrential rain. The fact that my own garden was under water should have been a clue as to the extent of the damage that I would witness in the days to come.

I had just arrived when one of our examiners called: “Frank, any chance you could go to a flood claim today in East Sussex? Not knowing what I was about to let myself in for I replied: “Well yes, no problem if it's urgent.”

I was supposed to be going into London to see some retailers about another claim, but that could be rescheduled. I scribbled down the details and I tuned into the local radio station to discover how local roads were affected. It was far worse than I had expected – the centre of Uckfield, East Sussex, was under water, roads were impassable and there were further severe flood warnings with several major rivers threatening to burst their banks.

Getting the priorities right

The sable coat was therefore speedily abandoned and I set off for Wadhurst, East Sussex. On the way, however, yet another urgent loss was phoned in, a large manor house outside Uckfield. Could I just squeeze that in before the Wadhurst claim? On the radio meanwhile, were reports that police were advising drivers to avoid the area.

With a twinge of trepidation I kept on going and, with a few local diversions and swift manoeuvring of the car through flooded roads, eventually found the manor house, well hidden down a track in some woods. Built by a river at the bottom of a steep hill, the home was extremely vulnerable to flooding. I could see that this was a major claim.

The sight before me resembled a scene from the film Titanic, with furniture throughout the extensive ground floor, upended and floating in water. Moments later a small fire suddenly started in front of the owner's and my eyes (due to an electrical fault).

It was time to start assessing the loss, which came to between £100,000 and £250,000. All the while, I was being phoned with one report after another of more flood claims.

Eventually I had to pass this one on to one of our trusted outside loss adjusters to deal with, so that I could get to Wadhurst as quickly as possible.

The water damage there was dreadful as well.

The following morning, I set off for a small half-timbered cottage down a narrow lane in Kent. I called the owner so that she could guide me in by mobile phone. Luckily, she warned me to pull over as a fire engine came round the bend seconds later. It only just got past.

When I arrived I discovered that the fire brigade had given up pumping the flood water as there was nowhere nearby to discard the waste-water.

When I walked to the house I could see why. It was surrounded and filled not just by ordinary river water, but the foul smelling contents of a cesspit. It must have been terrible for the owners, who were taking it all stoically.

In an effort to salvage at least some of their belongings they, and their neighbours, had been hard at work, and a local electrician had come to their aid by reconnecting a temporary supply of electricity to the first floor. The owners told me that the water levels had risen so quickly they hadn't had a chance to save anything.

As most of their appliances, including their cooker, fridge and freezer were destroyed, I immediately authorised for them to have them replaced and arranged for a substantial payment on account.

My offer of short-term temporary accommodation was appreciated but refused – they wanted to stay in their home and look after it. As I drove home that evening I marvelled at the fact that an Englishman's home is still his castle – even with a moat.

  • Frank Benke is a senior claims expert with high net worth insurer Chubb Europe.

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