Late summer and early autumn is hurricane season in the Caribbean and along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Weather systems emanating from the west of Africa, strengthen as they cross the Atlantic becoming ferocious storms packing winds of up to 200 mph.
They leave destruction, chaos and death in their wake – along with loss adjusting professionals whose job it is to assess the damage and look after the interests of insurers and their policyholders.
Weather analysts designate tropical storms by number. Only when they strengthen to become fully-fledged hurricanes are they given a name.
Each year, the first hurricane of the season is given a name starting with the letter A; the next one starts with B, and so on.
This year, it was Hurricane Floyd which grabbed the headlines in mid-September.
The US weather service has five categories of hurricane, with five the most violent.
By the time Floyd was headed for the Bahamas, where PCS's insurer client had risks on cover, it was category four, with winds up to 155 mph.
The storm lashed many of the 700 Bahamian islands throughout September 14, and contact was temporarily lost with the more remote outposts.
Around 30 islands in the archipelago are inhabited, with the bulk of the 280,000 population living on New Providence and Grand Bahama.
Those in the less-populated Eastern Islands were left without power for several days while witnesses talked of houses being lifted up and dumped in the street.
While the winds produced by a hurricane are incredibly fast, the hurricane itself moves very slowly – Floyd edged north-westwards at a mere 14 mph. And Floyd was very large, measuring 700 miles across.
So anyone caught in its path had to endure a battering for a prolonged period.
And wind is not the only worry. Torrential rain is a major problem, as is the sea-surge that is pushed forward by the hurricane.
In Floyd's case this was 15 feet high, easily high enough to swamp coastal properties.
As well as what might be termed straightforward flooding, with water damage to property, belongings and motor vehicles, hurricane-hit areas also have to contend with flooded sewage systems and the potential contamination of drinking water supplies.
And, as has been seen in the affected areas of the United States in recent weeks, the difficulties do not stop there: in North Carolina, many of the animals drowned by the flooding caused by Floyd decomposed in the water, leading to insect infestation.
In Florida, Hurricane Irene (Floyd's great grand-daughter, if you will), produced floods which caused streams, rivers and swamps to overflow into the streets of major towns and cities.
Residents were warned to watch out for snakes and poisonous reptiles swimming in the streets. And that is not to mention the threat posed by alligators.
Several deaths also occurred in Florida when Irene brought down power cables which transferred current to pools of water into which people strayed.
PCS staff began their initial assessment of the damage caused in the Bahamas on Sunday September 19.
The first impression was that most of the damage had been caused by sea-surge and violent winds.
The first of these perils, together with destruction caused by waves, resulted in:
- removal of sand from beaches to public highways and surrounding areas
- undermining of sea walls
- destruction of jetties and other structures adjacent to the sea
- undermining or erosion of roads
- accumulation of debris.
The wind, as might be expected, caused problems of its own, including:
- uprooting of trees and destruction of landscaping (a particular problem in the manicured gardens of prestigious hotels)
- accumulation of debris
- removal of roof coverings
- cracking of glass and damage to doors and windows
- destruction of fences, gates and boundary walls (with much of the actual damage caused by falling trees and pylons)
- fallen pylons resulted in loss of services
- shipping was also affected, with a 120-foot freighter driven onto the beach.
Given the severity of the hurricane, it is surprising that there was not more structural damage – many buildings, including those of inferior specification, survived.
This may be attributable to a building code which governs works on the islands and to precautionary action by inhabitants.
The insurance company on whose behalf PCS was working had affected policyholders in several classes, including household, motor, offices, contract sites, churches and other commercial risks.
One of the major policyholders was the Department of Civil Aviation, whose property included buildings, contents, plant, vehicles and sophisticated navigational equipment. There was damage at many of the airports throughout the islands.
Having started work on the Sunday, the objective was to put a full claims-handling strategy in place by the end of the week – which was achieved.
This necessitated a large amount of activity, including:
- identifying the main risks to which the client insurer was exposed
- agreeing procedures with local brokers
- appointing local adjusters to handle household risks
- liaising with ecclesiastical authorities and other major commercial policyholders
- keeping client insurer fully appraised of claims submitted.
In a situation such as a major loss, the insurer clearly needs as much information as possible, so that it can quantify its exposure, contact its reinsurers and generally prepare to pay valid claims.
Dealing with problems
However, the difficulties that followed in the wake of Floyd made it difficult to provide definitive answers immediately.
Problems included disrupted communications, which prevented claims being submitted, and the difficulty of assessing damage until drying-out was completed.
There were also practical problems in completing inspections, preparing costings, and the need to test electrical installations.
Moreover, contractors were over-stretched and in short supply, materials were scarce, and there was little transportation and labour.
Of course, it is the job of a loss adjuster to cope with difficult situations – even situations of extreme difficulty.
The secret is to be as professional and as diligent as possible.
Providing insurance to hurricane-prone areas is a perilous occupation but it is a vital service. And it can only be properly fulfilled if it is reinforced with energetic, sympathetic and constructive claims handling.