Loss adjusters, by the nature of their job, work in some of the most difficult environments, including such major disasters as the Chilean and Haitian earthquakes earlier this year. We speak to four seasoned hands about their experiences, and probe the personal and professional qualities needed to successfully operate in circumstances where going beyond the call of duty is a given

Kevin Innes, Caribbean regional manager, McLarens Young International (MYI)

Being based in the southern United States, Keith Innes has seen a lot of major catastrophes.

But the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake was the most harrowing scene he has encountered. “You were working on sites where there were still entombed bodies,” he recalls.

“You always try to remain sensitive to what is going on around you, but you have to ignore the fact that you are treading on a site where hundreds of people have died, there are still rescue operations going on, and you are measuring.”

“It’s a troubling sight and it’s pretty horrific, but you try to ignore it as much as you can because you are there to do a job.”

While the impact of the Haiti earthquake on the insurance industry was relatively minor – just 1% of the country’s commercial property was insured – the human toll was enormous. Approximately 300,000 people died as a result of the quake, making it one of the worst disasters in recent history.

“It’s difficult to talk to people who have lost loved ones,” says Innes, who was one of the handful of external adjusters in the capital Port-au-Prince.

The scale of devastation meant that getting into and around the city was a logistical nightmare. The damage and resulting debris meant that an already confused road system was even harder to navigate. “It would be almost impossible to find your way around without a driver,” Innes says.

The rebuilding has started in Haiti, and much of the debris has been removed, enabling the highways to be reopened.

However, the situation in what was already a deeply troubled country remains “quite unstable”, Innes notes.

The lack of security in Port-au-Prince following the quake meant that Innes needed an armour-plated vehicle in order to ensure safe passage around the city itself.

With telecommunications largely down too, environments like Haiti demand a high level of self-sufficiency. “You can’t be waiting for somebody to tell you what to do,” he points out.

On a personal level, the Haiti quake struck between hurricane seasons when Innes would normally expect to be recharging his batteries at home in Atlanta, Georgia.

And a catastrophe zone is not a place for those addicted to creature comforts. “Working in the Caribbean is a lot different from mainland North America, where you can drive 100 miles and find a hotel with air conditioning and internet.”

The role of a loss adjuster in these circumstances is not for everyone, Innes admits. “You can’t be dwelling on the situation. You see some people coming into these situations for the first time and finding that it’s just not for them.”

Andrew Neale, director, global technical services, Crawford & Company

Andrew Neale is in the Chilean capital of Santiago when Insurance Times calls.

He has been there on and off for much of the past five months since an earthquake, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, struck off the country’s coast in February, resulting in around 700 deaths and billions of dollars worth of losses.

The epicentre of the quake was around 100 miles from Chile’s second-largest city, Concepcion, which suffered the heaviest damage.

Crawford’s base camp is in Santiago. Normally, it would take around an hour to drive between the two cities, but the journey took a lot longer in the immediate aftermath of the quake due to damaged roads.

As a result, he made the most of the time when on-site. Six-and-a-half-day weeks are typical in the kind of disaster zones that Neale is currently working in, he says. “You tend to work from daybreak to when you can’t work in the evening.”

He admits that external consultants tend to be shielded from the most harrowing circumstances because of the nature of losses they are dealing with.

“We find that the adjusters who have been drafted in tend to focus more on commercial business, while the locals will focus on domestic premises. The emotional attachment is not the same, so sometimes that’s a little bit easier.”

Nevertheless, he says, it is a key part of the learning curve for ambitious adjusters. “I would expect to see this kind of experience on somebody’s CV,” he says.

Like everybody else interviewed for this feature, Neale says there is a strong sense of camaraderie among those working in disaster zones, with paths crossing frequently. “There will be a number of insurers, brokers and consultants often staying in the same hotel, which gives people an opportunity to network.”

But, inevitably, it is hard to remain unaffected when surrounded by major loss of life, he acknowledges.

“It’s very intense; people find it quite distressing,” he says. “You can’t help but be distressed when people have lost all of their belongings.

“You are constantly trying to drive it into people, especially younger adjusters, that these are clearly upsetting situations for the people, and it’s critical to keep that in mind.

“In situations where there has been a loss of life, you have to deal with things very sensitively. Any adjuster who doesn’t do that won’t last very long.”

Steve Clayton, engineering adjuster, Cunningham Lindsey Mexico

“One of the things that strikes me about earthquakes,” Steve Clayton says, “is that when you get on the ground, it’s usually not as bad as it looks on the TV, because they tend to show pictures of the same things.

“Haiti was different; it was every bit as bad as you saw on TV.”

Clayton’s first quake experience was in 1985, when he worked in the aftermath of the Mexico City disaster, which saw 20,000-30,000 deaths. He spent most of the next year in the country, eventually submitting his final claim on the opening day of the World Cup in 1986.

Since the beginning of the year, he has been to Haiti three times, with the first spell lasting just over a month.

Like MYI’s Innes, Clayton says that movement into and around the country’s capital Port-au- Prince was very difficult in the aftermath of the quake. “It was impossible to find accommodation, because all the accommodation had been occupied by aid workers,” he says.

As a result, Clayton says he had to stay in Santa Domingo, capital of the adjacent Dominican Republic.

In addition, Haiti’s airport was closed for over a month after the quake for all flights bar those carrying aid, making it necessary to hire a helicopter to get to and from the earthquake zone.

A typical day on Clayton’s first tour of duty in Haiti involved leaving Santa Domingo by 7.30am to get on-site by 8.30am and then heading back by 4.30pm to avoid flying in the dark. In some locations, like the port, the availability of landing facilities meant that it was possible to fly straight in by helicopter.

A lot of sensitivity is required in a disaster zone like Haiti, Clayton says. “On a first visit, personal skills are more important than technical skills. You can get the engineers in at a later stage.”

But there’s no point in wallowing in emotions, he points out, in an environment where many have lost loved ones.

“You have to bear in mind that a lot of the people we were meeting had suffered personal tragedies and were putting a brave face on it,” he explains. “They were turning up for work and doing what they felt they had to do. When you see that kind of horror, you have to get on with it.”

Angus Tucker, operations director, Lorega Solutions

Angus Tucker remembers flying into the Cayman Islands in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ivan – the force-five storm that cut a swathe through the Caribbean and southern USA in September 2004. “It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off,” he recalls. “It was absolutely devastated.”

Tucker has had experience of a number of disasters including, closest to home, the 1991 London bombs. But Ivan, which caused the greatest damage on the Caymans, Grenada and Jamaica, is the single biggest catastrophe he has ever worked on.

Grenada was the worst-affected island, but the Caymans had the greatest insured losses, thanks to its position as a financial services centre.

The Caymans are low lying, with a maximum height of 141 feet above sea level. After being buffeted by winds of up to 130 km per hour, the islands were then engulfed by a 20 foot-high tidal surge whipped up by the hurricane, which left a third of the islands’ landmass under water.

Many people who had been sheltering from the winds on the ground floors of their properties were caught out by the surge, although remarkably just two people died as a result of the hurricane.

A ghoulish twist, Tucker remembers, occurred when corpses washed out from the shallow graves of the island’s cemeteries. And stray corpses weren’t the only bizarre sight on offer.

“Everybody had lost everything, so for the first few months it was a little bit Wild West. People were all wearing flip flops and T-shirts, because that’s what they’d been wearing when [Ivan] hit,” says Tucker, who is an ex-president of the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters.

“You have to be prepared to rough it,” he says, remembering how he had to sleep on the floor because of a lack of accommodation.

Scarcity of food was another problem, because virtually everything has to be imported onto the island. There was no electricity for refrigerators, as the island’s overhead power cables had been knocked down by the hurricane, meaning that most items rotted within a couple of days in the tropical heat.

Catastrophes like Ivan also mean being on the road for a long time. On that occasion, Tucker didn’t get back home until Christmas, nearly four months after the hurricane hit. “There’s a lot of personal pressure on that side,” he says.

And the working days are very long, partly because there is often very little else to do in the evening.

“It’s very tough work, but it’s exciting,” he says, recalling how the Caymans were animated by a strong sense of collective purpose as people pulled together to get the islands back on their feet.

“There’s an enormous amount of hand-holding, and sometimes you are a shoulder to cry on,” he says. “But at the end of the day, you know you are going home.” IT