ACM’s fast response to a stormy 2017, as seen through the rearview mirror

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Although Hurricane Florence hung on for weeks in the Carolinas, we’re taking a look back at 2017’s storm season, because it was so extraordinary. Why? September is Disaster Preparedness month; ironically, September 2017 was also one of the worst months for disasters in recent ACM history.

“2017 was a very trying year in terms of storms. In three weeks, we received as many claims as we typically get in six months,” Dhara Patel, president of ACM, explained. “We had three back-to-back hurricanes and thousands of claims. Our teams worked 24/7. It was a huge team effort in terms of response. Everyone, I mean everyone, was on the phone helping hurricane victims. On average, we were able to close claims within 35-45 days due to our teams’ super-human efforts.”

Harvey in Houston

First it was Hurricane Harvey, chewing up the Gulf Coast along Texas and Louisiana, bringing record-breaking rain (an entire year’s worth) in just a day or two. Hurricane Harvey presented unique challenges, as adjusters were unable to access many of the flooded areas for inspections. As a Houston resident, Field Adjuster Trevor Linhart was one of the first ones dispatched to inspect homes in the aftermath. But Trevor’s own family was evacuated, so he was simultaneously taking care of customers and his own family.

“We were lucky and able to stay at a friend’s place,” says Trevor.

“Some of my assignments said they had damage from tornadoes, and the folks were really anxious for me to come out. I got there while it was still drizzling rain, making them very happy, and their neighbors were a little jealous!” Trevor also met a customer who couldn’t get to his home due to road closures. “He was worried it would be a long time before another appointment could be made, so we walked there together, wading through a little water. Luckily the water had stopped in his yard, and he just had some wind damage. I was able to write him an estimate and get the claim moving right along.”

Irma followed on Harvey’s coattails

Our ACM office in Tampa was busily handling Hurricane Harvey claims, but had to quickly close up shop when Hurricane Irma struck.

“Ironically, all the forecasts predicted an East coast landfall, so Tampa felt pretty secure. In fact, our hotels filled up with people from the Atlantic side. On Friday, they began to predict a later northward turn, resulting in widespread panic and gas shortages,” recalled Timothy Allen, senior vice president for ACM’s Property & Casualty division. “I had brought in lunch for the team because people were working hard on Hurricane Harvey claims, but as we watched the news, we decided to close the office early to give folks time to prepare or evacuate.”

Saturday in Tampa was frantic, he said: “You could see all your neighbors boarding up, packing vehicles and/or searching for gas or batteries. It felt like an episode of the Walking Dead. Store shelves were cleared of bottled water, sports drinks and bread. And for some reason, peanut butter was completely gone, which I found amusing. But we were spared the worst of the storm.”

“All our adjusters were already very busy with Harvey claims,” Allen related. “But the ones who had power were able to work from home, online, all weekend, taking care of storm victims. Amazingly, the Tampa office was back online and running at full speed by Monday morning. Not one teammate stopped working, even the ones that were evacuated.”


Escape from Irma

“We decided to evacuate when the storm kept shifting west,” said Nicolle Hardy, ACM property claims examiner. They spent two days preparing the house: “I wrapped all my furniture, took pictures off the walls and threw out my entire fridge and freezer contents. I put all my precious belongings in the dishwasher, washer and dryer.”

She called hotels in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama – all were full. Finally reserving a room in Huntsville, Alabama, they stuffed their escape vehicle completely full and set off on what would normally be a 10-hour drive but took 26 hours.

“In a caravan with friends, we drove through the night. When we needed gas, there was none.” Luckily, a friend told her about the Gas Buddy app, which located gas at a station 80 miles away. “It was a roll of the dice as to whether they’d still have gas when we got there – and they did,” she recalled.

“We knew there was a massive gas shortage, so before we returned home, we bought a cargo carrier and intended to fill it with gas cans. But everyone was out of cans.”

Calling around, they located cans 180 miles away at an auto parts store. They bought cans of all sizes to hold enough gas for the trip home, which was 27 hours straight.

Nicolle counts herself as very fortunate: “My apartment only had water damage to the drywall due to a window blowing out in a neighbor’s unit.”


Preparation tips, from one who experienced first-hand

The good thing about hurricanes, says Teresa Heller, ACM vice president of property claims, is that you see them coming and have time to prepare. The bad thing is that the storm seems to approach in slow motion, making the wait agonizingly stressful.

“I’ve worked claims in Florida for 34 years and handled over 45 catastrophes throughout the country,” said Teresa. “I know first-hand the devastation that extreme weather can do to a home, a family, a community.”

Although Teresa moved to Florida in 1980, Hurricane Irma was the first time she evacuated. “I practically live on Tampa Bay; flood risk is our big concern.” They started preparing a week before the storm hit. First on the list: buy 40 gallons of fuel, “because we knew there would be a run on the pumps.” Sure enough, by Thursday stations were running out of gas. Perishables were in short supply. Also gone was plywood to board up windows and generators. Ironically, the storm was still hundreds of miles away and the sun shining.

Storm prep took two-and-a-half days. Here’s what it entailed, Teresa said:

  • Board up the windows. “This sounds easy, but it’s not: The boards are heavy, and you’re drilling into your walls and causing damage.”
  • Empty the refrigerator. If the power goes out, food will spoil and ruin your fridge.
  • Turn off the power. Unexpected power surge can damage electronics.
  • Turn off the main water.
  • Remove everything from the yard. Otherwise, it becomes flying projectiles.
  • Pack up any irreplaceable items. “That meant going into the attic and pulling out the heavy box with all the photos I haven’t yet digitized.”
  • Collect all important papers.
  • Remove any keepsakes you cannot live without.
  • Fill six 5-gallon water jugs to ensure potable water and also for use to flush the toilets if water’s not available or usable after the storm.

Teresa and her husband evacuated to downtown Orlando, to her brother’s 11th floor condo.
The clouds and wind had already started to move in. Then the waiting started.

“By late Sunday night, the windows in the condo started to flex and groan. Hurricane force winds blew the rain sideways. Water started coming down the walls and saturated the carpet, so we moved furniture and sopped up carpets as best we could. The bad weather lasted about 36 hours; all along you have no idea if you have a home to go back to. And what would this do to our retirement plans?”

They were fortunate, Teresa said. Their home – and retirement plans – are intact. She summed up her experience: “Hurricanes are not fun.”


ACM flooded with hurricane claims

Meanwhile, with both storms, our ACM property claims team was hopping. “We brought on more than 20 new claims staff and worked with 100+ field claims adjusters, for our more than 2,000 claims,” recalled Patel. “We also pulled in our non-property teams to help and incorporated cutting-edge technology to help triage claims and get to our policy holders faster.

“With this near super-human effort, we were able to offer an incredible response: We contacted all affected policyholders within 24 hours of their claim report.”