As I packed up my office on October 26, 2012, I felt confident and prepared. Sandy was looming offshore and the forecast did not look good, but we had been through hurricanes before. All the electronics were shut down, and vital equipment and data disks were packed in my car. I had contacted our major flood and coastal homeowners carriers and had game plans in place if the storm were to hit as expected. Our agents were briefed on what to expect and how to communicate if there was no power. Gathering everything I needed for a few days, I locked up our office on Long Beach Island, N.J. and drove home feeling ready for whatever Sandy had in store.
I quickly learned that I was still not prepared.
Two days after the storm, power was restored on the mainland and we were able to open two of our three local branches—all except our main Long Beach Island location. As soon as we opened the doors, the phone calls started coming. That first day and for several days to follow, many of our customers were surprised and relieved that we were even able to answer their calls and be there for them when they walked in the door.
Six months later, the calls finally started to slow down. It was not over by a long shot, but at least we could all finally breathe a little. We had more than 6,000 claims in the books, many of which were still open, but finally we could start to look back and evaluate how we did as an agency. And I can say with absolute certainty that the best thing we did from start to finish was to be there for our customers. There were times when we could not give them everything they wanted or needed, and times when our answers did not make them happy. But no matter what, through it all, we were there for them. In the long run, all our hard work was recognized and appreciated by a majority of our customers.
Our agent Michael McGrath and Vice President of Commercial Lines Dan Wyrsch were instrumental in getting one of the largest oceanfront hotels on Long Beach Island back up and running before the summer season, despite waves crashing through the first floor of the building during the storm. Our agents were there from day one for the owners, and were on site dozens of times assessing the damage and helping with the claims process. The hotel was booked solid all summer, and the owners could not be more thankful. This is just one example of many successes, both personal and commercial, as a majority of our customers repaired or rebuilt in time for summer.
Hundreds of our homeowners have called or sent in their sentiments of gratitude for our claims managers and customer service representatives. The most common compliment we have received is that we were there for them, and never turned them away. Although we had our share of complaints as well, we are proud to say that the satisfied customers far outnumber those who are unhappy.
Despite our successes, our agency and the communities we service still have a very long way to go. The rebuilding and restoring process can still be seen every day. But through this disaster there are lessons to be learned. The biggest challenge we faced after Sandy was that our insureds lacked understanding of coverage. If there is one thing we can do better moving forward, it is to better educate our customers about how their policies work so they can be better prepared in the future. However, it was evident that the personal service that only an independent insurance agent can provide is valued more than ever in times of need. We not only handled claims—we built relationships and helped rebuild our communities. Although I hope to never live through a disaster of this magnitude again, I know that we will be better prepared because of all we have learned from Sandy.
Jeffrey R. Wyrsch is vice president of personal insurance at The Van Dyk Group in Long Beach Island, N.J.