How an Independent Agent Solves a Problem Like Harvey, Irma

The first day Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Focus Insurance & Financial Services fielded 180 claims. By the fourth day, the Houston-based independent agency had more than 400.

And “those were just covered claims,” says Mickie Comiskey, COO. “It was pretty earth-shattering for a lot of people.”

Those first few days were a whirlwind: “We’d report the claim, let the client know we did it, and give them their claim and adjuster numbers. Then we’d go to the next one,” Comiskey recalls. “Later, we came back in a second swoop and followed up to make sure everything was going smoothly, and that they knew we were here to answer questions.”

Combined, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused $150-200 billion in damage to Texas and Florida—a staggering number comparable to costs associated with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to a preliminary estimate from Moody’s Analytics.

“Trees on houses, trees on pool cages, trees on fences, trees on cars, missing roof shingles, missing roof tiles, water penetration for homes that may not have well painted or water sealed—the sheer magnitude, the number of calls, has been keeping us very, very busy,” says Rick Rolfs, principal at Rolfs Insurance Services in Cooper City, Florida, where Irma struck as a tropical storm.

The impact of Harvey and Irma on their respective communities has been devastating, especially as many home and business owners discover their insurance policies did not cover certain causes of loss. But as victims begin to pick up the pieces, independent agents in Florida and Texas are stepping up to the challenge to be there for their clients.

Regret Central

By far, the most common coverage gap surrounding both hurricanes has been flood insurance. On the commercial lines side, Comiskey notes some of her clients weren’t clear that NFIP coverage does not cover loss of rental or business income.

Quite simply, Comiskey says agents need to stress to their clients that “it’s an absolute exclusion on flood,” she says. “They need to understand that not only is flood not covered, but even under the other coverage they have, nothing associated with flood is covered if you don’t have flood coverage.”

On the personal lines side, however, neither Rolfs nor Comiskey believes the widespread lack of flood insurance is an issue of awareness or education for homeowners—despite myriad headlines to the contrary.

“If they were uncovered, it’s because they flat didn’t carry flood insurance, and there are a lot of people who opted not to do that,” says Comiskey, who notes Focus Insurance hasn’t received a single call from a client alleging failure to offer. “We had people calling to report a claim and we had to remind them they opted out, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that—you’re right, I didn’t buy that, and that was a really bad decision on my part.’”

The issue is similar to a teenager who takes a reckless joy ride because they think they’re invincible. “The worst client is the one who’s never had a claim,” Rolfs says. “People don’t become interested in their insurance until they need it. We explain these things when we sell it, but their eyes glaze over—they give you the palpable yawn. They’re not listening to a damn thing.”

It doesn’t help that recent remapping in South Florida pushed many homeowners out of zones where flood insurance is required to secure a loan, Rolfs notes. In the weeks following Irma, he had a conversation with a client located in a preferred risk zone, where a flood policy would cost about $450 a year. She told him Irma took down a 70-foot ficus tree and plopped it into the lake behind her house—but admitted she still has no interest in flood insurance.

“She told me, ‘I sit on high ground. It’s never going to flood,’” Rolfs says. “I stood up and held my hand up to my chin, saying, ‘50 inches is about this high. Irma was forecasted to dump 50 inches of rain over four days, and you don’t think your home’s going to flood? You wouldn’t pay, just for peace of mind? You can go to the Keys on a good weekend and drop $450 in a heartbeat, but you’ve got no fears about flood after watching what Texas went through?’”

In Texas, where flood insurance requirements are far laxer than Florida, Comiskey agrees that trying to convince a homeowner to purchase a policy usually prompts a “whole litany” of excuses. After Harvey, she sent clients an e-blast outlining the most common reasons clients use to justify not purchasing a flood policy:

  • “I’ve had this home for 60 years and it’s never flooded.”
  • “My house isn’t located in a flood zone.”
  • “My mortgage company told me I don’t need flood insurance.”
  • “If my house didn’t flood during Allison, it’s certainly not going to flood during this one.”

“It was kind of a tough love message,” Comiskey says. “I wanted to say to them, ‘For goodness’ sakes—everybody’s in a flood zone. You’re going to flood. It’s just a matter of where that cloud is going to sit.’”

But Rolfs, who has been working in the insurance field since 1989 and “got his feet wet” with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, says it often doesn’t sink in until a storm is literally on the horizon. “Inevitably whenever a storm comes, the panic comes out,” he says. “Those brave people who say, ‘A windstorm is never going to take my house down! It’s built like a fortress! I’m not buying the wind, I’m not buying the flood, I don’t want it, insurance is a racket!’—the Thursday going into the storm, I get the phone call. ‘Is it too late for me to get wind? This thing looks pretty bad.’”

The Agent’s Role

It’s precisely those feelings of anxiety and fear that insurance is designed to eliminate, Rolfs points out: “It can be hard to convince people they’re buying insurance for a reason—if you don’t have a claim, you’re just paying money, and you’re not getting really anything. Our product is intangible. We’re not selling something you can touch. We’re selling something called peace of mind.”

Nothing drives that home more clearly than recognizing the voice on the other end of the phone when you have to report a catastrophic claim. “We would talk to people and they would break down in tears. You just have to sit there and be patient with them and let them cry on your shoulder,” Comiskey says. “Just knowing they had the type of relationship where they could do that meant a lot to a lot of clients during this time.”

“That’s what you’re ultimately paying for—the voice that’s going to help you,” Rolfs agrees. “We give them the proper advice and guidance, we explain the limitations and coverages of the policy in comparison with what they’ve experienced, we explain what’s going to be contemplated and not contemplated, we outline the claims process, we tell them getting the property dry is the next step, mitigating for additional damage is part of that process—all of those things. Insurance is nothing more and nothing less than trust.”

Focus Insurance also worked hard to collect information from organizations like FEMA so staff could share it with clients who may not have the same kind of access to resources. “We tried to get what information we could into their hands so they could help themselves,” Comiskey says. “They don’t get that if they’re going straight in and dealing without an independent agent.”

“Peace of mind is the knowledge that they’re doing the right thing and the perception that they’re going to be taken care of,” Rolfs agrees. “When the phone call first comes in, there’s palpable tension. When we hang up, there’s a feeling of, ‘Wow, OK, I feel better.’ Removing that anxiety is the most rewarding thing. We’re doing our job—we’re helping people.”

As a local agency, how can you make sure you’re always there for your clients when your own staff and property are facing the same catastrophic consequences? Keep an eye on IAmagazine.com and next week’s edition of the News & Views e-newsletter for disaster preparedness lessons learned from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.