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How insurance catastrophe teams are mobilized

Insurance company personnel are probably big Weather Channel watchers. Whenever an ice storm, hurricane, or line of severe thunderstorms that can trigger tornadoes is imminent, your insurance company is preparing its catastrophe team to get to the disaster site, assess damages, and process your claim.

Team roster

Most of the members of a catastrophe team are property claim representatives, since houses suffer the most damage from storms or hurricanes. Insurance companies use their own claims reps and freelance reps, who live and work in the catastrophe area. Representatives who specialize in auto claims are also mobilized.

Some insurance companies bring in personnel from their "special investigative units," or SIUs, to assess and curb any fraudulent claims that might arise from a disaster. Bigger catastrophes, such as major hurricanes, are targets for fraud because insurance companies can't investigate every claim filed.

Most insurance companies will be at the catastrophe site within 24 hours.

Travelers Property Casualty maintains a different catastrophe team for every month, which totals around 70 people. Each month, the people designated to form the catastrophe team are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company uses only its most experienced claims handlers, according to Ray Stone, the catastrophe manager at Travelers.

"We will be at the site within 24 hours [of the catastrophe] with our initial response team," Stone says. "We go through a lot of pains to get down there and we want to make sure we can start servicing our customers immediately."

After the storm subsides, the company will arrive in the affected area and begin servicing policyholders. If all damage assessment can be done on-site, a policyholder will most likely have a check in their hands within hours of inspection.

If your company deems your home and property a total loss and you've got typical home insurance, you'll get a check on the spot for both damages and living expenses.

Setting up shop

Travelers maintains multiple mobile catastrophe servicing centers to support the company's "office in a box" philosophy.

"When we put our team together, we think about the worst-case scenario," says Stone of Travelers. Stone says the company has everything it needs sitting in storage in Hartford, Connecticut. "It's all ready to deploy: all the phones, computers, fax machines, office supplies, coffee makers — everything we need to set up a physical storm-location office." Travelers will normally truck the supplies to the catastrophe site if it's east of the Mississippi River. If the disaster is west of the Mississippi, the cargo is normally shipped by air.

Many insurance companies use mobile homes as servicing centers after a disaster.

"Nationwide Insurance, the country's fourth largest homeowners insurer, maintains a national catastrophe team that is able to respond to disasters quickly," says Jane O’Neill of Nationwide. "The team, which includes managers and claims representatives, is dispatched to the location to handle claims, organize local and home office catastrophe response, and set up centers within the affected operation," O’Neill says. The size of the team deployed depends on the extent of the catastrophe.

"Nationwide prides itself on outstanding customer service, and we have found that having a team solely dedicated to catastrophes has significantly increased our response time after a disaster, while causing less disruption to normal claims handling," O’Neill says.

"Starting back in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo pounded the Carolinas, Nationwide claims teams have distinguished themselves from the industry with their outstanding claims catastrophe response," she said. When catastrophe activity is light, the team helps with other claims activities; such as supporting the state claims operations, conducting inspections, and handling flood claims.

State Farm insurance has one mobile catastrophe unit it deploys following larger catastrophes. The company will also rent mobile homes and commercial space to process claims from the large number of policyholders who are affected by the storm.

Getting the word to policyholders

Insurance companies need to make sure their policyholders know the company is available at the catastrophe site. They typically advertise on radio and in newspapers to spread the word. Back in 1992, after Hurricane Andrew, Travelers even rented an airplane that pulled a banner advertising the company's location.

Companies will also advise their affiliated insurance agencies of where to direct policyholders. Nationwide Insurance invites members of the media to travel with their disaster teams in hopes of spreading the news of the company's whereabouts and how policyholders can start the claims-making process. Most large companies will advertise their toll-free claims hotlines, as well.

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