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Claims Feature Story

When Disaster Strikes, Strike Back

By Debra Susca

It’s said you can’t fool Mother Nature. But you sure can give her a run for her money if you have the right Winnebago.

For people picking up the shattered pieces of their lives following devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, hailstorms, and floods, having Travelers Insurance’s 35-foot catastrophe van roll into town is like seeing the cavalry come to save the day. These wheeled offices are completely outfitted with all the business and communication equipment needed to start processing damage claims immediately. As of this year, the vans are also equipped with satellite technology to enable claim data to be transmitted instantly.

“We no longer have to depend on phone lines, towers, or other telecommunications services that may be unavailable due to weather conditions,” said Ray Stone, head of Travelers Catastrophe Response Services. “We’re now able to provide service to customers anywhere and at any time, and can get into the heat of the action wherever catastrophes may be occurring.”

The technology, offered by Inmarsat’s Global Area Network Services, is provided through Manhattan Microwave by France Telecomm, using a satellite positioned over France. The van must, therefore, maintain a line of sight east to the satellite without hill, building, or tree obstruction.


Meeting needs

The Catastrophe Response Vehicle, known as the CAT Van, is a first-in-the-industry vehicle designed by Travelers and custom-built by Winnebago in Forest City, Iowa. The vehicle serves as a mobile insurance claim office that can provide immediate assistance to policyholders in the event of a catastrophe. Each van contains computers, onboard databases with necessary policyholder information, photocopiers, fax machines, printers, and additional equipment essential for processing claims instantly. Two generators allow the vehicles to operate in areas without electricity. The CAT van has five workstations to accommodate claim handlers, which can be expanded to 10 if necessary.

“They work long and hard hours,” said Calvin Wells, principal of the Harold W. Wells & Son insurance agency in Wilmington, N.C. “Especially in that first week of a disaster when people are in trouble, there’s no power and we’re waiting to restore communication.”

Wells knows from experience. North Carolina suffered six hurricanes in four years, including Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which caused $6 billion in damages in the U.S. “And each time, the CAT Van has made it down to our office before we could even get there,” he said. “That’s impressive.” Parked in the Wells agency lot, the CAT Van handled claims seven days a week for 12 weeks in the aftermath of Floyd.

Travelers has four CAT vans for the hurricane season, ready to be deployed where they’re most needed. There is one each in Orlando, Fla., New Orleans, Charlotte, N.C., and Hartford, Conn. They’re relocated depending upon the season, with the Orlando van moving to Kansas City and the New Orleans van moving to Dallas during the tornado season.

The CAT vans are but one element of Travelers’ multi-tiered approach to helping customers put their lives back together after a disaster strikes. This approach also includes a dedicated catastrophe response team. Comprising approximately 45 of the company’s most experienced claim handlers, the team is on call around the clock and can be deployed to a disaster site within 24 hours to begin handling claims and evaluating the extent of the disaster. Further support is provided by the company’s Claim Services field organization, while the management team researches weather patterns, news, and current events to allocate resources even before catastrophes occur.

Another component of Travelers’ catastrophe response program is the office in a box. If additional infrastructure is necessary, the company has everything it needs to set up a temporary, 30-person claim office, including workstations, computers, phones, and other supplies. Stored on pallets in Hartford, Conn., the office can be shipped to a catastrophe site within 24 hours.


Catastrophe Team Formed

Travelers’ catastrophe team was formed in October 1999, in response to the number and severity of storms over the years. According to Stone, the activity over the past five years is the worst on record and it has been predicted that we’re moving into a 20-year cycle of hurricanes, due to global warming. Tornados and hailstorms also will be worse than ever.

Team members are experienced claim adjusters able to do inspections, write estimates, negotiate claims, and issue payments. According to Stone, they were chosen for the job because they are energetic and the type of people who thrive on this type of business: being mobile and able to go anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice.

It’s a job that Loretta Forrest, claim technical specialist, is passionate about. “I love it,” she said. “Once you get involved in the CAT team, it gets into your system.” Forrest, who has worked on the team since its inception, said that it is the most fulfilling job she has ever had. “It’s so rewarding to go into a devastated area and help someone who is in dire straits and who can’t get help in any other way. You feel like you’ve done something worthwhile.”

Forrest, like other team members, is sent to wherever a catastrophe has occurred and help is most needed. She works for 28 days and then receives a seven-day break. Within those 28 days she can be found on rooftops doing damage assessments, in her car driving between sites, or in her hotel room writing up claim estimates. “I guess I thrive on chaos,” she said. “And, I like coming into an area where immediate assistance is needed and being able to do something for the people there.” 

Debra Susca is a freelance writer in Portland, Conn.