Insurer meets with policyholders in South Florida


September 11, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

Military analogies are inevitable.

Norman P. Blake Jr., chairman of USF&G Corp., returned from South Florida on Tuesday evening, shaking his head over the destruction he witnessed from the nation's costliest natural disaster. "It's like in a war zone," he said.

Mr. Blake's purpose was to review his troops, boost the morale of a few dozen people working under exhausting conditions and meet with customers whose lives have been disrupted. "I walked away from there saying, 'God, the courage and capacity of these people to maintain their dignity,' " he said in an interview this week.

As grim as the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew is, it is also one of the few occasions that an insurance company has to improve the poor public image it suffers from much of the rest of the year.

But it is grueling work. The "cat teams," as USF&G refers to its catastrophe-response people in South Florida and Louisiana, have been working 14-hour days, weekends included, since the storm hit Aug. 24. The company has about 40 people in a central office in Plantation, Fla., outside Fort Lauderdale.

The bulk of those people volunteered to come from all over the country, and many are veterans of previous disasters. "I'm the kind of guy who likes a challenge," Mark Allen, supervisor of the Plantation office, said by telephone yesterday.

"Coming down here as a 'first-waver' is like a Marine coming to a war zone," said Mr. Allen, a 20-year employee of USF&G who works in the company's office in Jackson, Miss. He flew to Florida the night he sold his home and left his wife to handle the move to Natchez, where the company is setting up a new office.

In Plantation, a recreational vehicle drives two hours each day down to Kendall, near Homestead, deep in the heart of what everyone there calls "the zone."

There, the RV sits in the parking lot of the Dick Anderson Agency, one of USF&G's larger independent agents, according to Paul Schnell, the manager of the Hurricane Andrew catastrophe response program.

USF&G secured office space, furniture and lodging for its people a few days before the storm hit. In Baltimore, clerical workers spent their time printing out claims forms with the names of every policyholder in the areas where the hurricane was expected. Those forms were sent to the claims adjusters to cut time needed to process claims.

USF&G has 12,000 personal-lines policies and 2,000 commercial policies in the four-county area hit hardest. The company estimates it will suffer a net loss of $40 million from Andrew; an additional $60 million in claims will be covered by the company's reinsurers.

The toughest part of the job, Mr. Blake said, especially in "the zone," is finding policyholders where roads are still nearly impassable, housing developments are flattened and street signs are gone.

The company is using a newly adapted computer program that employs satellite photographs of the affected areas before the storm hit. The computers and laptops that the company sent to Fort Lauderdale the weekend before the storm hit can print maps of every neighborhood

Claims adjusters stock their cars with coolers and food, making sure they have enough gas to get them in and out of the worst areas. Working off the computer printouts, they wind their way through the streets, searching for their customers at the rate of about two or three policyholders a day, Mr. Blake said.

Mr. Allen predicted that the cat team and their temporary offices will be operating for at least six months

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