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Insurance professionals battle stress in Katrina’s aftermath

Since August 30, John Ferrell has been on the front lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, traversing South Mississippi from the gulf at Gautier to the hub of Hattiesburg inspecting the voluminous damage the Category 4 storm incurred.

“The further south you go, it gets worse and worse, of course,” said Ferrell, vice president of SouthGroup in Hattiesburg. “To see it is really something.”

Ferrell, who was 14 when Hurricane Camille romped through the state paralleling Interstate 59 in 1969, said there was “just as much debris, but Katrina was much broader. By comparison, Camille was a small swat. This is devastating from border to border. For example, there are folks in Gautier that had four to five feet of water in their house this time that didn’t have a drop of water during Camille.”

Tough conditions for everyone

Ferrell and other insurance folks, especially those constantly out in the field, are working long hours amid stress-filled conditions, sometimes in dangerous environments, to help the hundreds of thousands of people affected by what was arguably the nation’s worst natural disaster.

“Looking at our staff, you could see how people handled stress differently,” said an insurance executive near the Gulf Coast, who requested anonymity. “The majority handled it fine, but some people didn’t, and we had to send them home. It really was tough. Some clients, you almost have to hang up on because they don’t handle it well.”

State insurance commissioner George Dale, who is serving his eighth consecutive term, relieves stress by “running and cuttin’ yards,” like Forrest Gump’s character did admirably in the 1994 movie by the same name.

“The good Lord has blessed me with a low-tension button,” joked Dale. “I’ve never been one to be stressed out about very many things. I’m bothered by stressful times, and sometimes I may become less patient with people. I may want to get to the point of a conversation fast and move on to something else, whereas under normal conditions, I’d want to carry on.”

Within hours after the hurricane weakened onshore, Shelter Insurance dispatched storm teams in RVs to infiltrate stricken areas and settle claims quickly.

“These storm teams are extremely proficient at handling big claims,” said Michael Crews, a Shelter Insurance agent in Brandon. “Some of these people don’t have phones, and some don’t even have street signs anymore for adjusters to find them, but these teams use mapping machines to help them get to people. The adjuster shows up, does an on-the-spot appraisal and cuts the clients a check. It’s been a real morale booster for my clients. And for me, too.”

Because Shelter’s storm teams are working seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Shelter agents, boosted by corporate support, are working alongside them.

“One agent in Hattiesburg set up a hot dog stand and beverages for clients because he had 1,200 claims by himself,” said Crews. “Many of his clients were homeless, so at least they were able to get a hot meal and talk to a claims person right then for direct support. The frustrating part on the agent’s side is they want to do more.”

Technology helps

Ferrell, who worked Hurricanes Frederick and Georges and several ice storms, said technology has drastically improved the reporting process. “Back during Frederick and even in the 1990s, we had to manually fill out a sheet on every loss,” he said. “We have none of that now. We can report online directly. We have offices across the state, so we can e-mail information to those guys and let them take off some of the burden.”

Rhonda Ferguson, owner of Financial Concepts in Columbus and a financial planner who handles investments and life insurance products, hasn’t been involved in the claims process, but said she has been impressed by mass e-mails and commercials from insurance companies offering support to those in the magnolia state. “They have been extremely compassionate,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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