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Surviving and Thriving After Catastrophe

By October 2, 2019September 15th, 2021Disaster, Industry Information, Planning

Surviving and Thriving After Catastrophe

Disaster can be swift and devastating.  Place yourself in the shoes of the two agencies who are going to share their experience.  Then start making your plan for coping with the catastrophic.

Real-Life Agency Experience #1

Imagine a quiet late Sunday afternoon.   You are relaxing at home while your wife (and agency partner) decides to make a quick trip to the office to handle a simple task before Monday morning.   Breaking the peace and silence, a weather report cautions that a tornado has shifted course and is headed straight towards downtown and your office building where your wife is still working.

You call to alert your wife, but there is no time for her to evacuate.  You race in your truck to get to town only to find debris littering the roads everywhere, impeding your travel and eventually flattening all four tires.   The only option is to hike the rest of the way giving you far too much time to survey the devastation that has wiped out 1/3 of your hometown of Joplin, Missouri, destroyed 7500 homes, killed 161 people and caused over $2.8 billion in damage.

This was Bill Hinman’s nightmare. Bill eventually reached his wife, Bonnie, who had miraculously survived by crouching under a heavy metal office chair in a corner of their building as the roof and walls collapsed on top of her.   How would their agency survive such a complete loss?  How could they possibly begin to serve their clients who had also experienced massive losses?  19,000 claims were filed in Joplin within a month of the tornado!

Real-Life Agency Experience #2

Now imagine another Sunday evening. After a busy weekend of chores, church, and friends, you are sitting in a dark movie theater with your spouse enjoying an evening show.   Your cell phone, dutifully set to silent mode during the movie, starts a persistent round of fierce vibrations.  Eventually, you excuse yourself to the lobby where voicemails and calls from your co-workers alert you to news that a devastating arson fire has engulfed your agency, reducing almost everything to ashes.  Even in their worst dreams, Christopher and Sarah Togawa could not have imagined such a loss.

What Happens Next?

Bill Hinman of Midwest Insurance in Joplin, MO and Christopher Togawa of Christopher Togawa Insurance Agency in Seattle, WA are both long-time agents and HawkSoft users.  They were kind enough to share their stories of unexpected catastrophic loss with agents attending the 2019 HawkSoft User Group conference in Las Vegas.

Everyone in the audience was challenged to think about how prepared they might be if a catastrophic event hit their agencies.  Hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, massive windstorms, floods, and even earthquakes can render our agencies helpless at a time when our clients need us the most.   Even a single location loss can disrupt agency sales and operations for months.

Questions raced through attendees’ minds about how they would cope if key agency employees were unavailable because they had families and homes also at risk in a region-wide disaster.

After assuring everyone’s safety, other critical concerns flood the consciousness:

  • How and where to relocate the office?
  • Will clients be able to find us?
  • Can critical IT equipment and programming be replaced quickly?
  • What can be done if there is a loss of phone, power, and/or internet?
  • What resources are available to help care for clients and report claims?

Whether the loss is isolated to a single location, as was the case with Christopher’s agency, or destroys a massive area of an agent’s community, as the tornado did to Bill’s, many of the recommendations for preparedness are similar.

Getting Prepared

In this article, we will attempt to summarize the wisdom shared by Christopher and Bill. There are also extremely comprehensive risk assessment and disaster planning guides available to IIABA members on the ACT (Agents Council for Technology) website.

  • Advance Planning & Training:
    • Discuss expectations and responsibilities of each team member
      • Appoint a catastrophe coordinator who will provide pre-disaster training and will be the point-person for delegating tasks as required by specific event.
      • Determine in advance who will update website & social media. Confirm they have the training to execute under stress.
      • Assign a team member to be point of contact with carriers.
    • Create master phone/text contact list (digital & paper)
      • All team members & their emergency contacts
      • Insurance carrier claims departments
      • Vendors such as HawkSoft, IT contractors, landlord
      • Recommended contractors and vendors to share with clients
      • Agents or other businesses outside of immediate area who are willing to share space and equipment – a “Mutual Aid Society.”
    • Plan for remote work if office is inaccessible
      • Schedule regular “work from home days” to assure remote competency and determine if additional equipment or software is needed.
      • VOIP phone system with app installed on each team member’s mobile phone. Does their mobile phone have hot spot capability?
      • Laptops or tablets issued to each team member and maintained at home.
    • Nurture relationships with carriers, clients, community, and employees before a disaster strikes as you never know who will be in a position to help when you need it.
      • Bill had an investor friend with available space to lease immediately. Office furnishings were put on hold while clients’ claims were processed from a card table and folding chairs.
      • One of Christopher’s longtime insurance carrier partners provided office space for CTIA’s team for months while a new location was secured and remodeled.
      • Both Bill and Christopher offered high praise for the quick and responsive assistance they received from HawkSoft in their time of need. In fact, Bill was not even a HawkSoft client when the tornado hit.   He had been researching a new agency management system.  HawkSoft was on his short-list, but he had not yet signed a contract.  That didn’t slow the team at HawkSoft!

“HawkSoft went out of their way to expedite the process to get us ‘live’ as they knew we were limping by.  Their efforts were a key part of us getting back to some kind of normal.  I knew HawkSoft was the right decision by the actions of their employees through this process.”   Bill Hinman

  • Infrastructure
    • Redundant data back up plans – on and off-site
      • Make sure they are tested for reliability
    • Alternative communications and internet systems
      • Redundant internet systems from different carriers
      • Hot spots as a back up if broadband is down
    • Internet based phone system (VOIP)
      • Confirm that all team members have VOIP app installed on their phones, and they know how to use it.
    • Cloud-based software – such as Office 365
      • Verify that all needed programs are installed on each home-based laptop/tablet and that updates are run regularly.
    • Backup power options such as generators or UPS
  • Team Safety
    • Disasters can hit during office hours or when your employees are in transit to your office. Have adequate stores of water, canned food, and blankets in case your team needs to shelter in place.
    • Maintain a supply of flashlights, batteries, tools, and work gloves.
    • Invest in several emergency radios (battery operated and crank style) to help monitor news.
      • Purchase “Go-Bags” for each team member that can be stored in their cars to provide up to 72 hours of emergency supplies regardless of where the employee may be geographically when the disaster hits. Employees should personalize the bags with extra clothes and sturdy shoes along with family contact information.  Recommendation:
    • Consider creating IT “Go-Bags” that are pre-packed with laptop sleeves, extra power cords, batteries, hot spots, power banks, etc. that can be grabbed quickly if evacuation of the office is required.

This brief article is only the start of an in-depth conversation that every agency team should be having.

What will be your story?  

If we know anything as insurance agency owners, it’s that life is unpredictable.   We have an obligation to our clients, our employees and our families to do whatever we can in advance in order to survive and thrive after an unexpected loss.

Where will you start today?    Please feel free to use this basic list as a starting point.  Look for the “low-hanging fruit” that you can implement immediately.   Add one or two items each month.  Continue to practice and train with your team, and you’ll be ready for whatever unexpected experience comes your way.

By:  Claudia McClain (Agency owner of McClain Insurance Services , Everett, WA), HUG Board Member