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Insurance adjusters head to damaged areas

Insurance adjusters are heading to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. Unlike other disasters, however, they must start on the perimeter and work their way in.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Teams of insurance adjusters are en route to areas hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, with many expected to be in place by the end of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, a major insurance trade group said Thursday.

John Eager, senior director for claims with the Chicago-based Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said that adjusters — who must evaluate the damage to homes and businesses before claims can be approved — had begun getting permission to move through checkpoints into storm-damaged areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

“We believe there will be quite a few deployments over the weekend,” Eager told a news conference. “By Monday, we should have a lot of them deployed.”

Eager noted that in most disasters, adjusters move to the hardest hit areas first and work their way toward outlying areas. In the wake of Katrina, however, they’ve started on the perimeter and are working their way in, he said.

St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc. spokeswoman Jennifer Wislocki said the company sent about 100 people to the damaged area to collect claims, with 500 more standing by around the rest of the country. She said adjusters can’t get into New Orleans yet, but they’ve been working in Jackson, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala.

“Because of the challenges of getting into New Orleans, we’re working from the outside in. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion,” she said.

Donald Griffin, a vice president with the insurance association, said safety was a concern because of reports of looting and armed robberies in some of the Gulf Coast cities hit by the hurricane earlier this week. He added that standing flood water also was a concern, as were downed power lines, debris and even snakes.

“Water levels are still high, (and) there are all sorts of things in the water now,” Griffin said.

Griffin also said it was too early to give updated estimates of the cost of the storm for insurers. Risk assessment firms have said insured losses could total up to $25 billion.

“Certainly the $25 billion number is not out of the question,” Griffin said.

That would make Katrina the most expensive hurricane ever, surpassing the $21 billion inflation-adjusted cost for Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Griffin said there likely will be “significant uninsured losses,” too, but did not give an estimate.

Also Thursday, Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurance company, estimated its claims from Katrina would be about $500 million. Earlier in the week, Germany’s Munich Re, the largest reinsurer, said its exposure was expected to be $489 million.

Insurance companies buy reinsurance to spread the risk of losses from catastrophes.

Both Swiss Re and Munich Re estimate that the insurance industry faces claims totaling $20 billion from Katrina, about $5 billion lower than the current estimates from the American risk assessment companies.

Moody’s Investors Service, meanwhile, said in a report it doesn’t anticipate taking extensive rating actions on property and casualty insurers as a result of Katrina pay-outs.

Most of the major insurers, it said, are part of geographically diverse groups with “capitalization sufficient to successfully absorb their share of even a $25 billion industry event.”

Moody’s, which is based in New York, said downgrades for individual companies were possible “where losses from Katrina are much worse than expected.”