Fairfield Ledger
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Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | May 24, 2018

Locals aid in hurricane recovery

Seventy Fairfield residents responded to hurricanes in Texas, Florida
By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Feb 01, 2018
Source: PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN WALKER Fairfield residents who worked as insurance adjusters in Florida after Hurricane Irma pose for a picture outside Hurricane Grill & Wings in Orlando. From left are, front row: Kyla Heaton, Colin Heaton, Mike Kramer, Chelsea Van Es and John Loin; second row: Luke Benjamin, Joe Sanner, Nelson Figueroa, Chris Dieter (above) and Rene Holmberg.

Many Fairfield residents helped hurricane victims get back on their feet after a pair of tropical storms caused enormous damage to Texas and Florida.

The residents were insurance adjusters working for the Jefferson County-based company Walker Group Inc., owned by Dan Walker. A group of 110 people, about 70 from Fairfield, was dispatched to the two major hurricanes last summer, starting with a trip to the Houston metropolitan area to assess the flood damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in August. Less than a month later, a crew was sent to Florida to help people recover from Hurricane Irma’s destructive winds.

 

Dan Walker

Walker started his insurance adjusting business in 2004 after four major hurricanes hit Florida. An insurance adjuster’s job is to document damage caused by an event and to share that information with the insurance company so the policy holder can be reimbursed for their loss.

“The [policy holder] files a claim through their insurance agent, and our job is to verify the damage by taking photos and diagramming the building,” Walker said. “If we do our job right, we’ll find damages they didn’t even know they had because we’re trained to spot them.”

Insurance adjusters are paid a percentage of the claim that goes to the homeowner, so it’s in their interest to document the damage as thoroughly as possible.

Walker has 3,500 adjusters in his database and several hundred in Fairfield alone. Not everyone can drop what they’re doing and respond to a hurricane, so sometimes the company has to call 500 people to get 100 to go.

“People do this for two reasons: the pay is good, and they feel empathy for the area that has been hit by the hurricane,” Walker said.

Adjusters have to be ready to leave within 72 hours of the disaster, but Walker said that’s doable.

“Hurricanes don’t sneak up on anyone,” he said. “We watch them for two weeks before they make landfall.”

Insurance companies have staff to investigate claims, but they’re overwhelmed for disasters like hurricanes that can generate 100,000 claims. They call independent adjusting companies like Walker’s when they need 100 adjusters at a moment’s notice.

Field work involves inspecting homes from 7-8 a.m. until about 5-6 p.m., then spending the evening writing estimates and scheduling meetings with other homeowners, maybe even 30 days in advance.

“It’s really rewarding work, and people are glad to see you because it means they’re going to get a check and then they can repair their property,” Walker said.

Andrew Perry

Fairfield resident Andrew Perry became an insurance adjuster for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 at age 20. He liked the excitement of being on a “deployment,” to work on the ground in an active catastrophe zone and to help people recover from their loss. His mentor at the time, Roland Wells, gave him sage advice on his first day on the job. He told Perry the storm victims had just experienced a life-altering trauma, and might be afraid that their insurance company would take advantage of them. Wells said an adjuster’s job is not only to document as much damage as possible, but also to help the victims heal, and that resonated with Perry.

Perry was among the group of locals to travel to Texas and Florida last summer. Insurance adjusting after a disaster is grueling work because the adjusters are trying to document as many damaged homes in a day as they can. For the first two weeks of his deployment, Perry said he worked 18- to 20-hour days. He was on site for a few months, working at least 12 hours every day.

The job entails long days in the sun on rooftops, then coming home to compile estimates and create reports, plus scheduling appointments for the days ahead.

“Meanwhile, you might be sleeping on the floor of a church trying to find internet access, housing, decent food, and a shower and laundry,” he said. “You’re the squeeze point between homeowner and the insurance carrier and state government, so there’s a lot of pressure to deliver the logistically impossible ‘Close all claims, yesterday!’”

 

John Loin

John Loin trained to be an insurance adjuster in 2006, and waited 11 years before he used his talents in the field. He knew the company might dispatch a crew to Hurricane Harvey, so when Walker called upon him, Loin was already packed.

He was in Texas for a few weeks documenting flood damage before he was called away to Florida, where he spent the bulk of his time. He worked in central Florida near Fort Myers and Cape Coral.

Loin was gone for 11 weeks, working every day from dawn to well after dusk.

“When you lose your whole home, it shakes you up,” he said. “I liked being in that position to help people and get their lives back together.”

The trip was also satisfying because Loin got to work with his daughter Chelsea, a Maharishi School graduate who lives in California now. Loin did the field work during the day, assessing the damage and taking photographs. He passed the information to his daughter each night, who then wrote the report. Loin liked that division of labor because computer work was not his specialty, but his daughter has been a computer wiz since she was 6 years old.

“We pretty much work from 8 a.m. to midnight or 1 a.m.,” he said. “I worked 70 days in a row. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before, and I loved every minute of it.”

 

Shoan Dieter

Insurance adjusting is a family affair in the Dieter household. Shoan and her husband Chris both work for Walker Group – Shoan as the administrator and Chris as an adjuster. Shoan gives the adjusters information about their assignment such as when and where they’ll go, and who their supervisor is.

Shoan said it’s a nice feeling to know how many people the company helped recover from the hurricane. She was proud of how the adjusters, many of them on their first deployment, “buckled down and gritted their teeth” in the face of long working hours and sometimes rough conditions.

“Some of the workers camped out in the beginning days,” she said. “They became very resourceful, and they came back richly rewarded. I feel very happy to know we have people willing to work hard.”

Insurance adjusters stayed at hotels, in RVs and at AirBnBs. AirBnB owners sometimes rented to other displaced homeowners for as little as $1 per night. Working from group AirBnBs, Shoan worked closely with team manager Roland Wells on spreadsheets and other administrative responsibilities, while also offering support to the adjusters in the field.

 

Chris Dieter

Chris became interested in insurance adjusting after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he heard from other adjusters about how personally rewarding the experience was and how much money they made. He thought about learning the insurance software so he could be called to the next hurricane, but at the time, he was not able to take so much leave from work.

“It’s definitely an oddball kind of job,” he said. “You have to be in a position where you can drop what you’re doing and head off for a few months, and not many people can take that much time off.”

He decided to take the training course in the summer of 2017, and as luck would have it, Hurricane Harvey made landfall a month later and Chris was on his first deployment.

“When I got there, my mouth hung open,” he said. “Not only did we see flooding but we saw roofs blown off homes. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Debris was everywhere and boats were sunk in the water.”

Chris was told to “start slow” by assessing one or two houses per day, and then work his way up to three.

“You take pictures, talk to the homeowners, take measurements and sketches of the house like a floor plan,” Chris said. “When you get 12-14 inches of water in a house, it gets everywhere. There are no basements in either [Texas or Florida], so the bottom level is their living space.”

The flooding caused sewer lines to back up, so furniture was doused in not only tidal water but sewage as well.

“Once that gets into fabrics, there’s no way to clean it out of your mattress or couch,” Chris said.

Chris said he took about 100 pictures at each house he visited. Every night, he would download and label his pictures, draw a sketch of the floorplan and measurements, and write his report.

Doing both jobs is hard work, so while in Texas, Chris found a man and his daughter whom he split 30 claims with. Chris did the field work and they wrote the reports.

He did the same thing in Florida, where he documented damage at 80 homes and then hired people to do the paperwork.

Chris was glad he got the experience of being on a deployment, which came at a good time for him. He was working with The Sky Factory at the time, and he had just returned to Fairfield after having driven the company’s mobile showroom around the country.

“It comes back to Fairfield every year to get worked on, and while I was here, I asked for the time off,” he said. “They were nice enough to let me go to Texas.”

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