Hurricanes and Heartache on the Texas Coast
A Timeline of the 2017 Storm Season
By the time Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas near the Rockport-Fulton area on August 25th, four tropical storms and two hurricanes had already been and gone. None, however, packed Harvey’s punch. A Category 4 storm, Harvey’s winds reached 130 mph. Stalling over the Texas coast for days, Harvey eventually returned to the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm. But on August 30th, it made a comeback, this time landing near Cameron, Louisiana. Days of unyielding rain and high-powered winds sent numerous counties into survival mode, displacing millions. In the six days it spent on land, Harvey killed more than 80 people, dumped more than 27 trillion gallons of water, and cost an estimated $75–$190 billion in damages, so far.
While Hurricane Harvey performed its encore in Louisiana, another storm grew. Within 24 hours, Tropical Storm Irma became a hurricane. Days later, the National Hurricane Center upgraded Hurricane Irma to a Category 5—its severest rating. With winds reaching or exceeding 157 mph, catastrophe was said to be imminent. On September 6th, Hurricane Irma struck Antigua, Barbuda, St. Martin, Anguilla, St. Kitts, Nevis, the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands, before causing further damage and destruction in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Then on September 10th, Irma struck the Florida Keys. Gradually weakening, the storm continued moving northward. By the time Irma fell apart over Tennessee on September 13th, it had killed at least 70 people and caused an estimated $50–$100 billion in damages.
On September 18th, Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 storm, devastated the Caribbean island of Dominica. Two days later, Maria became the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years. Eight weeks after the storm, estimates put the death toll at more than 51 and damages at $90 billion and rising. Damage was so widespread and severe that some reporters described the storm as “apocalyptic.”
This year’s overwhelming and heart-rending hurricane season ended on November 30th. In a list of 26 storm names reserved for 2017, only six names are unclaimed. Costs to global insurance and reinsurance sectors is estimated at $190 billion or more. And the personal devastation coupled with personal heroism revealed in this season of hurricanes is extraordinary.
Dr. William T. Hold, CIC, CPCU, CLU, President of The National Alliance, expressed it this way, “Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are still raw in our memories. Disasters like these rock our foundations physically and emotionally and make us reconsider what is important. So many lost so much in these super storms, with each individual and family affected facing a very real test.
We all watched as the touching personal stories unfolded on television before our eyes—millions of people suffering, their lives under threat. It was difficult at times to know how to help. In our stead, there were the first responders, sacrificing their own wellbeing. Soon, there were neighbors and strangers, gallantly helping one another, holding out a hand as a link to safety and life.
Then, there were first responders of another kind—insurance agents, claims personnel, brokers, and underwriters who hit the ground running. They were doing what insurance professionals do, but both on an individual and a massive scale, helping rebuild lives and opening a way forward for their clients.”
In the stories here, you will read about the individuals and agency representatives who experienced the storms firsthand either as victims, first responders, or both. And you will hear about some of the people at The National Alliance who are dedicated to making this ‘year after’ a season of giving.
The National Alliance’s Chief Innovation and Academic Development Officer, Mitch Dunford, and Video Production Specialist, Ben Griffin, took a trip to South Texas just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey’s landfall. In their travels, the two recorded the hurricane’s devastation as they headed south. They interviewed storm victims and on-the-ground insurance personnel, some of whom had also lost everything themselves, but were working hard to serve their clients in the wake of the storm. In Rockport, Texas, Mitch interviewed Blake McDavid, VP of Sales, and Kenny Cruzan, IT Manager, both of GSM Insurors, a family-owned insurance agency which has been in business in Rockport since 1923.
Learning Harvey’s Lessons—Blake McDavid, VP of Sales, GSM Insurors
Blake McDavid has lived in Rockport all of his life and has seen his share of extreme weather. Yet none of it, he says, compares to Hurricane Harvey. “Reports before the storm indicated that Harvey wouldn’t be anything more than a tropical depression. I think one lesson from this experience is to not take anything for granted. Get prepared, get your family prepared, and get your agency prepared. Have a plan in place well before hurricane season. That way, you can act quickly when a weather situation changes.”
On the morning of August 25th, Harvey intensified rapidly from a tropical depression to a major Category 3 hurricane. McDavid recalls, “We went from, ‘We’ll stick around and ride it out,’ to ‘We have to get out of town,’ within the span of a few hours. We had an action plan, but once we made the decision to go, so had the rest of the Coast. The highways were flooded with people, the hotels were flooded with people, and we realized that we needed a longer-term plan. We had already booked a hotel, but we knew we might not have a livable place in Rockport to go back to the next day. Luckily, we were able to book for a longer stay out of town—that way we could assess from afar, get back in as soon as we could, and then reassess from within the disaster area.”
McDavid’s agency knows it pays to be proactive in times of disaster. Following an extreme weather event, especially one of such magnitude, establishing one-on-one communication with clients is a priority. “You can never plan 100% for an event like this,” says McDavid. “But we had a backup office location ready to go so we could be up and running within 48 hours of returning to town. We assumed that our buildings would be knocked down—assumed that the worst would have happened.”
One thing McDavid says they never anticipated was the personal side of their employees’ situations. “What if our employees’ houses are gone? Logistically, where do they go? Most people run to their families who are out of town. For others, because it was a last-minute decision, the hotels are full, and their choices are limited. As a result, we wound up with personnel spread across the state, and we knew we would need them here to respond to the requirements of the community. So getting the office up and running was the first and most challenging task. It was a big help to have key people on the IT side and on the operations side who were mobile. They were initially outside the disaster zone, where they could use cell phones to call our employees and see if they were okay—find out where they were going to be. Then these key people were able to get back into Rockport, check on employees’ houses and scout the situation.” McDavid recommends, “Go with your plan and then improvise as the situation unfolds.”
McDavid has nothing but praise for local residents. “As torn up as our town was, we have been so impressed with the citizens of Rockport and the people in communities nearby—Ingleside, Port Aransas. People came back in really quickly. It was important that our agency be here and that the people see us here—to answer questions, yes, but more importantly, just to be here. We had a lot of people coming in, and they didn’t know what their next step was. They were broken—they were crying, and they’d lost everything. It was important to be here for them—just be here for them and relate directly to them on a human level—to our customers, to our employees.”
Handling the human side of things, the constant flow of insureds coming through the office turned out to be an unforeseen emotional challenge. “But since we are living it as well,” says McDavid, “we can empathize. We live just blocks away from the office. We have a very personal relationship with most of our insureds. Don’t ever forget the relationship side of your business because in times like these, it’s important for both client and agent. You’re helping your clients emotionally, financially, supportively.” All of these elements factor in to making a difference in clients’ lives, helping them to hold on.
“We’re working hard to keep ahead of the claims,” McDavid says. “By about three in the afternoon every day, after starting at six in the morning, we are physically and emotionally drained. Partially just from the workload, but it’s also from the weight of the stories we hear coming from our clients. That is very difficult for us to handle. Many on our staff have lost their homes and everything as well, but they feel so bad for the people coming in. It’s been a bigger emotional ride that we could have ever imagined.”
According to McDavid, the response from inside and outside the community has been huge. “Everybody has been amazed at the support we have received locally, statewide, and nationally. We have volunteers who are cleaning up people’s yards, houses, and picking up debris,” observes McDavid. “That has helped so much on the emotional side. When people can go to their damaged homes and not see the downed trees, the storm debris, or shingles and roofing all over the property, it helps their psyche a little bit to have their properties looking more normal. Or they can return to wherever they are staying out of town, feel some relief, and say, ‘Okay, because the yard was cleaned up today, I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.’”
It seems that most people in the Rockport area want to rebuild right away. McDavid says,
“If people could get their insurance checks tomorrow, they’d be trying to reconstruct their homes. Educating clients that this is a disaster on a wide scale, encouraging them to have patience, and readying them for a realistic rebuilding timeline is important. We tell them, ‘You are going to hear from your adjuster next, and the adjuster is not going to have a check when they show up at your house. The adjuster will gather information on-site and pass it along to a desk adjuster, and the process will go from there. By that time, services and resources will be back in place.’ That’s been an education process. The phase we’re in now is, ‘Okay, where’s my check?’ I’m excited about that because it means people want to stay and rebuild.”
“Agencies need to nurture a relationship with the local government in situations like this,” says McDavid. “Without our relationship with the local government, we couldn’t have come to the assistance of the community as effectively as we have. The local and state groups brought their representatives in and answered people’s questions as quickly as they could. The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) is here and has been very responsive. All the insurance carriers have been good at showing up. Being able to have them on-site is fantastic.”
A Man with a Plan and a Heavy Heart—Kenny Cruzan, IT Manager, GSM Insurors
Kenny Cruzan has been through a lot in the last two weeks. According to his colleagues, it is thanks to Cruzan that they were able to get back up and running so quickly after the hurricane. But it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s been a heavy heartache to see all the destruction,” shares Cruzan. “You see it in the movies, on TV, maybe on the news, but it’s different in real life, in person. It chokes me up just now thinking about it,” says Cruzan with tears in his eyes. “I’ve been living it, so it’s pretty tough. I have a hard time talking about it.”
At GSM they plan for different kinds of natural disasters, but hurricanes are number one on their list. Cruzan explains, “We have a pretty good disaster recovery plan. We edit it, and we test it about once a year. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita scared us a lot and alerted us to some potential pitfalls. We used to have all of our servers here, not to mention all the computers and hardware. But after Rita, we moved everything off-site to a secure center in Austin, Texas. It’s a full back-up system that we can virtualize in a manner of minutes. So if we have downed servers, we can virtualize not only in the location we are in, but we can also virtualize in several other locations, as well—from the Cloud. That gives us the ability to get up and running quickly.”
With Hurricane Harvey, the main obstacle that emerged for GSM was a communications problem. “We do have a fiber line here,” says Cruzan. “I expected the fiber line to stay up and running because it’s underground. But in this situation, nothing was available after Harvey hit. Later on, we found out that one fiber provider was back up faster than the others. Since that time, we’ve tried to see how we can get that provider. Fiber build-out can take up to 90 days here right now.”
Cruzan recalls, “As a stop-gap, we put up some antennas. Luckily, my father-in-law is a builder. We got some construction antennas from him, and I had some wireless antennas configured. We put one on our building and one on the school down the road. We were able to borrow their fiber, and that’s how we have internet. We insure the school district and the county, and they both worked with us to share bandwidth. We’re on an outside secure line, totally separate from theirs. The schools are closed right now, so they don’t really need the bandwidth until they can reopen.”
One of the first things GSM got back was cell phone service. The three major carriers reestablished service at different times, and service blinked off and returned at different times. Cruzan says, “Moving forward, we’ll take our understanding of the little hotspots which we found and our understanding of cell carriers’ coverage into consideration. We actually used all three carriers. My advice is to purchase multiple phones from multiple vendors and have them on hand at all times.”
“To be able to conduct business, getting electricity was the number one priority,” Cruzan emphasizes, “and we got the generators set up, and the electricity going. Secondly, we worked on getting our computers up and running. Then we concentrated on internet service so we could access our servers and our data in Austin. Once we had internet, we slowly put the pieces back together, getting more bandwidth and a little more functionality as far as phones go. We started calling customers on cell phones once the cell towers were back up. So here we are,” says Cruzan proudly, “two weeks in, and we’re probably the only insurance office that is in its original building that has power, water, phone, and high-speed internet.”