First the Wind, Then Insurance's Ready Team

State Farm's masters of chaos endure tempers, heat, and junk food to bring order after Hurricane Bertha

Ken Albrecht's Ford Taurus contains a dozen maps, a polaroid camera, work boots, coveralls, a ladder, two flashlights, a laptop computer, and an extra pair of socks. On the back seat, there's an empty box of crackers and two cans of Diet Coke.

"Breakfast," he jokes.

As a member of State Farm Insurance's special disaster unit, Mr. Albrecht is a master of chaos. When a catastrophe like Hurricane Bertha strikes, it's his job to scramble in and locate policyholders whose homes have been devastated. It's a claims adjuster's version of the 82nd Airborne.

But in the last three years, Albrecht and his fellow "stormers" have been overwhelmed. From the Midwest floods of 1993 to the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994 and the king of all natural disasters - Hurricane Andrew - America's insurance companies have been forced to refine their emergency response plans.

With the arrival of a storm as large Bertha this early in the hurricane season, stormers like Albrecht are keeping a close watch on the horizon. "Andrew was a wake-up call for the insurance industry," says Mary Beth Kramer, spokeswoman for State Farm, the nation's largest insurer. "It was an incredible drain on our resources."

'Nat Cat' on call

Not only did State Farm alone pay out $3.6 billion in claims after Andrew, but it also had to gut its national work force to assemble an army of 2,000 adjusters. Many of them worked six weeks straight, seven days a week, before returning home for a weekend.

As a result, State Farm created a new category of stormers: the National Catastrophe Team, or "Nat Cat." Its members, many of whom are seasoned disaster veterans, are on call constantly and expected to stay at a site until the last claim is settled.

Albrecht is one of a subset of Nat Cat, the National Reaction or "React" team. His specialty is advance work.

In the bundle of disasters he's covered, from hurricanes Andrew and Hugo, to the Los Angeles earthquake and assorted hailstorms, floods, and tornadoes, he's developed a myriad of talents: finding claimants when computers are down, securing commercial office space on a weekend without telephone service, and talking his way into cordoned off neighborhoods.

As Bertha's winds subsided two weeks ago, Albrecht drove 300 miles from his home in Hickory, N.C., to a local agent's office in Wilmington, where he began sorting through a stack of claims from "severity 1s" - policyholders whose homes have been rendered uninhabitable.

In the days that followed, Albrecht visited these distressed people, wrote checks to cover hotel expenses or tree-removal costs, and set up a triage system: ranking cases by severity.

But a large part of his job is diplomacy. Since the real work will fall to Nat Cat adjusters, his main role is answering questions, taking care of immediate needs, and assuring the policy holders that State Farm is on the job.

"This is the time we cement our relationships with policyholders," Ms. Kramer says. "If we do our jobs here, it's a benefit to us in terms of loyalty. People who've been happy with our reaction in a disaster will tell our adjusters that they're never leaving State Farm. That's what it's all about."

On a recent Monday morning, Albrecht dons his red State Farm Disaster Services shirt and heads off to visit Michael and Julia Davis who live a stone's throw from the ocean. A toppled tree hit their house squarely, and there's a hole in the roof the size of a Buick.

For Albrecht, it's a tense moment. Since most people never have to deal with an insurance company, they often have misconceptions about adjusters. Some expect a confrontation, he says, and assume "that we're not going to give them a dime unless they bleed it out of us."

The science of estimating

Others have already hired contractors without securing an estimate. And some customers expect him to pick up a hammer and get to work. In the absence of air conditioning, he says, tempers are often short.

"You see all kinds of people," Albrecht says. "Some have lost everything and are grateful to see you, and others have lost a few shingles and they're furious that it's been two days. You've got to be able to deal with both."

Fortunately, the Davises are calm and reasonable. Inside the house, their living room carpets and furniture are waterlogged, and the floor is piled with a foot of insulation.

Despite the mess, Albrecht carefully wipes his feet on the welcome mat. He takes a brief look at the damage, asks if they need money to tide them over and if the food in their refrigerator is spoiled. He explains he won't know for sure when an adjuster will see them.

"Somebody else will come out soon to follow your claim to completion," he explains calmly. "I'll make sure it's noted that y'all need some attention right away. We'll take care of you."

Back in the car, Albrecht makes a rough judgement. "There's no major structural damage," he says. "We've got problems with dry wall, insulation, carpeting, and painting, and the cost of materials will add up. I'd say it'll run about $10,000."

Kramer says about 100 Nat Cat adjusters from all over the country, skilled in the science of estimating, will descend on Wilmington to begin the nuts and bolts of reconstruction. Initially, she says, State Farm expects to field less than 20,000 claims - one-sixth as many claims as filed after Andrew.

For Albrecht and his colleagues, there will be plenty of crawling through steamy attics and chowing down on convenience-store lunches, but a great deal of satisfaction, too.

"Damage is damage," he says. "It doesn't matter how bad it is, it's the most important thing in the world to those people. It's nice to be able to help."

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