Ensuring Storm Surge Preparedness

While events like Boscastle, Cockermouth and the heavy flooding recently associated with Storms Desmond and Eva dominate the headlines, the truth is that each year between four and six ‘surge’ events take place. These may not make the national news but place significant demands upon the response teams that deal with the aftermath – from the emergency services to property insurance and repair specialists.

The wettest December in a century caused the flooding of more than 16,000 homes throughout Desmond and Eva, sending home emergency response providers into surge. In this article we look at how effective storm surge planning and mobilisation on the part of insurance claim service providers can benefit both policy holders and insurers alike.

While storm surge events typically occur over the winter months due to ground saturation, they may still occur over wet summers as demonstrated by the 2004 Boscastle flooding. A robust surge plan must therefore be in place for deployment year-round by the home emergency response teams contracted to home and business insurers.

Storm surges can however generally be predicted, with experts such as Weathernet providing five-day forecasts followed by updates on a two-hourly basis during extreme weather. Local water authorities and the Environment Agency also issue alerts as to which rivers and waterways are likely to break their banks and cause flooding.

Using these forecasts, home emergency companies review their resources constantly to ensure they have sufficient staff internally and suppliers externally – roofers, plumbers, electricians, drainage suppliers etc – in any region impacted, to service the number of properties that are anticipated to be affected. This may include relocating suppliers from unaffected areas of the country to manage the surge as well as utilising on call and temporary staffing in service centres.

During the course of Storm Desmond, CET Property Assurance reached surge levels – defined as the point at which claim volume is 40% above claims forecast – very quickly. Due to forecasting however, the home emergency team were able to assemble a task force consisting of more than 50 suppliers in Cumbria drawn from across the country, which gave potential access to over 300 individual tradespeople.

To assist the clients’ building network, CET called in electricians to install temporary power for pumping and drying equipment; gas engineers to inspect boilers and cookers as well as providing heat for homeowners who elected not to move out; and a team tasked with stripping out properties prior to drying and repair.

Monitoring calls and forecasts throughout the day, the CET home emergency team were able to map incoming calls to predict which were the worst affected areas and therefore where further calls were likely to occur in order to plan resources, while the forecast was also closely tracked as the risk of a second stage of heavy rainfall grew. Hazardous working conditions, particularly under the risk of reflooding, can present a health and safety risk to the task force which must also be closely monitored.

Working closely with clients’ loss adjusters, forecasters and relevant government agencies is essential when a second or subsequent flooding event threatens to affect the same area, as was the case in Cumbria. If a property is likely to reflood, a home emergency response team’s priority will be making the building safe in terms of electricity and gas supply.

During surge response, communication becomes more critical. All service level agreeements (SLAs) are relaxed but reporting is ramped up, with daily conference calls between an insurer and its home emergency response provider as well as updates on claim volumes, call waiting times and claim completions submitted every two hours.

Working conditions are constantly evaluated with constant communication between tradespeople out on the job and the nerve centre of the operation, with suppliers withdrawn if the risk is too great. Naturally, communication with policy holders is a high priority, and using forecasts can help to provide an estimated timeframe for work recommencing if health and safety risks had caused a postponement.

When the skies clear and water begins to recede, surge conditions remain for days as new claims continue to be logged as work continues on existing claims. During Storm Desmond, CET received more than 900 claim calls over a two-day period – an increase of 60% on a normal December weekend. All home emergency claims were completed within six days thanks to the increased task force, however follow-on work to return properties to a habitable state will be ongoing for several months following the event.

While claims increased by 60%, the actual volume of calls more than doubled, due to the flood occurring over the weekend when many insurers’ claims offices were closed. For insurance customers who had no emergency cover with CET, the company was still the first port of call due to its inclusion in policy booklets.

Here, CET was able to support callers who are elderly or have young children, health problems or other special circumstances, due to an agreement with insurers who will pick up the cost of the callout. Alternatively, should the caller not meet these criteria, a supplier can still be sent on a ‘customer to pay’ basis, with rates agreed in advance with insurers as part of surge preparedness planning. Many insurers, on identifying the surge, actually opened their offices up to support both their policy holders and CET in managing this additional volume.

The use of CET’s custom-built smartphone app was instrumental in managing this latest surge period and maintaining open communication links at all stages. The most significant benefit of the app was its ability to free up call handlers to liaise directly with customers, as all supplier communication is achieved through the app. Saving an average of six minutes per claim, the app also provided valuable real-time data on how claims were progressing.

Should a supplier need authorisationfor additional parts or labour, a request could be submitted back to the servicecentre through the app without having to leave the property, and authorisation could be given immediately with all messages logged for the insurance company to inspect as wished. Logging health and safety assessments and taking before and after pictures were also actioned through the app, resulting in better use of individual resource in the servicecentre as well as providing full information insurers through their own portals.

Over the last three years CET has only had to implement a surge task force on four occasions – however the speed at which it was able to redeploy personnel and move into full surge processes is testament to the importance of robust planning and preparedness.

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