The event encompassing Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on August 29th, 2005 and the subsequent breach of the federally built and maintained levees that caused 80 percent of New Orleans to flood and killed 1,833 people, also constituted the largest insured loss the world over since 1970 – to the tune of $78.64 billion. In this short series over the week leading up to the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Comp Blog takes a look back. This edition of “Comp Blog Commemorates K10” features Toby Wallis of the Baton Rouge-based Wallis Group, who was on the ground after Katrina, witnessing the personal and systemic after-effects of the hundred year storm.
Comp Blog: What was your personal experience during the storm?
Wallis: We are multi-line claims adjusters and early in my career I participated in a number of catastrophes. Anytime a hurricane enters the Gulf, we place our people on standby. As Hurricane Katrina continued to gather strength, by Sunday the 28th we had been contacted by many clients and were ready for deployment. Once the storm passed, one of the companies I was working for had a pre-deployment station in Houston. I drove to Houston, secured my equipment, and returned to Baton Rouge. From there it was a waiting game until we could get permission to enter the city.
Comp Blog: Evacuated New Orleanians were called “refugees” by both national and local media outlets because of the chaos and poor bureaucratic preparedness. Did you see any such “refugees” in Baton Rouge?
Wallis: One personal story comes to mind. A good friend of mine in Shreveport called me a week after the storm and asked me to help establish a connection with his sister who I had never met. She worked in one of the nursing homes in New Orleans and was evacuated a week later to a Red Cross Center in Baton Rouge. In a sleep deprived state, she walked 3 miles from the Center to the bus station, called her family, and walked another3 miles to a restaurant in Baton Rouge trying to network with her family to get help.
I hung up with my friend and immediately went to the restaurant where I found her sitting by herself still in her nursing outfit that she had been wearing since the storm. She was obviously sleep deprived, when I introduced myself she had this tearful smile on her face. On the ride home there was deadlock traffic and helicopters going back and forth presumably to New Orleans. Once we finally arrived home, she proceeded to tell me and my wife her story.
Comp Blog: What happened?
Wallis: She didn’t drive so she normally took public transportation to work. Since she was not married and didn’t have any children, she stayed at the nursing home during Katrina. She was part of a skeleton crew that remained because most of her coworkers with families evacuated. The home was apparently damaged during the storm and had water throughout the facility. She said that it was an insurmountable task trying to care for patients without power. They had to use the light from their cell phones to administer medications. Eventually, the cell phone batteries died. She talked about losing patients. At some point, looters came into the building and she described having to hide in a closet. She stayed with her patients and coworkers throughout the ordeal for a week until they were eventually transported by barge to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River.
Comp Blog: So how long was Baton Rouge profoundly affected by the influx of evacuees and National Guardsmen, etc.?
Wallis: I had heard Baton Rouge’s population temporarily grew by something like 60,000. Once we received clearance to enter the city, I was working in New Orleans for the next year.
Comp Blog: What was it like getting back into the city?
Wallis: I’ll never forget that first day driving in from Baton Rouge on I-10, it must have been September 14th. I stayed in the right-hand lane in fear of getting run over by first responders. The roadway was just full of Humvees, state police, military…it was surreal. For the first few months, there was no where to stay so I would get up at 4 AM and drive in from Baton Rouge, get my assignments, and go to work.
It was amazing to see how people reached out to help each other. If you drove around Baton Rouge neighborhoods, you’d see three or four cars packed in each driveway. Friends, relatives, strangers just opened up their homes and that lasted for many, many months.
Comp Blog: So you got a chance to see the catastrophe up close while working as an independent adjuster on these Katrina-related claims. How did those first assignments go down in New Orleans?
Wallis: Yes I did. I was personally working for State Farm at the time and then our group later assisted Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. We weren’t Citizens’ original vendor but they were just absolutely overwhelmed with claims since they were literally in the midst of changing service providers [when the storm hit.] The timing was unfortunate. Overall, we had a team of about fifty people, boots on the ground, handling homeowners and commercial property claims.
Comp Blog: What was the thing that struck you the most in handling Katrina-related claims compared to your previous work in catastrophe situations?
Wallis: I had worked Hurricanes Charley and Frances in Melbourne, Florida in 2004 and Hurricane Andrew in Baton Rouge in 1992, but the one thing that stood out in Katrina was the fear on people’s faces when you were working with them. In those other disasters, even if someone had a lot of damage to their home or business, the overall infrastructure of their life was going to be okay. With Katrina, even if people’s homes were comparatively not destroyed, you could see in their eyes the fear and the uncertainty – wondering if they were going to have a job, a source of income, whether they could rebuild their business in a city that had just been devastated so totally.
Comp Blog: What about outside of the New Orleans area?
Wallis: That was the other thing that really impacted me. Plaquemines Parish was closed to us for a few months and the first time I made it down there to evaluate some claims I remember there was a checkpoint at Port Sulphur. From that point, and then once you crossed the bridge in Empire, I recall seeing these boats and barges piled up on the side of the bridge and the levee. There were homes in the middle of the streets where they eventually came to rest after floating off of their foundation. One of the homes I inspected was a 2-story on a concrete slab located near where the levee breached. I remember being in the attic and measuring from the seaweed in the attic to the ground which was 28 feet. It was hard to wrap your brain around the devastation experienced there.
Comp Blog: So what do you think had changed the most in the decade after Katrina, either personally or professionally?
Wallis: What’s helped the claims community since 2005 is the continuing progress of the digital world we live in. We now have web-based claims administration systems, satellite imagery to assist in estimating software, and other technologies that help in getting the money in the insured’s hands faster.
Comp Blog: Are you worried about complacency, especially now that we’re a whole decade out?
Wallis: It’s important to keep the memory and the awareness alive, especially for younger people that don’t remember every detail of the evacuation and aftermath of Katrina. Among some of my New Orleanian friends before Katrina there was almost this cavalier attitude about evacuating – many hurricanes had hit the Gulf but New Orleans always seemed to be spared! The resurgence of that attitude is absolutely a concern now. And as I was saying before, the fear and the uncertainty that I witnessed after the storm was absolutely related to the fact that people were not prepared. I can’t tell you how many businesses had no disaster recovery and business continuation plan or how many people didn’t have the appropriate coverages and lost everything. I hope people stay vigilant during this 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina because it’s so easy to become complacent.
Images courtesy of Toby Wallis, The Wallis Group