Field Experiences of a Female Catastrophe Adjuster.
by Randi Meyer
It was obvious that she was dead. Once you've seen a dead person, there's no doubt in your mind the next time you stumble upon Death's handiwork. And here I was, in a back bedroom of an old house in San Francisco, with two strangers, and a dead woman lying on the bed.
I'm a catastrophe adjuster, the only woman on a team of ten sent into San Francisco after high winds and heavy rain caused more property damage than the local adjusters could handle quickly. Only about 10% of the national pool of catastrophe adjusters, or "cat adjusters," as we're called, are women. Of that 10%, only approximately 3% work without a partner. I work alone. At that moment, I was quite aware of my solitary situation.
Maybe you've been here before, stumbling upon something unexpected so suddenly that time seems to stand still. Your mind frantically tries to attach itself to some reasonable explanation that will catapult the surreal into a recognizable reality. All I could think of was "Ted Bundy could have filed an insurance claim at some time. And I could have been the adjuster who, by a roll of the dice, ended up inside his twisted little world."
I looked at the couple who owned the home. They were all smiles, which made the situation even that more bizarre. And here we were - a smiling couple, a dead woman, and me. The man was pointing to a piece of the ceiling that was starting to sag in the corner of the room nearest the foot of the bed.
Instinctively, I took a step backward toward the door. "Let me come back at a time more convenient for you," I suggested, employing "tact", as in "tactic".
"No, no!" the man blurted emphatically, with a flurry of hand gestures, again pointing toward the ceiling.
There was still no sense to be made of the blatant disregard for the dead body in our midst. Nobody had mentioned it, as though it was a bedspread that would obviously be expected to be draped over the top of the bed. Something had to make sense - soon.
The man was of no use. I looked toward the woman, pointing toward the corpse.
"Was she your mother?" I asked quietly.
"Oh my, no!" the woman giggled. "She's the mother of a friend of ours!. She was sick, and he had to leave town on business. We said she could stay with us. She died this morning, and we didn't know what to do with the body. We called our friend. He's flying back now to make the arrangements."
"She was sick. Now she's dead. We've been waiting for you a long time," the man said forcefully. "You measure!"
It had been a busy year, and I'd been on the road more than usual. My boyfriend was doing his best to keep the home fires burning. Now, whenever my pager went off, a look of terror flickered across his face. "She's leaving again."
A winter storm kicked up its heels enough to require a cat team in the Merrillville / Gary, Indiana area. Dispatch wanted to send me as an Agent Advocate. My job would be to visit the agents in the Merrillville area, let them know the cat team was in place, and alert them to possible coverage questions we were facing. I was told that I would be guaranteed three weeks pay, although the assignment might not take that long. As most of the agents were clustered together in office complexes, this looked like it would be a quick and simple job. The agent visits were completed in 5 days. "Put the champagne on ice," I told my boyfriend.
When I contacted the storm supervisor to schedule my check-out, he said, "Great! You're done with the agent visits? One of the adjusters had to leave the storm, so we're going to transfer his claims to you." And with the stroke of a computer key, I suddenly had 35 claims in Gary, Indiana.
In all fairness, Gary has some nice residential areas. These claims were not there. They were in areas that, several years before, had been the scene of extensive rioting. Nearly every block had at least one burned-out house on it that had never been rebuilt. The streets had so many potholes that there was simply no way to maneuver around them all. I had to replace the struts on my car when I returned from that storm. One adjuster's advice to me was simple: "Just keep an eye on your ladder while you're up on the roof."
At my first inspection in Gary, the insured took one look at me when I stepped out of my car and chuckled. "They're sending you into Gary?" he shook his head. "They mustn't like you very much."
When you're storming, you learn to take the good with the bad. How bad could this be? Thirty five claims - I'd be out of there in two weeks max, I told my boyfriend confidently.
The claims kept coming in. At the end of two weeks, my assignments had doubled. At the end of a month, the storm manager called me up. "We'd really like for you to do the clean-up on this storm," he said.
Three months after I arrived, I left Indiana. My boyfriend informed me he was my ex-boyfriend.
My initial assignment for Hurricane Fran was in Mullens, South Carolina. Mullens is a rural area. The claims were small, and there were a ton of them. Damage mostly consisted of things like skirting blown away from around the base of a mobile home that was sitting in the middle of a couple acres of land.
There was major windshield time between each claim. There were no maps. All properties had rural route addresses. Each insured had to be contacted for directions. This was the first time I realized how hard it was for people in a small town, who just "knew" where everything was, to convey directions to a stranger who didn't know where ANYTHING was. "Turn left at Chapman's barn" was meaningless to me. I didn't know who Chapman was.
One woman gave me detailed and precise directions, which culminated in "Take the 3rd dirt road to the left past the grocery store, go until you come to Doris's Beauty Shop, then take a right at the first road past that, and we're the 2nd farm on your right." I found the grocery store, but could not seem to find Doris's Beauty Shop. The insured's phone was busy, busy, busy. I drove up and down the dirt road three times, with no luck. Finally, I returned to the grocery store for directions. "It's a brick house on your left," the clerk said.
"Is the sign out in front or on the house?" I asked.
"Nope," she replied. "We just all know Doris does hair in her basement."
Many cat adjusters I've met over the years agree that adjusting is probably more of an art than a science. Send three adjusters out on the same claim, and you'll probably end up with three different settlements. One adjuster may arrive with superior construction knowledge; the second may have greater powers of observation; and the third may have better listening skills. Although everyone has some way of organizing him/herself, adjusters' organization systems are vastly different. What works for one adjuster might make absolutely no sense to his/her coworkers.
A fairly common trait I have noticed in most catastrophe adjusters, however, is adaptability. Not everyone is suited for a lifestyle that requires leaving home on a moment's notice for an undetermined period of time. You arrive in a place you may have never even heard of before, and learn how to navigate around this strange territory quickly. Sometime you encounter materials or local construction that is totally new to you. Until arriving in Zanesville, OH, I had never seen 100 year old slate roofs with large floral designs. And, perhaps most important, catastrophe adjusters learn to adapt to the region they're assigned. There is a difference in your approach when working claims in New York City than the approach you might use in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
For those who enjoy the unexpected, and are not timid when venturing into the unknown, catastrophe adjusting is the greatest show on earth.
Female adjusters bring not only skill but unique perspectives to catastrophic claims adjusting. It is gratifying to see more women in a field that has become more accepting of their presence.