Tornadoes are the worst. Neighborhoods reduced to a lone chimney or toilet. People searching for any shred of proof — a photograph, a vase — that their homes existed.
Ice storms are treacherous. Roof inspections require Everest-type boots — and nerve.
Hail storms leave houses pocked “as if they’ve been attacked with a shotgun,” explained Jordan Wilson, who has examined the aftermath of many. In his Indiana accent, Eric Kline pronounces “hail” as “hell,” and that’s exactly where he’s been, and back.
Then there are hurricanes.
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While Sandy “really got me emotional,” the damage wrought by Irma in the Keys “is probably the toughest I’ve seen,” Kline said. “Thirty-foot trees sucked out of the ground like popsicle sticks. Walls disappeared. Folks living in tents and pushing grocery carts.”
Wilson did Rita, Wilma and Matthew, but for Irma, his sixth hurricane, he was struck by the ghost town he found in Marco Island.
“You’re in awe at the power of the wind,” he said. “Pool cages wrapped like pretzels around houses.”
Kline and Wilson are catastrophic claims specialists or cat adjusters — also known in the insurance business as cat chasers.
“We’re gypsies. We go where the catastrophes hit,” said Wilson, who lives in St. Louis and works out of his recreational vehicle. “You can make up to $300,000 in six months. Depends on how good you are at your job. And the weather.”
It’s barely noon on a stormy, broiling Miami day and Kline is already climbing atop a third roof to inspect it for holes from Irma.
When he comes down his ladder after taking photos and measurements, he has news for the homeowner. The bad: The roof probably needs to be replaced. The good: The cost will be covered by her insurance policy. She will also receive a check for $7,000 to $10,000 to cover additional damage to her Kendall house.
After three tense weeks waiting for a response to the claim she and her husband filed with Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer, and mopping water in bedrooms, she’s relieved. Kline, wearing a tool belt and gloves and driving his Chevy Avalanche truck, is her knight in shining armor.
“So knowledgeable, so helpful, so polite,” Myriam Diaz said, warmly embracing Kline. “And it’s amazing that you came from so far away.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Kline, map-questing another address. He’s from Indianapolis but will be in South Florida writing claims for months. “I’m off to make someone else happy.”
For property owners slammed by hurricanes Irma, Harvey, Maria or other natural disasters, Kline is a sight for sore eyes. So is Wilson, who is writing claims along the Gulf coast of Florida. They inspect the mess, estimate the loss and get payment flowing to the policyholder. They also provide a shoulder to cry on.
Kline and Wilson are among 57,000 independent adjusters in the U.S. who can be deployed whenever and wherever catastrophe strikes. They are hired by insurance companies or a vendor who hires freelance adjusters as subcontractors to write claims. They are in high demand and will be for the next year in Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands hit by Harvey, Irma and Maria.
“We’ve seen so much devastation and sorrow,” Wilson said. “I’ve written 6,000 claims over the years. I know that people will be taken care of, but they don’t. They pay $5,000-$10,000 per year for a piece of paper. They want their policy honored. They want answers. I want to listen to their stories. They have an advocate in me. I get a lot of gratification from helping people get back on their feet.”
There is a shortage of adjusters in Florida following the one-two punch of Harvey and Irma, a convergence of catastrophes in two large states within 16 days of each other. Thousands of adjusters were sent to the Houston area and then Irma swept through Florida, creating a new source of demand for adjusters’ expertise. Time is of the essence when damage to property – such as roof leaks or flooded floors – can fester and homeowners get impatient. Delays in the submission of adjusted claims stalls overall recovery. After hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, it took months for property owners to receive payments.
“The lack of adjusters is always a problem after a major storm,” said Justin Pyka, CEO of Pyka and Associates of Coconut Creek, an appraisal vendor that has supplied 100 adjusters to various insurers. “They are paid based on a percentage of how much damage they assess, and those fees are up by 30 percent. To get them to come here instead of Houston created a bidding war.”
Kline came to South Florida and his son, also an adjuster, went to Houston. Kline planned to drive down in his office-equipped travel trailer, but when he heard that campgrounds were gouging customers for $70 per night, he drove his truck instead, and slept in the backseat at the outset; now he’s in a hotel. Kline is currently working on a list of 61 claims and he gets new ones each day. Wilson has 98 claims on his docket, and that will grow. They typically work sunup to sundown in the field, visiting five to seven houses per day, seven days a week, then write claims in the evening, using adjuster software such as Xactimate to calculate replacement costs.
Florida is particularly in need of independent adjusters because so many large carriers have left the state or stopped offering homeowners’ insurance since Andrew in 1992 in an effort to lower their exposure to hurricane claims. Smaller insurance firms don’t usually have a team of staff adjusters.
Many homeowners had to turn to Citizens, the taxpayer-funded insurer, which expects at least 70,000 Irma claims. About $4.3 billion in property insurance claims have been filed so far in Florida in the wake of Irma, and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said he expects that number to keep rising. Insured losses in the U.S. resulting from Irma are projected to be as much as $35 billion, according to AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe modeling firm.
On the catadjuster.org website there’s a long list of want ads for adjusters:
“Wow! You won’t believe what they are paying adjusters!”
“Bi-lingual flood adjusters needed in PR.”
“Experienced large loss adjusters needed.”
“Best fee schedule and percentage for Hurricane Irma $$$$.”
There are also RVs for sale, and adjuster-specific accessories, such as a handy harness for computers: “Now you can finally mount your tablet on your chest and be mobile!”
For cat chasers, Harvey, Irma and Maria provide the big paydays that make their jobs so lucrative. Adjusters who work intensely and efficiently can make $60,000-$100,000 in the first month after a disaster, up to $300,000 in six to eight months. How do you get licensed? Take a 40-hour course. Build your reputation to get the best offers.
The fee schedule advertised by Pyka and Associates shows that claims ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 pay $970 each. Claims ranging from $25,000 to $35,000 pay $1,850. Claims ranging from $300,000 to $500,000 pay 3.4 percent but not less than $10,200. One million dollars and up pays 2.1 percent but not less than $24,000. So for a $40,000 claim at a Homestead house that “looked like a Donald Trump house,” Kline earned about $2,000.
“I miss my kids, I’m working 18-hour days, eating on the road,” said Wilson, who is handling some large claims at large homes in Marco Island. His mother-in-law assists driving the RV so he can spend more time on his computer. His goal is to call the carrier within 48 hours of a visit. “An old adjuster told me we’re here to write ourselves out of a job. It’s extremely rewarding financially.”
Adjusters who inflate or underestimate claims usually don’t last long in the business, Kline and Wilson said.
“The industry is big but not so big if you are manipulating numbers,” Wilson said. “I’ve heard of guys going up on roofs and causing additional damage. That word gets around quick.
”I’ve never had a carrier discourage me from writing up what is deserved. If you had marble, gold-laced countertops, that’s what you get. If you had Formica, that’s what you get.“
Insurance examiners and auditors are reviewing claims for accuracy, Pyka said, and angry policyholders who feel their claims are underrepresented can enter into appraisal mediation or hire an attorney.
”Insurance companies want the policyholder taken care of at the get-go or they’ll incur all kinds of additional expense and litigation,” he said. “If an adjuster’s claims bounce back he won’t be hired again.”
Wilson, a former college football player, owned a lawn and irrigation business when Hurricane Rita landed in 2005. He took a seminar on adjusting and he was on his way to Texas to write claims for six weeks. He’s worked five hurricanes since, and 12 tornadoes, including those that tore through Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.
“Desolate, like a Mad Max landscape,” he said. “Hurricane damage is widespread. If they had gotten the storm surge they feared in Florida it would have been just as horrific.”
Kline became an adjuster after a near-death experience as a construction worker. He came out of a six-month coma determined to rescue people as he had been rescued. He’d also had a claim denied on his house and wrote a report contesting it. Bald and built like a fire hydrant, Kline has a sunny voice and a talent for instilling optimism in depressed homeowners. They serve him breakfast, and invite him back for a vacation once the house is repaired.
“Honestly, this has been the most inspiring place,” Kline said. “But everyone outside the area thinks we’re back to normal and we’re not even close.”
Where will this cat chaser go next?
“I’ve got an offer for Puerto Rico, as long as I have a tent and water,” he said. “Maybe Georgia. Winter is coming. Snow storms in Colorado, ice storms in Ohio. I haven’t done an earthquake or a wildfire yet. I’d even go to Alaska. Wherever they need me.”