Chicago insurance adjusters are in demand after Irma and Harvey

A thousand miles from the devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Chicago-area insurance claim adjusters are in high demand.

In addition to an army of staffers dispatched by Allstate and State Farm, scores of independent adjusters have been called to the front lines in Texas and Florida by insurance firms struggling to keep up with mounting claims in the wake of the back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes.

Hausch & Co., an independent Elgin-based insurance claims firm, sent 10 adjusters to Texas and has 19 at the ready as claims begin to trickle in from Florida. That represents a significant portion of the company's resources, with 43 claims adjusters on staff and about 70 subcontractors on call.

Dave Hausch, president of the 70-year-old firm, said his company is working mostly for three regular clients but is receiving a flood of inquiries from other insurance carriers looking for claims adjusters.

"People we've never worked for before are calling us to see if we have capacity," Hausch said. "It kind of started a bidding war for the subcontractors."

The unprecedented one-two punch of Harvey and Irma marked the first time the U.S. was hit by two Category 4 hurricanes in one season. That has taxed everything from emergency resources to the insurance industry, which is scrambling to process claims from both hurricanes simultaneously.

Northbrook-based Allstate has 4,700 claims personnel on the ground in Florida, Texas and the Southeast and in catastrophe call centers, helping homeowners process claims, the company said.

"We know those impacted by Harvey and Irma need to have their claims handled quickly and efficiently so they can start to rebuild and restore their lives," Allstate spokeswoman April Eaton said in an email.

State Farm has over a thousand staffers deployed to the affected areas, with thousands more helping in customer call centers and in other capacities, spokeswoman Missy Dundov said.

The Bloomington-based insurance company had received about 41,000 home and auto claims from Irma and more than 81,000 from Harvey as of Monday.

In addition, State Farm is employing an undisclosed number of independent adjusters for Harvey and Irma, Dundov said.

"They are part of our customer response strategy," she said.

There are about 57,200 independent insurance adjusters in the U.S. as of July, up from 54,900 nine years ago, according to Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.

While Worters said the industry group hasn't seen a claims adjuster shortage, the severity of this hurricane season is spreading resources thin.

"Part of the issue here is we're getting more frequent and severe storms," Worters said. "That will probably put some stress on getting insurance adjusters."

Hausch said the demands of this hurricane season have caused a backlog of claims closer to home and forced him to limit the number of adjusters he sends to Florida and Texas.

Paul LaMantia, an adjuster for Hausch, returned home last week after 10 days in Texas, where he processed about 60 claims and witnessed both the devastation and inspiration that has emerged from the floodwaters.

LaMantia, 36, of Algonquin, joined Hausch as a claims adjuster 11 years ago after graduating from Eastern Illinois University. He is a veteran of several major storms including Superstorm Sandy, but he said he was blown away by the extent of the damage caused by Harvey.

"The devastation I saw from Harvey was definitely more than I saw up in New York (with Sandy)," LaMantia said.

He flew into San Antonio on Sept. 3 and rented a car to drive to Corpus Christi, the Gulf Coast city where Harvey made landfall about a week earlier. After handling several dozen claims, mostly for wind damage, he drove to Houston to respond to flooding claims.

LaMantia said the devastation varied from neighborhood to neighborhood, with the hard-hit areas marked by mountainous debris piles lining residential streets. Part of his job was to rummage through the debris and "put the puzzle together after the fact" to assess the damage.

"You're talking debris piles so big that you can't even see the garages," LaMantia said.

Most flood insurance is sold by insurance carriers but written through the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Homeowners who have flood coverage still need to have their claims processed through their insurance carriers before FEMA will pay out.

LaMantia said despite their plight, the Houston homeowners he dealt with were "nice and hospitable," with many sharing harrowing tales of their brushes with Harvey.

"One guy was telling me his daughter was born two nights before they had to evacuate," LaMantia said. "They released the baby from the hospital, and they had to drive six hours with a (newborn) in their car."

Days were long and nights were spent in oversold hotels, where evacuees, restorers and claims adjusters made up the majority of the clientele, LaMantia said.

"You know the adjusters who are at the hotel," he said. "Everyone is on their laptop in the lobby at night working."

Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10, climbing the Gulf Coast of the state through Tampa before diminishing to a tropical storm. While the most devastating projections were averted, Irma may prove to be one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history, with insured losses estimated between $25 billion and $35 billion, a spokesman for AIR Worldwide said Monday.

AIR, a Boston-based catastrophe modeling firm, pegged the insured losses from Harvey at more than $10 billion. AIR estimates do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program or losses to uninsured properties.

Property losses from Harvey's record 50-inch rainfall are estimated to be between $65 billion and $75 billion, according to AIR.

LaMantia, who spent his 36th birthday writing insurance estimates in a Texas hotel, plans to ship off again once he is caught up with paperwork. He is not sure if he will return to Texas or head to Florida, a decision that will be based on the flow of claims.

While the work is stressful, LaMantia said, it is rewarding — and a lot easier than the path ahead for the homeowners.

"I go in, take pictures, write an estimate and send it in to the insurance company," he said. "The homeowners have to rebuild; they have to replace everything."

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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