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State Farm, Allstate send hundreds of claims workers to assess Harvey damage

As floodwaters continue to surge in much of southeast Texas, hundreds of State Farm and Allstate employees have flocked to the state to start assessing the mounting damage from Hurricane Harvey.

But with the hardest-hit areas still in search-and-rescue mode, some of those claims workers remain on standby. Roads are impassable, and the insurance industry is left largely in the dark as to potential damages.

Total insured losses from the storm, which made landfall Friday and has not stopped pummeling much of the affected area, could be $10 billion to $20 billion, JPMorgan predicted. That would place it among the 10 costliest hurricanes to hit the U.S.

The rainfall and flooding from Harvey have been historic. Some areas experienced wind gusts surpassing 130 mph and have seen about 40 inches of rain since Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. The storm, which has been downgraded to a tropical storm but still carries the possibility of tornadoes, is expected to move in slow motion toward Louisiana. The weather service warns that it could still intensify.

While flood insurance is mainly administered through a federal program, Illinois-based State Farm and Allstate are the top providers of homeowners insurance in Texas, with 21.2 percent and 12.3 percent of the market, respectively, according to data from William Blair, an investment firm that tracks the insurance industry.

Additionally, both companies were among the top five private passenger auto insurers in the state in 2015, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

Bloomington-based State Farm has deployed more than 1,000 claims specialists, said spokesman Chris Pilcic, who is based near Dallas.

"A lot of those specialists will travel into the heaviest-hit areas to work on the home and auto losses," he said.

State Farm does not disclose projections for total damages, Pilcic said. It also had no projections for how long it will take to assess the damages, but Pilcic said claims specialists will remain on the ground "as long as it takes."

As of Sunday evening, State Farm had received about 2,510 storm-related auto claims, Pilcic said. More than three-quarters of cars with reported damage are not drivable.

"We'll go to those cars when it's safe to do so or have those towed to a place where we can look at many of them at once," he said.

The insurer has received about 2,540 storm-related claims on homes and businesses.

State Farm also has deployed eight of its catastrophe vehicles to the area. Those fire truck-sized vehicles can set up shop in parking lots for people to come file claims — a big help when connectivity is a challenge, Pilcic said.

Allstate has sent about 400 claims employees to Texas, though most of them remain on standby in Dallas or Austin, company spokesman Justin Herndon said.

The Northbrook-based company is working on reconnaissance missions, Herndon said, figuring out where to send its employees and its handful of mobile claims centers.

"It just depends on what we see with our own eyes, where we can go and how we can help," he said. "That happens with every storm. You never know where you can go."

It's too early to estimate damages or numbers of claims, Herndon said.

Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, described a chaotic scene along much of the coast — one that remains impassable to many first responders, let alone insurance adjusters.

"130-mph winds, you can imagine what that did," he said. "You've got boats thrown into restaurants; you've got boats on roadways; you've just got trees down, power lines completely gone, no power, cell service."

Roadways have turned to rivers, Hanna said. And the water is still rising.

Only 1 in 5 people living in the Houston area have flood insurance, Hanna said. Thousands of cars and trucks have been submerged, and more than half likely will be total losses.

Most comprehensive auto insurance policies cover flood damage, said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based trade association.

For homeowners, however, most flood insurance policies come through the National Flood Insurance Program. Private flood insurance is rare as it doesn't spread the risk out for companies.

But the federal program, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency administers, carries nearly $25 billion in debt to the Treasury Department and pays nearly $400 million per year in interest. Payouts from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and a few other recent and devastating flood events saddled the program with debt.

It remains to be seen where Harvey will stack up in total costs, Worters said.

Adjusted to 2016 dollars, Katrina cost nearly $50 billion, making it the costliest catastrophe to hit the U.S., according to data from the Insurance Information Institute. Superstorm Sandy cost nearly $20 billion in 2016 dollars, excluding flood damage covered by the National Flood Insurance Program. Hurricane Ike in 2008, the last hurricane to make landfall in Texas, cost more than $14 billion.

Once insurance adjusters can access the areas where the most expensive losses are occurring, Worters said, it's like triage: Find the policyholders who suffered the most damage and work from there.

Until then, there's no way to know what the losses will be, Worters said.

"There's a lot more to come," she said.

amarotti@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @AllyMarotti

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