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Scripps Howard News Service
Catastrophe adjusters Michele Hogan, left, and mother Wanda Hogan inspect a Long Island home damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

‘Catastrophe adjusters’ follow storms

They came to Long Island by the hundreds, arriving from across America in motor homes and pickups to calculate the toll of Superstorm Sandy.

They are catastrophe adjusters, migrating from disaster to disaster, sleeping in cars, motels and campgrounds as they estimate claims for insurance companies. They work East Coast hurricanes in fall, northern ice storms in winter and Midwest tornadoes and hailstorms come spring. In between, they watch The Weather Channel.

“We call it the money channel,” said Wanda Hogan, 69, an adjuster from Alabama.

For months after the Oct. 29 superstorm, Hogan and her colleagues trudged through storm-battered homes from southwest Nassau to the North Fork, working 15-hour days determining what insurance should and should not cover.

These nomadic adjusters calculated flood settlements for tens of thousands of Long Islanders whose homes and businesses were inundated by the surge. Now, as their work runs short, they’re hitting the road again.

“If I stay in one place too long, I get bored,” said Art Labrecque, 51, an adjuster who lives in a 45-foot motor home.

What draws people to a career of chasing disaster and calculating loss?

In many cases, it’s money. In years when hurricanes blow through the alphabet, catastrophe adjusters can make $300,000 to $400,000, according to industry experts.

But a big chunk of that money gets swallowed by gas, hotels, restaurants and other expenses of being on the road. Adjusters can go months without a paycheck.

“You work like crazy for a short period of time; then you sit and wait to chase the next storm,” said Kevin Hromas, 55, a former catastrophe adjuster and claims manager who now works as an expert witness at insurance trials.

A combination of wanderlust and the intermittent freedom in a feast-or-famine work schedule keeps them in the business, adjusters say.

“Cat adjusters,” as they call themselves, make up a slim percentage of the roughly 264,000 men and women who the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says calculate insurance settlements. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 work in the business at a given time, experts said.

After widespread disasters, however, they account for 80 percent to 90 percent of adjusters on the ground. Some work directly for major insurance companies. Most are independent contractors, hired temporarily by little-known companies that provide armies of adjusters to Travelers, Allstate and others companies when disasters hit.

Some cat adjusters come to the businesses with insurance backgrounds. Others are former roofers, painters or contractors.

Wanda Hogan made the trip to Long Island with daughter Michele Hogan, 46, also an adjuster. Wanda, a former paralegal, broke into the field about 17 years ago. She worked her first hurricane a few years later.

“Was it Charley?” she asked, sitting in a Long Beach diner. “I can’t remember. There were so many.”

Hogan, who has a degree in chemical engineering, is president of the National Association of Catastrophe Adjusters.

Like many, she learned on the job. Others attend trade schools. Most states require licenses. Anyone working flood claims needs federal certification.

Hogan, licensed in 22 states, is on the road as much as 10 months a year, crisscrossing the country in a Cadillac Escalade. She favors hotels with kitchenettes so she can cook dishes such as gumbo and shrimp stew.

“We are probably a little nuts,” said Hogan, whose own home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

On a recent afternoon, she and Michele snapped photos and measured a Long Beach apartment swamped by the storm. The floors and drywall had been ripped out.

“Did the water get up to your upper cabinets here?” Wanda Hogan asked the homeowner. “No,” he said. “OK. Then we will replace the lower ones,” she said.

Twenty-four hours later, the Hogans were ducking into a crawl space of a flood-ravaged home in Freeport, photographing a ruined boiler. And so they went, driving town to town, slogging through gutted living rooms and sodden basements with clipboard in tow.

Like most adjusters, the Hogans calculate estimates with computer software, which spits out labor and material costs based on ZIP codes. Critics say it doesn’t work well on older and custom-built homes. Adjusters say experience can make up for any software shortfalls.

Most cat adjusters are paid based on a claim’s size. Insurers pay their fees, which adjusters split with the companies that hire them. A flood settlement of $10,000, for example, pays $1,100. A $20,000 settlement pays $1,200, and so on.

Because of that sliding scale, some adjusters say they have incentive to push for the biggest settlements possible for homeowners. But they deny padding claims. Insurance companies require reams of documentation before approving a settlement, veterans say.

“You have to go by what’s in the policy,” said Charles Norton, 65, a claims adjuster since the 1970s.

Not everyone believes adjusters go out of their way for people. Public adjusters, hired by homeowners to win larger payouts from insurers, argue cat adjusters will always err on the side of insurance companies.

Despite the increased frequency of massive storms, veteran adjusters say recent years have been hard on the profession. Those big storms have attracted inexperienced adjusters who give the field a bad name, some say. The insurance companies are cutting fees. And sometimes the work is dangerous.

Still, new adjusters continue to flock to the field after every storm, signing up for a life on the road, following the wind.