Published Nov/Dec 2005

Left: The scene outside AAA’s Metairie office a few days after the levees gave way and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans.

Above: Above: Steve Bruening of AAA Claims presenting a check to one of AAA’s insureds for damage to his house during Hurricane Katrina.

Below: Mike Genens, a catastrophe coordinator with AAA, was one of dozens of AAA claims adjusters who operated out of RVs for the first few weeks of the disaster to help insureds with their claims as quickly as possible.

Above: AAA has handled more than 6,300 claims for damaged homes so far.

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• Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-745-SAND (800-745-7263), www.gulfshores.com;

• Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention &
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After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita unleashed Chaos and calamity on the gulf Coast, AAA responded quickly to the needs of its members and insureds.
By Dennis R. Heinze and Deborah Reinhardt

Hurricane Katrina will be remembered as the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history, and AAA has been at the vortex of this American tragedy with thousands of members, insureds and nearly 150 employees directly in the path of the merciless storm.

Yet nearly as soon as the winds died down, AAA launched a full-scale response to provide help and services as quickly as possible. AAA was there within 24 hours to help its beleaguered members and insurance clients rebuild their homes and lives.

It will be months, and more likely years, before the South fully recovers from the agonizing destruction wrought by Katrina and then later by Hurrican Rita. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, and property damage may reach as high as $200 billion.

While residents have returned to some areas, thousands of others have been displaced in the wake of the two deadly storms, which hammered the Gulf Coast from southeast Texas to Mobile, Ala., and at least 150 miles inland. With shrieking winds in excess of 125 mph, thousands of houses have been damaged or destroyed, and the storm surges and ensuing floods swamped entire coastal neighborhoods, including most of New Orleans, Lake Charles and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in Louisiana, as well as portions of Biloxi, Miss. Most areas have dried out, but others were inaccessible and unsafe at press time.

Among those affected were thousands of AAA insureds, members and 144 employees of AAA in Louisiana and Mississippi. AAA’s offices in Louisiana were damaged in Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans, and Slidell, located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The Slidell office reopened about a week after the storm, but at press time for this magazine, the Metairie office was still closed as officials slowly allow residents and businesses back into flood-ravaged New Orleans.

“I hope everyone can begin to piece back together their lives and that we will never have to endure this again,” said Stacie Mathews, a AAA employee in the Metairie office whose home in Slidell was nearly destroyed by Katrina. “Yachts and speed boats were thrown about like toys, most of which took up new residences either on or in people’s homes. The water lifted our furniture and tossed it to the front of the household as if they were light as air.”

Preparing for the worst

On Aug. 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Grand Isle, La., the Metairie and Slidell offices were prepared and boarded up for the oncoming storm, according to the company’s hurricane policy. That morning, a situation room was developed at AAA headquarters in St. Louis, Mo., where three daily meetings were held for several weeks, first to track the path of the hurricane and then to develop strategies for assisting members and insureds.

In the weeks before and after the storm, AAA Call Center personnel handled more than 23,000 calls–an increase of nearly 50 percent–from members in the Gulf Coast for roadside assistance, hotel reservations and a myriad of other travel services, especially help in escaping to higher ground.

When the frightening winds finally died down, AAA was ready with quick and efficient service.

“Hurricane Katrina hit the coast on Monday, we were on the ground Tuesday with our staff trying to help AAA members and insureds,” said Art Johnson, executive vice president of AAA operations in the region. “AAA provides insurance, travel services and roadside assistance to thousands of residents throughout the South, and we did not want to let them down in their greatest time of need.”

From its St. Louis headquarters, three recreational vehicles were packed with food, water and other supplies and dispatched to the region after the storm. One RV was dedicated to assisting AAA employees and members, while the other two RVs were staffed with claims personnel to assist AAA adjusters already in Louisiana and Mississippi. Subsequently, several more RVs with claims personnel were sent to the area along with several truckloads of more supplies.

When Hurricane Rita hit, AAA’s claims adjusters were already in the region and were able to respond as quickly as the authorities allowed them into the affected areas.

Processing insurance claims

To date, AAA has taken more than 6,300 claims for damage to homes and 2,300 claims for auto damage throughout the Gulf Coast area, and that number is continuing to grow as residents are able to return to the most severely impacted areas.

“This is the largest catastrophe we’ve ever encountered,” said Jim Strike, director of AAA claims. “Words can’t describe the amount of devastation that occurred. But we have been working 14-hour days to help process the claims as quickly as we can.”

In addition to sending about 45 claims adjusters to the Gulf Coast, AAA opened a claims office in the Baton Rouge area. AAA also brought in AAA claims adjusters from across the country to its headquarters to help handle the tremendous influx of calls coming in from insureds reporting damage to their property.

Those who had to evacuate their homes received $2,500 initially to help cover emergency expenses. And the claims adjusters have been working feverishly to settle the claims with compassion, care and haste so the claimants can begin to restore or rebuild their homes as soon as possible.

Bumpy road for road service, travel

During catastrophies like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, every area of life is affected, including travel. With Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans initially closed to commercial flights and the Port of New Orleans shut down after Katrina, AAA Travel clients were next to feel the impact of the storm.

Sue Wells, vice president of AAA Travel, said the corporate travel department received a list of AAA travelers planning to use the New Orleans airport, and clients were notified of cancellations.

Carnival Cruise Lines, a major presence in New Orleans, had its Conquest ship–normally based in the Big Easy–in drydock during the storm and has since moved it to Galveston, Texas. Three more ships–Ecstasy, Sensation and Holiday–were chartered by the Military Sealift Command on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for six months to assist in relief efforts.

“We had people scheduled on many of those departures,” Wells said. “This was an unusual situation.”

But travel agents were provided lists from Carnival and affected passengers were contacted to either get the refund or rebook another destination cruise.

AAA’s 30 preferred travel partners, including tour companies and cruise lines, were called and asked to extend payment dates to clients affected by the hurricane. Most clients were not able to be contacted directly, so in some cases, Wells said AAA made trip payments for them, until they could be reached.

With thousands of cars swamped and dangerous debris littering the roads, AAA’s tow trucks have been busy extricating vehicles, replacing tires and delivering fuel. In addition to contracting with independent towing facilities, AAA has two fleet facilities of its own in Baton Rouge and Jefferson near New Orleans, the latter of which had all eight of its garage doors torn off during Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve been working nonstop to get our members back on the road,” said Wayne Young, vice president of AAA Member Services. “Despite many drivers having lost homes and cars and missing relatives, they continued to help as they could.”

AAA employees in the region and across the country, along with AAA’s many business partners, have donated more than $200,000 for relief efforts. And the donations are continuing to come in to AAA.

“The region has staggered under this terrifying blow, but it won’t falter,” said Ken Johnson, president and CEO of AAA. “We’ve got a long road ahead and hard work to do before we can fully recover, but our determination and commitment will pull us through. Our members and insurance customers will endure.”

Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of the AAA Southern Traveler, and Dennis R. Heinze is the regional editor of the AAA Southern Traveler.

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