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Post-Disaster Readiness: The Psychology of Downed Trees

Author: Chris Boggs

If you've ever experienced a hurricane from inside the walls (I've been through four), you are just grateful that you and your family came out the other side unharmed. Once that relief “wears off," your attention turns to your stuff: your house, car and other personal property. The elation of being unharmed fades and the reality takes over that you have no place to live, no car to drive or your personal belongings are destroyed. Soon after this reality, anger erupts.

Following a communal disaster, relief transitions to anger like a snap of the fingers. Yes, this same transition occurs following an individual catastrophe, such as a house fire, but in individual losses the transition is gradual, occurring over a longer period. Not being a trained psychologist, I can only speculate upon the reason for the timing difference. My theory is that the quicker transition results from the community-wide pain rather than individual pain. We are reared to despise perceived injustice against others but are more tolerant towards perceived injustice experienced individually.

In short, if it's just me, I think I'm just feeling sorry for myself; and my mother never allowed that “luxury." But when others are involved and hurting, my anger is vindicated and seems “righteous." “Why aren't you taking care of the community and all those who are hurting," sounds better, feels better, and is more natural and less self-centered than, “Why aren't you taking care of me," - at least in the short term.

According to the article, Psychological Effects of Emergencies found on the American Museum of Natural History website, there are six phases or stages of natural disasters:

  1. The Warning Stage – As the phase name suggests, this is the phase where the warning is sounded;
  2. The Impact Stage – The storm hits;
  3. The Action Stage – This is characterized in the article is the “go mode." Individuals are in survival mode, doing what is necessary to survive; property is of secondary concern;
  4. The Honeymoon Stage – Victims are relieved the catastrophe is passed and there is little to no personal injury;
  5. The Inventory Stage – This is when reality sets in and the full effect of the storm is realized; and
  6. The Recovery Stage – This is the longest phase marked by the time necessary to recover financially, physically (recover or rebuild property) and emotionally.

For simplification (and to make these phases easier to remember), I have renamed the phases and shortened the list to the “5 Rs of Natural Disasters":

  • Rough stuff – this is when the storm hits and people are doing what is necessary to remain safe;
  • Relief – This is post-storm when it's safe to come out. This phase is characterized by statements such as, “Everything is OK, we are happy to be alive;"
  • Reality – In this phase, the full effect of the storm is realized. Victims begin to take inventory of what they have lost or suffered;
  • Reaction – Individuals and families react to the reality of the situation, often with disbelief, disgust and even anger; and
  • Recovery – This is the period during which those victimized by the storm begin returning to their pre-storm “normal" from a financial, physical and emotional perspective. The longest of the phases.

The anger switch is flipped between the “Honeymoon" stage and the “Inventory" stage if considering the phases delineated in the Psychological Effects of Emergencies. If you prefer the “5 Rs" method, anger shows up following the “Relief" phase when “Reality" strikes and the victim “Reacts." During the “inventory" or “reaction" stage, expect to receive phone calls and emails from ANGRY insureds.

  • “Why haven't I heard from a claims adjuster?"
  • “I haven't heard anything from my carrier for two weeks."
  • “Where is my check?"
  • “Are they going to pay? When are they going to decide?"
  • “The adjuster said something about not having the right coverage, what does he mean?"
  • “You mean flood wasn't covered?"
  • “Why haven't you come by to look at the damage?"
  • “My neighbor got paid for 'X,' why didn't I?"
  • “When is someone going to get these trees off my roof?"
  • “When is the carrier going to remove these trees from my yard?"
  • “When can I start rebuilding?"
  • “How do I pay for my hotel bills while out of my house?" “What about additional food costs?"

This is only a sampling of the calls agents receive following a collective catastrophe. The agent may not have the answers; in fact, there may not be answers to some question. Regardless whether the agent knows, doesn't know or can't know the answers, the agent must know how to deal with the anger.

Knowing the angry calls are coming is the first step toward managing them. Second, the agent must know what is happening in the area. Is the CAT team on the ground? How are they proceeding? When might they get to the insured or their neighborhoods? All this requires intelligence. This is not intelligence as in “smarts," but military-like intelligence – knowledge. Attempt to set up communication with the CAT team managers so that regular updates on progress can be passed along to insureds.

Another key step is to develop a simple, bullet-point frequently asked questions (FAQ) sheets for staff and to give to clients. Lack of knowledge during the “inventory" / “reaction" phase contributes as much as anything to anger surrounding the damage. Agents must strive to be the source of information – even for things that have nothing to do with insurance such as:

  • Where fresh water is (or was) available;
  • Where fuel for generators can be obtained;
  • What gas stations are open; and
  • Which stores are open.

Storm victims need to feel some level of control to move through and past the “inventory" / “reaction" stage. Knowledge allows a feeling of control. Provide clients as much information as possible – even if it's news they may not want to hear (such as losses that aren't covered or there are delays in processing); not knowing is worse than knowing and being able to make alternate plans. Bad news early is preferable to bad news withheld.

“Recovery" is the longest phase. Getting back to a level of normalcy such as existed prior to the storm may take months or years. The “recovery" phase doesn't end until the insured is back in their permanent living situation (home, condo or apartment).

But even if the insured never loses the use of his home, the recovery period lasts as long as the chainsaws are roaring. What do I mean by this? As I mentioned, I have experienced four hurricanes; but the two most impactful on me were Hurricane Hugo (1989) and Hurricane Fran (1996).

Luckily, I was away at college in Virginia when Hugo devastated Charleston, SC and travelled up through the lowlands into Charlotte, NC and points north. But both my parents and in-laws suffered damage in the storm. Thankfully, neither was forced out of their respective home; but the sound of chainsaws continued for months after the storm.

Although my parents were spared any devastating property damage, every day they lived with the resulting sound of the storm – chainsaws. Trees blocked roads and driveways, filled yards and littered neighborhoods.

Charleston, SC, the city that experienced Hugo's most damaging winds, lost thousands of trees and experienced the same chainsaw sounds months after the storm. My wife's brother was married in Charleston two months after the storm. Even on his wedding day, I heard chainsaw noise in the distance.

Hurricane Fran in 1996 resulted in the same incredible loss of trees; this time my neighborhood and even my home were directly affected. I lost many trees in my yard. My wife and I cut and burned trees for months (during one particular burning, my wife accidentally (she says) locked my out of the house when she went to the store). Even though the only insured property damage we experienced was a tree falling on my wife's car, I still had to undertake the cutting up and removal of a dozen or so downed trees.

Why am I making such a big deal about downed trees and chainsaws? That's part of the psychology of the storm in the “recovery" stage. Lives do not get back to normal until after all the downed trees are gone and the sounds of the chainsaws cease. Even today, years later, the sound of a chainsaw reminds me of Hurricane Fran. My dad says the same about Hurricane Hugo.

Hurricane victims now and in the future are sure to go through these same phases this year, next year and all years hereafter. Agents truly are trusted advisors and community leaders, and as such must be ready to help insureds and others through the phases of storm recovery. Agents must:

  • Be ready;
  • Be patient;
  • Be knowledgeable; and
  • Be available.

Insurance is a “people business" and at times agents deal with people who are hurting, scared, or confused. This is not weakness, this is the psychology of downed trees.

Last Updated: September 28, 2018

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