Insurers Get Innovative in Hurricane Response

By Barbara Marquand Personal Finance NerdWallet.com

See your house before returning to the neighborhood. Cuddle with a therapy dog. Open an insurance claim by text.

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These are some of the things you can do with new technology and services from insurance companies this hurricane season.

Insurers deployed thousands of people to respond to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and now are gearing up for Irma, which is headed for Florida.

Here are some of the new things they’re doing:

Views of your house while you’re away

USAA provided an interactive map on its website showing areas impacted by Harvey. Customers and non-customers can type in an address and see images of their neighborhoods.

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“Some of our members were asking if we could help them see their homes because they couldn’t yet return,” says Lea Sims, assistant vice president of USAA Labs. “When we realized what we were able to do, we felt the tool would be of interest and potentially benefit all of those impacted by Harvey, so we made it available to the public.”

USAA created the tool’s first version in 12 hours on Aug. 31 using aerial images from DataWing Global, an aerial data collection company in Texas. “We have gone through several iterations since then improving the quality of the imagery and making the experience more user-friendly, particularly on mobile devices,” Sims says.

The company will consider offering a similar tool after Irma and other disasters, she says.

» MORE: Can you buy last-minute hurricane insurance?

Therapy dogs

Farmers Insurance made therapy dogs from Pet Partners available at two of its mobile claims centers in Texas. Several dogs spent time at each of the centers. Customers could visit with the dogs in the shade, or have a dog keep them company as they filed claims.

Harvey’s aftermath was the first time Farmers offered therapy dogs. The company is exploring offering the service again as part of its response to Irma.

“Many customers commented that it helped take their minds off of the enormity of what they had just been through,” Farmers spokesperson Carly Kraft says.

Drone inspections

Insurers such as Allstate, Farmers, Travelers and USAA are flying drones to inspect roof damage in Texas and likely will use them in Florida. The drones take video and photos, and adjusters assess damage from the images.

“It really speeds the entire process up for the customer,” says Jim Wucherpfennig, vice president of property claims at Travelers Insurance. Travelers deployed 65 certified drone-pilot adjusters to Texas after Harvey. The drones save adjusters from climbing onto roofs or hiring specialists with rigging to inspect steep roofs.

» MORE: Meet your new claims inspector: A drone

Artificial intelligence and aerial photos

Insurers such as Allstate and Esurance are using artificial intelligence combined with before-and-after aerial photos to speed up claims. Computer software analyzes the images along with other data to help identify and assess damage suffered by policyholders.

Esurance says this technology enabled it to settle some claims for flooded vehicles immediately.

“When we see that a vehicle is completely submerged, we are declaring it a total loss and reimbursing the customer right away, without a physical inspection,” says Eric Brandt, Esurance chief claims officer.

Allstate spokesperson Justin Herndon says the technology can also speed up the response for claims that require physical inspections.

“We can start knocking on doors and checking on people before they call us,” he says.

» MORE: What does car insurance cover?

Flood insurance claims by text

Wright Flood, a national flood insurance provider, lets customers file claims by text message.

Customers with policies through Wright Flood text CLAIM to a company phone number and then respond by text to six questions. A customer can give a policy number or the property address. The company then texts a confirmation with additional tips and within 24 hours texts a claim number. An insurance adjuster gets in touch in the meantime.

“We anticipated that power and connectivity might be limited for a storm of this magnitude and quickly implemented this ability in response to Hurricane Harvey,” says Timothy Love, chief information officer at Wright Flood. The company will offer the claims-by-text option for customers impacted by Irma, too.

Instant claim payments

Allstate is paying some claims instantly with its QuickCard Pay method. You supply a debit card number and email address, and the service instantly transfers claim-payment money into your bank account.

“We’ve had customers on the phone with adjusters and literally in the same conversation, the money is deposited in the account,” Herndon says.

The service uses the Mastercard Send platform but works with almost any debit card. Herndon says it’s especially handy for customers facing extra expenses for hotels and meals when their homes are damaged. Home insurance pays additional living expenses for policyholders whose homes are uninhabitable due to a disaster covered by the policy.

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