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JOBS: Recent rains are keeping insurance-claims adjusters hopping. Some, like Rick Block, are working seven days a week.

February 28, 1998

The Orange County Register

They call themselves "storm troopers," the claims adjusters blown from house to house to inspect storm damage.

And they're spending this winter battling El Nino.

Rick Block, a claims adjuster with Farmers Insurance's national catastrophe team, has been working seven days a week, 12 hours a day since early December. He's seen it all — homes damaged by mud, wind and rain.

Since the worst rainstorm in 70 years dumped more than 8 inches of rain on Laguna Beach, Block has been visiting six to eight homeowners a day during the week. He'll visit 10 homes in Orange County today, and 10 more in Los Angeles on Sunday.

"My car is basically my office," said Block, who is constantly on his cell phone with insurance agents, contractors, worried homeowners and office staff as he follows El Nino's path of destruction.

Block has plenty of company in the trenches. The largest insurers have sent hundreds of extra claims adjusters to California, where damage from El Nino has reached $475 million.

The adjusters are brought in when claims begin to overwhelm local offices. Farmers calls in its catastrophe team, whose national office is in Kansas, when an event causes $1 million in damage or when claims hit 1,000.

"It's not like a hurricane," said Block. "The catastrophe in this is in the numbers. It's a lot of little stuff."

Earlier this week, federal forecasters pronounced this season's El Nino the worst of the century.

"We've had so many rainstorms that we're still working on claims from those that hit earlier this month. Plus, we're handling the new claims from these latest storms," said Block. Thursday he needed to make 36 calls to homeowners.

"It's absolutely nonstop," said Becky Willette, 43, a claims adjuster with Allstate for northern Orange County. "People are reporting claims and then re-reporting them because they can't get their repairs done in time."

Most of the damage Block sees from the El Nino-influenced storms are wind-damaged roofs, blown-over fences and rain-damaged ceilings. Most claims are insured.

"You have to have damage. We don't pay for wear and tear," said Block, 37, who has been with Farmers for five years.

Only a small percentage of storm claims have not been insured — like the rare mudslide.

"Mudslides are highly unusual," Block said Thursday as he prepared to inspect damage from a particularly nasty slide in Laguna Beach. "This one is tough," he said, "because it probably won't be covered."

Paul Hamilton's Skyline Drive home had been bathed in a thick muddy ooze Monday night. He'd already hired a backhoe to haul off 100 yards of mud that had scrunched his 2-year-old son's wooden jungle gym up against the outside wall of a bedroom. The mud filled a laundry room and seeped through the tiles of a newly installed shower. Carpets were waterlogged and streaked with mud. And Hamilton, who with his wife, 2-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter is camping out in a neighbor's living room, was tired and fighting a cold.

"This is tough," Block said.

But Block and Hamilton talked. Block listened patiently. He asked questions. But mostly he listened.

Hamilton had filed a claim after the Dec. 6-7 deluge in Laguna. The mud slid down the hill and into his back yard then, but not as far as Monday's slide. His claim from December was rejected because it wasn't covered in his homeowner's policy (mudslides are covered under flood policies). He suspected the same now.

"Well, what's my homeowner's policy going to cover?" he asked.

"As you already know, not much," Block gently said.

Although his policy didn't cover damages from the mudslide, Hamilton wasn't totally out of luck. He has a flood insurance policy with another company. (Farmers does not handle federal government flood insurance.) He'll have to have a flood adjuster come out and look.

"I just hope it doesn't rain anymore," a weary Hamilton said.

Experts warn that El Nino could generate more storms through April, and that would mean more work for Block.

He pulls his assignments off a laptop at his home for the next six months — a sparsely furnished apartment in Costa Mesa. The computer links him to the national office and also helps him calculate his claims estimates.

Block, a graduate of California State University, Fullerton, travels from storm to storm in different parts of the western United States. His last assignment: six months in Denver assessing damages from hailstorms and an early October blizzard.

"I'm basically homeless," Block joked. His job doesn't leave him much time to see his 7-year-old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife in Sacramento.

By the end of every day, he's beat from traffic, the inspections and the talk. And he still has dozens of homeowners to contact in the evening and more paperwork. He drops his film off at a one-hour processing booth at the end of the day and grabs a bite to eat while he's waiting.

Block, who's been with the catastrophe team for a year, is paid well for his time. He said an adjuster with a catastrophe team can pull down $50,000 to $80,000 a year in salary, including bonuses for working long hours.

Aside from the training Farmers provides, Block has learned much of his trade from senior adjusters and hands-on experience.

Block thrives on the work and plans to stick with the catastrophe team for another two years. He thinks he'll be one of the last catastrophe team members left in Southern California to mop up after El Nino, because he knows the area.

"But basically right now, I have no outside life," Block said.

Diana McCabe covers business news for The Orange County Register.


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