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Surviving Hurricane Irma: A planner's story

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Sitting in the candlelight and the glow of my battery-run laptop, I can finally reflect on the past couple of days of Hurricane Irma.

As many times as I’ve been through this and written about planning for disasters, I’m still thrown for a loop every time one occurs.

At Life Planning Partners, we know the hurricane drill. Just like we did for Matthew last year, we contacted all our clients, did our best to reduce their fears, and stoically prepared for ourselves and our families. Last year, all came through fine. This year, not so much.

Saturday: Every year we review our clients' insurance coverage. Although we don’t sell insurance, it is important to make sure there are no holes in coverage. On the day before the storm, we received an unexpected message from a client in Miami saying their flood insurance had lapsed. I was sick – what did we miss?

We review coverage once a year, and if a policy is not paid after we review coverage, we won’t catch it. This client did pay his premium, but it was applied by the insurance company to his regular homeowner’s coverage, not his flood insurance.
The insurance company says they sent a notice, but the client never received it. The main part of the storm went to the west coast of Florida, and I still have a pit in my stomach as I try to contact the clients to see if they were okay. Why can’t I contact him?

Sunday: As the hurricane moved north, it raked the west coast of Florida but the east coast was not spared. In my hometown of Jacksonville, we experienced significant wind damage and flooding. The power blew about midnight and along with it went my cell service. We couldn’t email or check social media and my ability to text was hit or miss. Information couldn’t come in or out.

By early afternoon, we had cleared a path of branches to get my car on the road and find cell service. My social media accounts and email were buzzing – were we okay? I had no idea Jacksonville had made the national news. The fact that much of my neighborhood was underwater was a shock to me as our street is on a bluff. As annoyed as I was about not being able to check on others, I had no idea others were worried about me.

I still have a pit in my stomach as I try to contact the clients to see if they were okay.

In a recent article, I wrote about reaching out to clients immediately after an event to make sure they were okay and to offer help in making insurance claims. That was fine after Matthew but Irma blew that out of the water. I made it to the office but had no internet or phone service there either. My coworkers also lack coverage – we’ve only been able to text each other. Trying to do everything on a cell phone from a car in a parking lot – the only place I have four bars of signal strength – has been painful.

Monday: As I was sitting in the parking lot answering emails, posting our news of safety to social media sites, and texting those concerned, I came across a picture on Facebook from one of our clients – her house was partially submerged and a boat was sitting in her yard.

And then I saw a video of another client’s street on the national news – the first floor of their home was one with the river. My heart sank. Thankfully, these were not the same clients who lacked flood insurance.

Our plan on Tuesday is to reach out to each client in the affected areas. Will we be able to? I don’t know.

Tuesday: Our power was restored at our home during the night. The office will not have phone or internet until Friday at the latest. Now is the time to test our real disaster plan.

The office manager emailed our clients and let them know the status and forwarded the office phone to her cell. Our investment manager has internet service and is diligently doing his job from home.

The other planners and I are reaching out to clients one by one, ascertaining their status and providing instructions on what to do in the short term – call the insurance agent, take pictures, take care of the emergencies, and don’t do repairs until the adjuster arrives. So far, we’ve had three clients with major damage and have been unable to reach a few. From the news, we know that everyone is alive, which is a great relief.

One of the clients with major damage is a retiree. I’ll work with him to make sure we create enough income from IRA withdrawals to make use of the deductions he’ll have from items not covered through insurance.

A number of clients had significant issues around evacuation. Two have major health issues that put them in a tight spot. We’ve already started conversations with both about “next time” as they were very lucky with this event. Hopefully we can come up with a contingent plan that works better than “hoping” allows.

Also, every spring before the official start of hurricane season, we are going to send out a big notice with red letters and highlights reminding everyone to check and make sure their flood insurance is paid and up to date. My client and I probably will need a few weeks to get over the ulcers that created.

We are lucky – this time. Floridians are fanatic about the place we call home. Since we refuse to move and someone needs to live in this state, we need to refine plans to create resiliency when disaster strikes. The profession of financial advice is rapidly changing, and the problem solvers who help their clients through the multiple disasters of life will thrive.

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