In late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the Southern Coast of Texas, punishing Houston and the surrounding areas with harsh winds and up to 40 inches of rain. By the time Harvey finally dissipated around Labor Day weekend, it had caused nearly $200 billion in damages, primarily from widespread flooding in Houston, and set a new record as the costliest tropical storm on record — surpassing Hurricane Katrina’s damages by nearly double.
Just days later, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, advanced on South Florida, the first major hurricane to make landfall in the Sunshine State since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The 420-mile-wide storm hovered over the entire state for days, exhausting residents who chose not to escape the 130-mile-per-hour winds and 15-foot storm surges. When the storm was over, more than a million Floridians were without power for days, and state officials estimated damages at $100 billion.
In October 2017, a series of wildfires ripped through Northern California, causing widespread destruction throughout Butte, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties. Burning more than 1 million acres of land and destroying nearly 9,000 structures, current damage estimates topped $3 billion.
In the worst-case scenarios of these disasters, people lost their lives or their homes. In even the best cases, thousands of people were displaced or without power for significant periods of time. In terms of how these events impacted our industry, some offices were closed for days, and closings were delayed or canceled.
These recent events underscore how imperative it is for title companies to develop, maintain and execute a disaster management plan, said Emilio Fernandez, president of NATIC/Doma.
“In this new environment of frequent natural disasters, it’s more prudent than ever for all agencies to have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan in place and fully tested,” Fernandez said. “These plans should classify adverse events based primarily on anticipated duration and potential monetary loss from low impact to highest impact, ranging from a simple single server outage to a total loss of a data center location. A good plan in place today brings peace of mind in knowing that the business will continue operating, regardless of the adverse event presented.”
Here’s a look at some of the challenges NATIC/Doma and our agents experienced during some of the meteorological events that threatened their business in the stormy season of 2017, and the steps we took to overcome them.
In Houston, the story of Harvey was not about the storm itself, but the massive flooding that brought life and business in the nation’s fourth-largest city to a halt for weeks.
“Harvey was a bit of a different situation from other hurricanes because we had massive flooding in lots of neighborhoods,” said Ashleigh Spruell, NATIC/Doma’s assistant vice president and regional agency manager for Texas. “We had strong currents in the streets and open sewers feeding into the bayou’s water system, introducing E. coli bacteria and other really bad stuff. Many people had eight or nine feet of water in their homes.”
That included Spruell, who had to evacuate her bayou area home before checking on NATIC/Doma agents in the area to ensure they were safe. Spruell then focused on helping to bring supplies to certain areas in Houston that were underserved or difficult to access due to flooding.
“You see people really coming together at a time like this,” she said. “Someone we knew drove from Dallas with their boat and used it to help people get out of their flooded homes. People you may never have spoken to before are now connected to you. Everyone here really pulled together.”
NATIC/Doma’s physical office in Houston closed for the storm’s impact, but associates continued to work remotely to prevent any disruption of business. To assist those impacted by the storm and flooding, Lennar Corp., NATIC’s parent company at the time, established a fund to contribute to the United Way Greater Houston Flood Relief Fund, pledging to match contributions dollar-for-dollar made by its 9,000 associates nationwide. Lennar and its associates raised $1 million for the cause.
As Hurricane Irma made its slow and dreaded turn toward Florida, NATIC/Doma’s Miami corporate office put its own disaster management plan into action.
“Our plan allowed for our associates to know how they would continue business communications, where they needed to go and how they could continue doing their jobs,” Fernandez said.
Despite NATIC/Doma’s offices experiencing damage and loss of power for a few days, “We were fully operational before, during and after the hurricanes by executing on our plan — combining the use of laptop computers, home offices, back-up personnel in locations unaffected by the storms, cell phone and Wi-Fi communications, data centers in strategic locations away from storm prone areas, and so much more,” Fernandez said. “We were able to continue operating without missing a beat.”
With associates marked safe and resuming their normal activities, the company turned its attention to its agents and customers. Once Irma passed and Floridians began to return home, they found themselves without electricity for at least a few days.
“Our main concern in the wake of the storm was making sure everyone was safe, and that we had personal contact information for all of our associates and agents,” said Fernandez. “We were really lucky in that everyone was accounted for and safe. Many people were without power from at least Tuesday through Friday, but in some cases, some areas still did not have power 10 days after the storm hit. Everyone was patient and understanding with each other.”
Thanks to earthquake readiness plans, California title companies were fairly well prepared to handle disruption of business caused by wildfires that struck the northern part of the state in October 2017. However, unlike the hurricanes in other states, it was impossible for anyone to predict when, where and how the fires would spread. Officials believe it could be years before the area is able to fully recover.
“It’s been a hard time for our little town and our whole community,” said Jody Sommerhauser, executive vice president of North Coast Title Co., a NATIC independent agent in Santa Rosa. “Everyone here knows someone here who lost a home. There has been a lot of shellshock. We have neighborhoods that look like they were blown up in a war zone. There is a lot of anxiety in the air. We’re taking things one day at a time.”
The first few weeks of the fire were marked by insurance moratoriums. Lenders required re-inspections by appraisers to ensure their property interests were protected.
“We were at a standstill for a couple of weeks,” Sommerhauser said. “We were able to get a few refinances closed during that time, but the insurance moratorium lasted until the fires were contained.”
North Coast Title deployed its disaster management plan and was fortunate in that it did not lose power at its offices.
“There wasn’t a need to disrupt our day-to-day operations, and our email and escrow services operate off of a remote server,” Sommerhauser said. “As a business, we were really fortunate in that none of our employees lost their homes.”
Still, the company’s 14 employees learned some important lessons from the experience, she said.
“All of us have learned to have a personal go-bag ready with medications, a change of clothes, money and personal checklists, and keep those close to us,” Sommerhauser said.
She shared some other advice for agents who may have to take quick action in the face of disaster.
“Have a printed list of all of the contacts for all of the people on your cell phone,” Sommerhauser advised. “Have a Facebook page, if your company is comfortable with social media, so you have a quick and easy way to communicate with all of your people.”
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