When Hurricane Irene prevented insurance agency CEO George Yost and his employees from entering their Fairfield office, Yost staged a temporary work station at the Lake Valhalla Club and then at his Virginia Road home in the township.
Yost, 58, heads The Chadler Group, an independent insurance agency with 50 employees and more than 6,000 commercial, professional and personal customers. The agency, which has been in business for more than two decades, sells home, auto, flood, life and other types of insurance and writes policies with more than 20 different insurance companies.
Last week, employees of the Fairfield-based agency reported to their offices on the Monday after Hurricane Irene. In the aftermath of the storm, calls of insurance claims poured in at the rate of 10 or more an hour.
“The calls began at 7 a.m. Sunday,” Yost said. Yost, who has sold insurance for 37 years, said he never witnessed claim volume as high as with Hurricane Irene.
Outside the agency’s Fairfield office at 330 Passaic Ave., the began evacuating buildings and setting up check points throughout the town to limit traffic and prohibit movement in the wake of extreme flooding.
By Monday at 3 p.m., all employees were ordered to leave because a foot-and-a-half of flood water filled the streets surrounding their building. Phones, computers, mail and access to hard-copy files were effectively cut off to the company.
An evacuation the day after so many customers suffered major losses made business for the insurance agency anything but usual.
Assuming the evacuation would last a day, Yost and his five partners regrouped, determined to handle the claims.
“It’s an unbelievable challenge,” Yost said of the displacement.
Without access to the office, and customers needing immediate service, the agency focused on how to make working from home efficient on Tuesday. Working remotely, they coordinated themselves, staying on top of claims, questions and service.
“Luckily we have Internet access to our system, which didn’t go down. So, we were in business,” Yost said. “But 50 people weren’t in business, because not everybody has [remote] access to the system.”
Additionally, the calls kept coming, and receiving them became a challenge.
“Call-forwarding didn’t really work,” Yost said.
So, customers were asked to leave a message when they called, and a team of employees was assigned to check messages remotely and return phone calls. That same team then had to call other employees who were assigned to handle the calls. All business shifted entirely to cell phones.
By Tuesday evening, the National Guard decided they would not allow the agency to return to their offices on Wednesday, either.
“We’re still open for business,” Yost said. He said said not all of the state was under water, so customers were still purchasing cars and homes and businesses, all of which needed to be insured.
“We thought it would be more efficient if we could all get together somewhere,” Yost said.
As a 25-year resident of the Lake Valhalla area of Montville Township, and an active member of the , Yost contacted the club’s management and arranged for his employees to work from the clubhouse by renting the ballroom on Wednesday.
The Chadler Group conducted business Wednesday out of the Lake Valhalla Club. All the while, Yost’s son, Greg, the IT specialist for the agency, worked on keeping the Internet connection strong. The Yosts traveled to Fairfield in an effort to enter the office building and gain access to the company’s computer system, but they were turned back by the National Guard.
“If we could get more PCs on there, we could get more people online,” Yost said.
Meanwhile, back at the club, 30 workers arrived from as far away as East Stroudsburg, Pa., and as close as Towaco. They formed teams. Each included someone with access to the agency’s server. There were teams for returning calls, initiating calls, filing claims, confirming claim numbers and contacting clients with adjuster information, as well as writing new business.
Additionally, the partners assigned teams to reach out to those clients with flood insurance that the agency had not yet heard from.
“We know who has flood insurance,” said Mark Todisco, a Towaco resident and Chadler Group partner. “We wanted to make certain we had not missed anybody.”
Despite a frustrating day of spotty wireless connections, the group left the Lake Valhalla Club with the hope they could go back to the office the next day.
But, as the sun rose last Thursday, Yost and his partners, who had put in four 14- to 16-hour days, were told they still could not return to their office.
Although the water never actually entered their building and even though the flood waters had mostly receded in Fairfield, the area was experiencing a health emergency. Sewer water had backed up, leaving the area contaminated. The Chadler Group was displaced for a third straight day.
“We all came to my house,” said Yost, a Virginia Road resident, “mostly because I have better wireless than the club. It’s a beautiful day. Half the people are working inside, and half are working outside.”
Throughout the day, cars came and went, food was delivered, and employees walked through the front and back yards on cell phones. The dining room, living room, basement, deck, kitchen and every flat surface was home to employees and their paperwork.
The Chadler Group conducted business around the Yost family. The landscaper mowed the lawn as usual. Eileen, Yost’s wife, was babysitting Amelia, their granddaughter, while Yost’s father and mother, who live with Yost part-time, were visiting with family. Eileen also helped get lunch together.
Meanwhile, son Greg finally made it through the National Guard checkpoints in Fairfield with an Office of Emergency Management letter that allowed him to enter the building and gain more access to the server.
Retired partner, Michael Iannaconi Jr., came to help.
“These people are very adaptive,” Iannaconi said of his former partners and employees. “We’re very appreciative of what they do.”
Todisco said some of the employees were in situations similar to those making the claims.
"They’ve lost power and had flooding. But they are here,” he said.
Todisco did not regain power at his house until Thursday afternoon, five days after it was lost.
Tired but proud of his staff and company, Yost said, “I have five partners and an unbelievable staff. We have a lot of dedicated and experienced staff who have handled a lot of work.
"They didn’t miss a beat. Our clients got the same great service they would have gotten if we had been in the office. The only thing is we just had to jump through hoops to provide it.”