Photo: Kim Brent / The Enterprise
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Despite forecasts of an unusually active hurricane season starting in June, preparation in Southeast Texas seems to be proceeding as normal except for the areas of life being changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some places, like at M&D Supply in Beaumont, there are visible cues that people might not be ready to focus on hurricanes just yet.
Lisa Taylor, a manager at the hardware store, said she usually expects customers to be picking up storm essentials at this point in the year, but most are still looking for various sanitizers and masks.
“I haven’t seen much traffic yet,” she said. “Coronavirus seems to be the biggest topic right now.”
The Beaumont hardware store has been open and at mostly full staff during the pandemic, and Taylor said its inventory was readily available after a few initial delays during the start of emergency orders in March.
Policies with the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association also have taken a slight dip over last year’s numbers, according to the agency’s data from the first quarter.
As of March 31, there were 25,361 commercial and residential policies in Jefferson County, around 2,000 less than the same period last year. Chambers County also saw a dip in the last year, but only by about 250 policies. It has a comparatively small amount of policies with TWIA with nearly 4,500 for the whole county.
Among all of the first-tier counties on Texas’ coast, policies are down by around 11,000 compared to the same period last year.
Those numbers could adjust when next quarter’s data is released and could also be affected by depopulation as TWIA attempts to shift policy holders to the private market. The association is the insurer of last resort and homeowners only qualify for a policy after being rejected by a private insurer.
Camille Garcia, a spokesperson with the Insurance Council of Texas, said reports of fraud and scams have been rampant since March after late spring storms swept through parts of northern and eastern Texas.
“Unfortunately, fraud seems to be increasing,” Garcia said. “We have also seen an uptick in homeowners making deposits or people that just sign over their insurance proceeds. Once that happens, it’s likely a contractor will just split and then it is almost impossible to recover the money.”
While fraud is commonly thought of in terms of phone or cyber crime, Garcia said it is just as likely that a scam artist knocks on your door.
ITC suggests homeowners should seek referrals, reviews and recommendations from friends before signing any contracts for services or repairs and be wary of contractors that approach them at their homes.
With social distancing and contactless procedures becoming more common, Garcia said it is even more important to vet contractors.
But just as fraudsters adjust their tactics to the new conditions, insurance adjusters are are being forced to change the way they do business.
Agents and adjusters now are using drones to observe the exterior of damaged homes while talking with owners by phone. Most other interactions between policyholders and agents are shifting online as much as possible.
Insurers also are advising Texans that it is even more vital now to have a plan for weathering a storm and staying well-supplied since most families will likely be together at home when a hurricane strikes.
For crews that will be responding after a disaster and trying to keeping the power on for people in need, contingency plans will remain largely unchanged. That said, linemen will have to adapt to a new normal while following them.
Allen East, vice president of distribution operations for Entergy Texas, said work for hurricane season pretty much happens through the entire year as local crews trim problem vegetation, replace and inspect poles and upgrade systems.
A particularly active season, as most experts are calling for this year, doesn’t necessarily change the company’s plans as it is a part a regional command structure that includes several utilities.Entergy will either have help when the worst comes or it will be the one offering aid to other companies.
“COVID has changed things, like with everything else, so we will have to do social distancing,” East said of future responses. “The briefings will be done electronically, and we will have to adjust to keeping crews of three or five guys together so we don’t have to shutdown an entire company if one tests positive.”
Entergy will have to adjust the way it houses outside linemen, feeds crews and organizes workers, but many tactics are already in place.
East said it was almost tradition for linemen to travel one solo in a truck and to use their phones to send each other photos of their work, but those moves will now become more formal policies.
The Southeast Texas area crews have already been practicing drills for emergency responses remotely by placing around 300 workers on a web call together to run the scenarios, but they’ve also had some experience in the field at home and responding to calls for assistance elsewhere.
“We have not stopped doing what we do, and it has gotten us better and better at managing the pandemic,” East said. “It is here and I think we’ve done everything we need to do to handle it.”