RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Wednesdays we talk about the workplace. And today we're going to talk about a job that few people think of it as the world's most exciting career choice - insurance agents. But insurance agents in post-Katrina New Orleans say there's never a dull moment on that job. They're either loved or hated, but they're certainly never ignored. And they often find themselves caught between companies and their clients.
NPR's David Schaper brings us this profile.
DAVID SCHAPER: In the first weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, it was a pretty hectic, frustrating and frightening time for just about everyone in southern Louisiana. And insurance agents were in high demand. State Farm agent Nora Vaden Holmes says she was swamped by people everywhere she went.
Ms. NORA VADEN HOLMES (State Farm Agent): I went to the post office after the storm and there were, you know, maybe 80, 90 people in line at the post office all trying to locate their mail, do a change of address, forward their mail if their homes were destroyed.
SCHAPER: Vaden Holmes says she saw one of her customers in line and started talking to him when he said out loud, This is my State Farm agent, Nora.
Ms. VADEN HOLMES: Well, everybody that had State Farm in line all just started piling up on me and they were like, I need an adjustment. I can't find my agent and I can't get through, and I need someone, in my house there's roof damage and I need this. And it was scary and I ended up spending an hour and a half at the post office. And I just took names and phone numbers and then I went back to my office and called the claims department and just started following up on all these people's claims. And it was scary to me. It was overwhelming. I'd go to the grocery store, the same thing would happen. Everybody would start talking to me about their claims.
SCHAPER: Since her office in suburban Medery flooded, Vaden Holmes says she worked for months out of a trailer. And only two of her six employees returned initially after the storm, so the three of them had to handle the unprecedented workload themselves.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
SCHAPER: Nearly two years after Katrina, it's still busy with phones ringing and customers dropping by this new office location just off the interstate in Medery. Many want new policies after being dropped by other companies. But since State Farm is not writing many new policies in the New Orleans area, Vaden Holmes has to put them on the much more costly state-run citizens insurance plan.
Others are worried about changes to their coverage or being dropped, or just being ready for another hurricane. It makes for a job that Vaden Holmes says since Katrina is best described in three words.
Ms. VADEN HOLMES: It's very rewarding. It's very challenging. And it's very frustrating.
SCHAPER: The rewarding part is that Vaden Holmes says the vast majority of her customers were satisfied with their State Farm claims settlements. Many, she says, were so thankful and relieved that they were moved to tears when she presented their claims checks.
The frustrating part is that many of her customers couldn't rebuild with insurance money alone and have been waiting for months on government aid to make up the difference through Louisiana's Road Home program. And now, Vaden Holmes says, State Farm is inspecting homes to see if they're occupied or being rehabbed. If not, the company may drop those policies, even though the customers may not know yet if they'll be able to rebuild.
Ms. VADEN HOLMES: So they're kind of in limbo. Well, you can't be in limbo and have an insurance policy on a vacant home because you could have vandalism problems. A lot of homes have burned after the storm. So it's a lot of exposure to the company and they have to protect the other policyholders that they have to make sure that the rates don't go through the roof.
SCHAPER: Vaden Holmes says she and her staff can relate - their own homes were damaged by the storm and they're facing the same issues in rising insurance costs. She wants to help her clients but as an agent there's only so much she can do.
Ms. VADEN HOLMES: Well, it's tough. It's very frustrating because you understand the company's position. And you know, as an agent this is my livelihood so I'm losing business because we're canceling these policies. So that's frustrating. And I employ eight people in my office so I have to worry about their incomes and their job security; my job security if the company would ever leave.
SCHAPER: Some insurance companies are pulling out or limiting their business in Louisiana and other hurricane-prone areas. And Vaden Holmes says she knows some insurance agents who have left since Katrina too. But she won't.
Ms. VADEN HOLMES: You know, I'm frustrated but I know that everything passes and I know that it's going to work out. And this is where I choose to be a State Farm agent. I could be an agent anywhere in the country. And this is my home, and this is where I want to live.
SCHAPER: Nora Vaden Holmes says she believes she's in the New Orleans area for a reason - to help her customers through some of the worst of times. The keys, she says, are communication, to keep her employees and customers aware of ever changing insurance rules and prices, and compassion. She says she lost one customer who died in her attic while waiting days after the hurricane to be rescued. And she doesn't ever want to have to go through that again.
David Schaper, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.