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Lessons learnt from St Francis Bay fire

Lessons learnt from St Francis Bay fire
11-11-13 / Staff Writer

Lessons learnt from St Francis Bay fire

The extent of the blaze can be measured by the insured costs incurred and Santam, the country's largest short-term insurer, settled all of its claims - in the region of R40 million, either by replacing or repairing homes of various values ranging between R1 million and R16 million.

Facing reality

Paul Fick, Santam Regional Manager for the Eastern and Southern Cape, remembers the fires clearly.

"Nobody can forget the devastation, not only the destruction to physical assets, but also how damaging the fires were to us all personally. We were part of a community that was caught up in anger, shock, and panic, desperately trying to stay sane while everything around was being burned down. It is unclear as to how the blaze started however, with winds gusting up to 100 kilometres an hour the fire spread rapidly.

Willem Kriel, of W. Kriel Brokers, a short-term insurance intermediary from the area also remembers the catastrophe, saying: "During the fires, we had ordinary people helping direct traffic, removing gas bottles before they exploded, and moving boats away from the fires to minimise losses. Everyone helped wherever they could'

"We had clients in and out of the office after the fires. I have taken many things out of this experience especially the value of the work I do when disaster strikes, and the necessity of insurance and the importance of making sure, as an intermediary, that you get all the details right when you help clients obtain insurance to cover their assets. This incident also reminded me how resilient people are when they find a common purpose. Even under those circumstances, the community got together to support each other in fighting the fires."

Terry Smith from Terry Smith Brokers, another intermediary from the area said:"Santam was comforting during this matter and both the policyholder and I felt very confident that the claim would be settled in a fair and professional manner. They've been a pleasure to work with and the professionalism has been unparalleled throughout, and we appreciate it."

Bringing about change

Now, a year later, the residents of St Francis Bay have made some changes. Most of the rebuilt properties feature tiled roofs, instead of thatch, and policyholders are more diligent in ensuring they have the correct cover in place and making sure that they are not under-insured.

A significant challenge for intermediaries in the immediate aftermath of the fires, says Kriel, was working with clients to ensure the accurate assessment of the replacement costs of buildings, contents, vehicles and other lost goods. Since then, it has become important to remind clients who live in thatched houses, to take all necessary precautions pertaining to a property of this nature, such as using fire blankets, having fire extinguishers and wherever possible, installing drenchers.

St Francis Bay though, continues to face the challenge of having an unpressurised water system so drenchers remain ineffective, though the town is trying to find ways to change this. The townspeople have now a fire engine with four staff, plus two watercraft tenders that have been locally commissioned. The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) has continued to play a crucial role.

"Santam is actively engaged with some local municipalities to facilitate programmes to keep residents safe. The lessons learnt at St Francis Bay will provide the necessary motivation for us to continue our support in helping municipalities serve their communities. For instance, we recently installed an early warning system and polycom in George so that residents can be timeously warned of approaching or imminent weather-related dangers," says John Melville, Executive Head of Risk Services at Santam.

"In addition we have also embarked on communication campaigns to better assist clients in making better choices about their safety. We were there when our clients in St Francis Bay needed us, as any good insurer should be, however we must continue emphasising that clients should make their, and their loved ones safety, of paramount importance,"adds Melville.

Santam continues to insure thatched houses; however the company is insistent on the use of fire monitoring equipment, fire blankets and drenchers, and is applying appropriate rates and excesses to all such buildings.

"Speaking on behalf of the intermediaries, we can be proud of how we performed during the St Francis Bay crisis, especially how we delivered on our insurance promises to all. Looking back, it is somewhat gratifying to see how the community came together during a tragedy to help each other, and how we still managed to provide top-class service to Santam brokers and our mutual clients. Looking forward, we need to work hard to avoid such tragedies and be careful to ensure our clients are well prepared should the same thing, or something similar, happen again," concludes Fick.

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