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The insurer where every employee has lived through a natural disaster

All that was left of some Tongans' homes after the January 2022 tsunami were concrete foundations.  Photo taken in February 2022 and supplied by the Royal Australian Navy.

POIS Christopher Szumlanski/AP

All that was left of some Tongans’ homes after the January 2022 tsunami were concrete foundations. Photo taken in February 2022 and supplied by the Royal Australian Navy.

“It was the most terrifying afternoon of my life as the volcano erupted. It was broad daylight when the ash covered the sky and within minutes it was dark as night,” Tower’s Tonga country manager Max Tafea said.

“I live in a coastal area and the tsunami caused damage to my house. I can clearly remember the feeling I had as I was rushing to get my family to safety, while calling each staff member to make sure they were evacuating to safety.”

For employees of the Pacific operation of NZX sharemarket-listed Tower, the one-year anniversary of the eruption of the undersea Hunga volcano, 65km northwest of Tongatapu, the kingdom’s largest island, is a time of reflection.

They share a special bond, because each one of them has personally experienced a natural disaster, said Ali Wilkinson, Tower’s head of Pacific Operations.

READ MORE:
* ‘Waves went over the rooftops’: Massive Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami sent people running, leaving them displaced even a year on
* Tower assesses financial impact of claims from Tongan disaster
* Tonga eruption: New images show glimpse of damaged, ash-covered structures

“Every single one of my claims team here (Fiji) went through Cyclone Winston, and that I think if one of those key things about our staff across the region. We all have personal experience of natural disasters on ourselves, our families, and our communities,” she said.

Wilkinson lived through the Canterbury earthquakes, which wrecked her St Albans home.

“My house was a total loss, and I carried on with my insurance work. There’s always someone worse off,” she said.

ITN

These are some of the first images of Tonga to reach the outside world after the massive eruption and tsunami of January 15, 2022.

Wilkinson praised Tafea and his Tonga colleagues, who were quickly back at work, despite the emotional impact of the eruption and the tsunami it caused, and the damage to their homes.

“To step above that, and to go out and look after customers. It’s a Pacific spirit we embrace at Tower,” she said.

Tower says it’s settled more than 93% of claims, paying out $7.6 million so far, on around 300 claims.

Tower is the largest house and car insurer in Tonga, with around 70% market share.

Tower's Tonga country manager Max Tafea fled with his family to higher ground as the 2022 tsunami struck Tonga.

supplied

Tower’s Tonga country manager Max Tafea fled with his family to higher ground as the 2022 tsunami struck Tonga.

Repeated natural disasters in the region, coupled with Covid lockdowns resulted in Tower developing networks and adopting technology that allowed it to begin work assessing claims quickly, even when claims assessors could not be flown into Tonga.

All country managers have satellite phones, Wilkinson said, but the first messages from Tafea came through by text in a brief window of minutes before Tonga’s telecommunications with the rest of the world was severed.

“During that time the country manager fired off some texts to me and others to let us know he was safe, and all of the staff were moving to higher ground,” Wilkinson said.

When Cyclone Harold struck Fiji in April 2020Tower had to find ways to remote assessment of claims.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130H Hercules aircraft is loaded with vital emergency supplies for Fiji and Vanuatu following Tropical Cyclone Harold.

NZDF

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130H Hercules aircraft is loaded with vital emergency supplies for Fiji and Vanuatu following Tropical Cyclone Harold.

Covid restrictions meant the insurer could not fly claims assessors between countries.

So, it developed a network of local audio-visual professionals who could take drones and cameras into properties to gather footage assessors located elsewhere could use.

“We can be giving them instructions; take a look here. Look up. We’re getting really fantastic 360-degree video footage which is as good as out loss adjuster being present in the room,” Wilkinson said.

Ali Wilkinson, Tower’s head of Pacific Operations.

supplied

Ali Wilkinson, Tower’s head of Pacific Operations.

The largest claims Tower got were for damage caused by the tsunami, and in the most extreme cases, all that was left of homes was the concrete slab.

Tower took out radio adverts to educate people on how to sweep, not hose or waterblast, ash off their homes and cars, and to keep their air conditioning off.

But it was damage caused by falling ash that caused the greatest number of claims.

“It would settle, and keep settling over a period. It was highly corrosive. You really don’t want it getting into your water tanks,” Wilkinson said.

Ash from the eruption of underwater volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai has blanketed swathes of Tonga.

Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga/TWITTER

Ash from the eruption of underwater volcano Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai has blanketed swathes of Tonga.

Tafea said the claims paid have a huge ripple effect through the community.

“A year on now and you can see how we have helped customers get back on their feet,” he said.

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