Lessons from Cyclone Larry to now – the evolution of Suncorp Group’s natural disaster response
COO Insurance, Suncorp Group, Paul Smeaton, reflects on some of biggest lessons learnt over his near 30-years at Suncorp and looks back on the milestones that shaped the Group’s industry-leading disaster response.
Seventeen years since Cyclone Larry; we’re predicting weather events, proactively sending weather alerts, we do flyovers to let customers know the damage, sometimes even before they know themselves.
Innisfail - 2006
Category 5 Cyclone Larry came after three to four years of relatively benign weather. As an industry, and an organisation, we had very little event response capability, and it showed. It was also my introduction to Claims. I was appointed to Head of Claims for Suncorp about three months after Larry hit.
The vulnerability of those communities was shocking. Cyclone Larry destroyed homes, crops and livelihoods between Cairns and Cardwell; causing billions of dollars worth of damage and traumatising residents.
There was no digital claims lodgement back then, no builder panels and no response plans.
Kaikōura - 2016
Earthquakes are terrifying. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Buildings shake and the land collapses.
During my time as CEO of Suncorp New Zealand, I visited a customer who lived on a farm on the seafront. It’s an experience I'll never forget. The first 30 metres of their property collapsed into the ocean following the Kaikōura earthquake. The damage was immense, as was the trauma.
One positive thing was that some of the lessons learnt from that earthquake and Canterbury 2011, changed the insurance industry in New Zealand, with a pledge from insurers and The Earthquake Commission to work together to streamline the claims process, with Vero (part of Suncorp Group’s portfolio of brands) taking the lead in that advocacy.
Springfield - 2020
The Springfield hail event on Halloween 2020 was another moment where we saw ways to do things better for our customers.
One customer I met had spent the night sleeping in her garage after the hail ripped holes in her roof. She was not comfortable contacting Suncorp digitally and had been waiting on hold for a significant amount of time.
As I stood in her loungeroom looking at what used to be the ceiling, I thought there had to be a better way to help her. We started asking ourselves, how do we respond faster and more efficiently? This became the genesis of our flexible working model – a flexible part-time workforce designed to reduce call centre wait times.
Australia’s east coast - 2022
Our flexible workforce is excellent and has served us incredibly well, but when you receive a year’s worth of claims in just six weeks - you need to do more.
After 19 days of prolonged and intense rainfall all the way from Gympie to Sydney, I knew this was going to be an event like nothing I had seen before, it was going to be massive.
The sheer scale and size of this even meant that our response would be different this time. We knew it was going to be a marathon.
We created a dedicated Flood Response Event Claims Team and started recruiting. It’s not often you have to hire 1,000 people in the space of six to eight weeks.
Seventeen years since Cyclone Larry; we’re predicting weather events, proactively sending weather alerts, we do flyovers to let customers know the damage, sometimes even before they know themselves. We’ve got a flexible working model, digital lodgement capability, online assessments can be done before we even hit the ground and we have 41 builders on our panel. We’ve got detailed plans in place and our people are highly trained – they are the face of Suncorp during a disaster.
We’ve certainly come a long way since Larry but due to the impacts of climate change, natural hazard events will only get worse. That’s why it’s critical to invest in mitigation infrastructure, it needs to be easier for homeowners to make their properties more resilient, building codes need to be enhanced so we don’t put communities at risk. We will continue to advocate for a more resilient Australia while learning from and listening to our customers, so we can be there for them in the moments that matter.