By STEVE YAHN, who has written for and edited national publications for more than 30 years
In the worst year for tornadoes in the United States since 1950, storm-chasing tours are flourishing. Insurance--both for the companies themselves and for their customers--is as hard to come by as ever.
"I find myself every year just praying to God that we get renewed," said an executive at a leading storm-chasing firm. "Thank goodness we haven't had a claim, but you just never know with this market. We're constantly concerned that the underwriters will just suddenly disappear. It's pretty nerve-wracking. Our business, as big as it's become, depends on insurance. In this day and age, if you can't get a policy, you basically can't run your business."
David Gold, manager of Silver Lining Tours LLC, a premier storm-chasing company based in Houston, seconded that observation: "It took us a long time to get the right coverage because insurance companies took one look at us and said, 'No way.' "
Luckily for Silver Lining Tours, the firm finally found a solution through a broker in its own backyard. Thanks to the Dallas-based agency of Ragland, Strother & Lafitte, the tour company is covered by an insurance package that protects it on several fronts--albeit on a yearly renewal basis.
"There's really no market for storm-chasing insurance per se," said Gold, who, along with co-owner and renowned storm chaser Roger Hill, takes groups of 12 to 20 chasers into the field caravan-style at a cost of between $2,200 and $3,500 per participant.
Fortunately, Ragland, Strother & Lafitte's Surry Shaffer, director of the agency's entertainment division, had been aggressively canvassing the storm-chasing market for years before he became connected with Silver Lining.
"Silver Lining spends the money to be very well protected," said Shaffer, who has worked with the storm chaser for five years.
As for specific coverage, Silver Lining Tours has a general liability policy that protects it if someone decides to sue the company. The company also has commercial auto coverage but with extra components that give the policy higher amounts of liability coverage for its vehicles and the occupants.
Also, Silver Lining purchases medical coverage should any of its clients incur any medical expenses on one of its seven-day trips. And to cover its own equipment, Silver Lining has an equipment marine policy.
Another leading storm and extreme weather chaser, Amarillo, Texas-based Warren Faidley, takes a different approach with his clients. He takes clients out on a one-person-a-week basis. Faidley can afford the one-at-a-time approach, he said, because "most of our clientele are high-end people." Through his Weatherstock parent company, Faidley charges $4,500 per participant for a seven-day tour.
These customers, who Faidley calls "paid volunteers" because they want to be active members of the operation, read maps and weather charts, and are required to pay for their own medical insurance.
"I also take out a policy which covers emergency medical evacuation and things like that," Faidley said. "It's part of an adventure insurance policy."
In the auto area, Faidley carries a standard automotive liability policy on his vehicle and its passengers.
Sources in the story would not reveal the names of their insurance carriers for competitive reasons, but they did note that underwriters were traditional insurance companies.
THE DARK SIDE OF DERRING-DO
The big thing now in the storm-chasing realm, said Faidley, who is a lecturer, journalist, corporate spokesman and storm safety/survival consultant, is that the growing television coverage of the derring-do "has created a whole different, and bad, mentality about what we do."
"Chasing used to be more like bird-watching, something people went about in a reasonable way," Faidley said. "Unfortunately because of adverse television coverage, storm chasing has become more of a high-end sport, like bungee jumping. It's become a very dangerous type of pursuit.
People come out and expect to see crazy types of things," he said.
For individual or freelance storm chasers, insurance is an entirely different pursuit than insurance for established storm-chasing businesses, said Jeff McCart, president of The McCart Group, a 112-member insurance and risk management firm based in Atlanta.
"Part-time or amateur storm chasers really don't need additional insurance when they use their own personal vehicle," said McCart. "If their car is hit by debris or it slides into a tree after a torrential rain, there is no tornado exclusion under their personal auto policy.
"Let's take it a step further," McCart added. "What if their car was thrown against a tree and now they're injured. As long as they have medical coverage, there's not a tornado exclusion on their medical policy."
What if an amateur storm chaser does damage to a person in another vehicle? Again, it should be covered for the amateur, he said.
McCart advised, however, that amateur storm chasers ought to have life insurance coverage, "Assuming they have a family they care for ? "
Where there may be some kind of tornado exclusion needed, McCart said, is if you're a paid consultant--say if you're collecting tornado data for a television station--and you're using your vehicle within the scope of your duties. In that case, you would need commercial automobile liability coverage, he said.
June 2, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications