The elderly lady was in a surprisingly good mood, given there was about 7cm of water covering half the inside of her house in Whangarei.
"Oh, there are people worse off than me, dear," she told a surprised Vero disaster response team, urgently checking on homeowners after last year's once-in-500-years flooding. "My bed's still dry."
Most of her house wasn't, says Steve Booth, Manager Major Loss at Vero – whose quick response team soon sorted out her immediate needs, pumping out the water, assessing the damage and quickly setting in motion the claims and repair process.
Her experience is just one example of how a new approach to natural disasters is supporting customers better. Spearheaded by Vero and EQC in collaboration with the whole insurance industry, the National Disaster Response Agreement (NDRA) was born out of some of the lessons learned from the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.
The agreement addresses delays caused by the inefficiencies of having to lodge a claim with a private insurer and the Earthquake Commission, and better harnesses the speed and expertise of private insurers.
It means Vero and other private insurers will now act as a single point of contact as a one-stop-shop for policyholders, a quick conduit for both claims instead of the complications and delays inherent in dual handling.
The difference, according to Booth, is that Vero has the speed and the expertise to support customers quickly when they're affected by a disaster.
Booth heads a team of Vero staff, project managers and builders who are scrambled to an affected area to support customers. They look after their immediate needs, assessing the damage quickly and physically helping to make people safe – generally acting as a strong shoulder for customers, many having the most traumatic experience of their lives.
But it's how Vero operate their presence on the ground that is really changing the way its customers recover from natural disasters and events that, with climate change, are becoming more common.
This project management approach to major weather events is unique in New Zealand's insurance sector, though Booth says other companies are now beginning to follow suit. It is a mix of an efficient claims process and acting at speed to help.
In last year's Lake Ohau fires, for example, Vero's quick response team were on the ground the next day. As the nation began to realise the extent of the devastation, insurance companies around the country were being called by journalists, querying complaints from some homeowners that demolition of the ruined houses was not covered by policies.
Vero had already been there, done that. That same day, the quick response team had assessed the damage, liaised with customers and had "pushed the button" on demolition, as it was covered by Vero's policies.
For the Whangarei floods, Vero flew in some of its 10 people on the ground (the others drove) to begin the quick-fire process of helping customers: "We prioritise; it's a kind of triage," Booth says. "We have calls coming in all the time and we work out who needs to be seen right now and we are at it seven days a week."
"Have people been displaced from their house? Do we need to suck all the water out of the property or has the water just come through the fence and knocked over the clothesline? We make sure the people involved are okay and in good health, that the dog or cat is taken care of, that there is adequate transport.'
The team were on the ground for about six weeks in Whangarei and the recent floods in Christchurch also saw the team scramble to support customers.
"For a big event it can sometimes take a couple of weeks before we get around everyone who has to be seen," says Booth. "Then there is a big management job [to help with claims and repairs] and to do things like get all the moisture out; it generally takes about a couple of months [before it's all wrapped up]."
That, however, is operating at the speed of light in terms of previous insurance industry operations – even though some of the figures that stem from such natural disasters can be eye-opening. Vero has paid out about $5 billion in claims for the 2011 earthquakes and the 600-odd claims from the Whangarei floods saw over $7 million paid out.
It's too early to assess the current Christchurch floods but Booth says there are about 300 claims. While no customers were displaced from their homes, rural customers suffered heavily from the loss of fencing, bridges, culverts and stock feed.
The Christchurch quakes, the delays and related controversies, dented confidence in the insurance industry as a whole, he says, and the NDRA was a result of that.
But Vero took matters further: "We try to give people a lot of information so they are not left wondering. It was one of the biggest lessons from Christchurch and other events – people are really tolerant and can see what you are trying to do if you communicate properly."
It is this presence, the visibility and clear indication that the insurance company is helping them with urgency, that is pushing the insurance industry forward.
Booth says Vero have an exclusive, full-time relationship with Morgan Project Services, project management and building professionals with a long history of disaster recovery work.
Vero's focus on speed, support and its relationship with MPS means the company is able to react quickly and comprehensively to natural disasters – an integrated approach he says other insurance companies, slower off the mark, are now starting to emulate.