In 2017, Hurricane Maria unleashed a fury of destruction in Puerto Rico that had never been seen in the island’s recorded history. Almost 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath, making it the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Mitch in 1998.
“I was in Atlanta but it was still a traumatic experience both on a professional and personal level,” said Janyra Perez. “I’ve been in the insurance industry for 19 years and I had never been through anything like that.”
Janyra is COO of one of the largest Hispanic-owned insurance brokerages headquartered in Puerto Rico. In 2014, she moved to Atlanta to co-lead Fulcro Insurance’s first mainland office, which opened in 2009. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the agency has offices in San Juan, Atlanta, Orlando and the Dominican Republic.
Having grown up in Puerto Rico, Janyra is no stranger to hurricanes. But there was nothing that could have prepared her or her team members for the complete devastation caused by Maria. As the hurricane was approaching the island, a company group chat kept everyone looped in on each other’s safety. “Two a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. – at some point, I realized that I was the only one left on the chat. Everybody else had lost connection. I couldn’t get in touch with my co-workers or my family. People in our Atlanta office still had family there and no one could get in touch with their parents or their families. We were just waiting and waiting to hear from them.”
In the hours following the storm, members of the Atlanta Fulcro office tried desperately to communicate with their team members on the island. The storm crippled the communication networks making it impossible to check on loved ones. The island’s power grid was completely decimated leaving all 3.4 million residents without electricity. Some areas of Puerto Rico remained without power even a year after the September 20 storm.
Puerto Rico’s aging infrastructure made its electric grid more susceptible to damage from storms. But even before Maria, poor maintenance and outdated control systems plagued the power grid making it unstable and unreliable. Residents and businesses frequently suffered through power outages.
The Solution was in the Cloud
Rewind to earlier in 2017. Nine months before Maria, the Atlanta Fulcro office decided to hire a local IT company to help improve their U.S. operations. Since opening the Atlanta office, staff members would connect to the company’s servers in San Juan. As the years passed, Janyra saw an increase in power outages knocking their servers offline. This made servicing their Atlanta clients more difficult. “Even with the generator in our San Juan office, it would take time for the generator to pull up and then we had to wait for the servers to come up and then more time to log in to the system,” she said.
Puerto Ricans are unfortunately accustomed to frequent disruptions in electricity. Georgians and most mainland U.S. citizens are not and therefore have little patience when things breakdown. Insurance brokers and agencies are often defined by how quickly and efficiently they respond when a claim is submitted. Puerto Rico’s debilitating power issues were having a negative impact on Fulcro’s Atlanta operations. “That’s when we decided to separate Atlanta from the Puerto Rico infrastructure,” said Janyra.
“We were really interested in improving the user experience so we could serve our clients better,” said Janyra. “MIS’s Greenlight Cloud solution checked all the boxes.” Fulcro’s process of reviewing policies was clunky and required their users to toggle between an insurance carrier’s portal, Fulcro’s remote desktop environment and their local workstations. There was a lot of copying and pasting involved with sending emails or invoicing. “Our efficiency improved tremendously after moving to the Greenlight Cloud because we can do what we need to do without a lot of extra clicks.”
Murphy’s Law and Hurricane Preparedness
In the days preceding Hurricane Maria, Fulcro arranged to have its phone lines forwarded to the Atlanta office so it could continue to service their clients in the event of communication and power failure. Their backup and disaster recovery plan included manual backups of client files, having an offsite hard disk backup in addition to a cloud-based backup. They had an emergency plan in place that would allow them to carry on even if their phone service and power were wiped out. “However, that plan never took into consideration that everything was going to be lost on the island. Everything.”
It was two or three days before cell service began to be restored. Janyra and the Atlanta office were able to communicate on a limited basis with co-workers in San Juan. “The stories were really horrible,” she said. “One co-worker was rescued from the roof of his home because of the flooding. Another one was able to climb a tree to escape the floodwaters. Some of our employees lost family members.”
Most roads were impassable following the storm so it took several days for Fulcro’s emergency team to gain access to their office located in Old San Juan. Their plan was to power up the generator and then bring their servers back up. After getting the generator up and running, the team began booting their servers. “At that point, the generator exploded. Exploded. It was Murphy’s Law. Because of the crisis on the whole island, we couldn’t get anyone to service the generator. That’s when things got complicated,” said Janyra.
Meanwhile, calls from clients started pouring into the Atlanta office. With the sheer number of claims that would inevitably be filed, it was imperative that Fulcro act quickly to ensure their clients’ claims were among the first to be submitted to the insurance carriers. With the electricity out, there was no way to remote into the servers which made verifying coverage via the manual backup files laborious.
Emergency Surgery Needed
By the time Maria struck Puerto Rico, the Atlanta office had been a client of MIS Solutions for several months. Janyra’s brother, who is also the president of Fulcro urged Janyra to reach out to MIS for help. “I think Lliam could hear the desperation in my voice,” she said. The team at MIS was eager to help the Puerto Rico location by performing “emergency surgery” to bring the company back to life. The team at MIS was able to restore the company’s email within 24 hours. But to replicate and restore their agency management data to MIS’s private Greenlight Cloud, MIS needed to get access to their cloud-based backup account. Unfortunately, the last backup performed before the hurricane had failed so they moved to plan B. That entailed having the vendor who handled the offsite backup FedEx a copy of the restored data on an external hard drive to MIS where it would be cloned and migrated to MIS’s private cloud. Everything else, including a custom service portal, was built around the data MIS was able to extract from the hard drive.
“One of the biggest challenges was the very limited communication to and from Puerto Rico,” said Lliam Holmes, CEO of MIS Solutions. “Janyra was only able to speak with her brother once a day at a certain time. He would have to climb on the roof of the building to place a call. So we would put together a list of questions for her to ask and then she would come back to us with the answers.” In just over a couple of weeks, the Fulcro team – in temporary office space – was fully operational. The team at MIS had completed a cloud build and migration – something that usually takes months to complete.
“We were able to support our customers because of our partnership with MIS,” said Janyra. “We were able to provide the information and the system to our people that they needed to do their jobs. Our team members would be in the field with the customers taking all the information down on paper. Then they would come into the office to process. Having our cloud allowed us to download the policies and email them to the customer. We were able to rise above the catastrophic situation.”
The Silver Lining
A couple of positives came out of the tragedy for Fulcro: There was a boost to business following the hurricane and two, the company was able to seamlessly transition to remote working during the pandemic.
During, immediately after and in the months following the storm, Fulcro’s team members in both San Juan and Atlanta proved how resilient they are. Despite the devastation, personal loss, lack of electricity and running water and having to learn the new processes of working in a cloud environment, they pulled together and continued to provide exceptional service to their customers. Many other agencies on the island weren’t able to do the same for their customers. As a result, Fulcro’s business grew after the crisis. “That was because a lot of people were really upset about how their prior agents handled their process with the hurricane. They heard about how we were able to respond so our business grew,” said Janyra.
To reward its employees, Fulcro took everyone and their spouses on an all-expense-paid trip to Bogotá, Colombia. “Everybody worked so hard during that time. We processed thousands of claims. They went above and beyond. It was a team effort, so we just wanted to create a happy memory for the team,” she said.
The second upside was how Fulcro was able to quickly transition during the shelter-in-place restriction. Puerto Rico’s response to the COVID pandemic was swift and one of the strictest in the United States. Fulcro had already initiated a remote work policy for about half of their employees. Those users were unaffected by the executive orders to work from home. Fulcro’s internal IT person was able to quickly help the other team members download the Citrix receiver so they could access the company’s cloud-based network from their homes. “The orders were received on Sunday,” said Janyra. “By Monday at 2 p.m., everybody was up and working.”
Hurricane Maria proved to be the worst storm to strike the island in over 80 years causing $43 billion in damages. Adding insult to injury, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico in 2020 followed by a tropical storm that knocked out power again and flooded parts of the island. Despite the constant state of emergency during the past four years, Fulcro – along with all the residents of Puerto Rico – has proven to be resilient and capable of weathering unimaginable hardships. MIS Solutions was able to equip Fulcro with the technology their people needed to power through extraordinary adversity both personally and professionally.
Being able to quickly spin up Fulcro’s environment in MIS’s Greenlight Cloud was a “godsend,” according to Janyra, and one of the reasons the company has been able to thrive post Maria.