The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the catastrophic 2004 earthquakes and tsunamis in South Asia have helped raise the profile of travel insurance programs and work-life benefits programs.[@@]

Now the devastation that Hurricane Katrina has wrought along the Gulf Coast has brought the programs back into the spotlight.

At Bensinger DuPont & Associates, Chicago, an employee assistance program and work-life benefits firm, “we’re getting a lot of calls,” says spokesman Gus Stieber.

“No one is actually calling from New Orleans,” Stieber says.

But many workers who have evacuated from New Orleans and employees who live in hard-hit but somewhat less isolated communities, such as Biloxi, Miss., are calling to ask about ways to get cash through advances on paychecks or other means, Stieber says.

“Some of their houses have been destroyed,” Stieber reports.

Today, employers are filling Web message boards with heartrending pleas for information about missing employees who might be alive and well or might be dead.

Bensinger DuPont recommends that employers prepare for the possibility of disastrous events by creating “phone trees” that give employees the telephone numbers of other employees to call in case of emergencies.

Stieber says health insurers may be able to play a role in helping employers find missing employees.

Employees who have no idea how to reach their employers may know the names of their health insurers, and doctors or hospitals can easily help employees reach those health insurers, Stieber says.

If displaced employees or employees in areas with terrible communications problems reach health insurers, customer service reps could offer to help those employees make contact with their employers, Stieber says.

Meanwhile, at Assist America Inc., Princeton, N.J., a travel assistance firm, spokesman Christopher Gibbs says the best time to call about a hurricane is before the hurricane has arrived.

Although a firm like Assist America has relationships with a large network of adventurous, Indiana Jones-type people who can obtain almost any type of vehicle and cut through almost any strand of red tape, they do have to work within the law, Gibbs says.

In the wake of Katrina, Assist America would have had a hard time getting rescuers in to help travelers out, if any had called it for that kind of assistance.

But Assist America is well-equipped to round up shuttle buses or even boats to help evacuate employees before a storm like Katrina hits, Gibbs says.

Last year, for example, Assist America brought in a cruise ship to evacuate students in Grenada to safe haven in Venezuela just before a hurricane struck, Gibbs says.

Employers should consider organizing the same kinds of evacuations for employees in areas threatened by major hurricanes, Gibbs says.

“Some people don’t have the resources to evacuate,” he says.