Insurance agencies send rapid response and catastrophe teams to disasters

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Tornados severely damaged about 60 percent of the city of Caruthersville, Mo., in April. Insurance agencies from across the state sent rapid response teams to help assess the damage. (Diane L. Wilson)

Three years ago this month, a tornado banged through Jackson damaging 25 businesses and 255 homes. Sections of the city were a mess.

Bill Wallace's State Farm Insurance on East Main Street damaged. Windows were broken and tree limbs were thrown into the lobby. He was insured by State Farm and everything was quickly fixed, he said. But there were so many claims to handle that other State Farm agents came to help.

"We were working seven days a week," he said. "It was a spontaneous response by area agents. It was not planned for them to come here, but we got help from claims people from Sikeston, Cape and Ste. Genevieve."

Some area State Farm agents have since developed a team concept. They will travel to nearby cities to help with unexpected disasters. Wallace said the headquarters of State Farm Insurance has "cat teams" -- catastrophe teams of claims agents who are quickly marshaled to disasters of large magnitude.

Catastrophe teams are well versed in all aspects of insurance claims -- homeowners and business insurance, car and life insurance, Wallace said.

On April 2, an F3 tornado hit Caruthersville, destroying 141 single-family homes, 22 mobile homes and 30 duplexes. The tornado severely damaged 105 homes. It also damaged or destroyed 25 businesses.

The mayor of Caruthersville, Diane Sayre, said a large number of insurance agents arrived soon after the tornado struck.

"There's been so many, it's hard to keep a handle on it," she said. "One agency sent in a team and set up tents in a bank parking lot. There were agents from auto insurance companies. There were insurance teams from several of the biggest insurance companies. Our local agents had their hands full."

There are eight insurance agencies in Caruthersville.

Three small businesses were totally wiped out -- an electric company, a grocery mart and a hamburger drive-in. Most damaged businesses have rebuilding efforts well under way thanks to quick work by insurance companies, Sayre said. Sayre has not heard any complaints about insurance companies being slow to respond to claims made by policyholders.

Dennis Martin, who runs the State Farm office in Perryville, said although he is not a member of the company's catastrophe team, he is aware State Farm had quickly dispatched one.

"They didn't waste any time," he said.

Tia Lindell, a Columbia, Mo.-based spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance, said the company sent a catastrophe team to assist Terry Wilson, the agent in Caruthersville. Within 24 hours, the team was in place. The team consisted of 10 adjusters and eight support staff from across the country.

State Farm catastrophe team manager Rick Cleaves, who lives in Oklahoma, set up an office in Cape Girardeau to coordinate the Caruthersville recovery effort.

"The homes that are completely destroyed, where customers no longer have a roof over their heads, are the first homes we try to inspect," said Cleaves.

Auto claim representatives set up a drive-in facility to allow speedy inspection of damaged vehicles, said Cleaves. The facility included a tent, generators, satellite dishes and other amenities required to operate a claims office. But not everyone could drive their damaged vehicles to the processing site, said Cleaves, so a specially-equipped van went to where the vehicles were located.

Melissa Morris, corporate relations assistant with Allstate Insurance Co.'s West-Central Regional Office in Colorado, said all major insurance companies have rapid response and catastrophe teams that are quickly dispatched to disaster areas.

"When our company receives reports that customers have $1 million or more in damage, we send in teams with mobile phones, pagers and laptops," she said. "These are not agents who sell insurance, but special claims agents -- agents who get to the scene fast, interview people and take inventory."

Morris said the Allstate catastrophe team includes 371 adjusters, support staff and management that are segmented into regional units across the country and are dispatched in specially outfitted motor homes. Morris said the Caruthersville tornado did not "trigger extra support," and local Allstate agents were able to handle the claims.

Steve Brazol, Farmers Insurance Group of Companies agent in Cape Girardeau, said he is a member of an early response team, which tries to get to storm-damaged areas before claims adjusters arrive. He worked the tornado that hit Jackson three years ago.

"We quickly identify our policyholders and put up signage indicating where they live," he said. "A lot of times street signs are gone, blown away or knocked down."

Brazol wasn't dispatched to Caruthersville, but Dennis Lorch of Advance was. Lorch, district manager of Farmers Insurance Group of Companies, made two visits to the tornado-wrecked city as part of his company's emergency response team.

"The intensity of the damage was dramatic," said Lorch. "We had about 20 property claims the first day. Lots of houses were totaled. We had up to about 80 auto claims."

Lorch said he was accompanied on the first visit by district staff who put up signs in yards to notify the claims agents where policyholders had damage. The next day he accompanied Jim Swope, the state executive director of Farmers Insurance Group of Companies. Lorch said Swope created the company's emergency response concept about five years ago, and it's spread to other states.

Ken Muth, media relations director for American Family Insurance in Madison, Wis., said catastrophe teams are currently in place in Missouri and were put on high alert in February when bad weather was striking areas. The teams are comprised of adjusters, quality control specialists, administrators and support personnel.

"When a storm hits, we respond immediately to handle high volume claims," said Muth. "Tornados obviously cause extensive and traumatic damage to policyholders, and we try to anticipate where tornados and other types of severe weather will strike."

The company has tracking units that monitor weather reports from a variety of sources, which includes local agents calling in, Muth said. He said the company's claim office in St. Louis is "always on board" and personnel there function as first responders.

Baughn Meredith, Farm Bureau Insurance Services agent in Caruthersville, said company headquarters in Jefferson City sent a catastrophe team that stayed several weeks, working and living out of motels. He said some team members were independent adjusters and others were from around the state.

"I started right off with a couple hundred claims on autos and houses," said Meredith. "By the volume of claims I turned into headquarters electronically, it triggered the company to send assistance. They were the help I needed."


Area insurance agencies

There are about 105 insurance agencies in the Cape Girardeau/Jackson area, and there are about 130 insurance agencies between Perryville and Sikeston. Most are independent agencies that carry the name of its owner. Most offer a wide range of insurance choices and some are affiliated with nationwide insurance companies. The following are the largest insurance companies in the area in terms of number of offices:

Farmers Insurance Group of Companies

seven in Cape, two in Sikeston, two in Perryville, two in Jackson, one in Scott City, one in Marble Hill, one in Advance

home, auto, farm, crop, health care

State Farm

five in Cape, three in Sikeston, two in Jackson, one in Perryville, one in Chaffee, one in Marble Hill, one in Scott City

auto, home, business, financial services

American Family

six in Cape, three in Perryville, two in Jackson, one in Chaffee

auto, home, commercial, health, life, financial services

Shelter

two in Cape, two in Sikeston, one in Jackson, one in Perryville, one in Scott City, one in Chaffee

auto, home, life, farm, business

Farm Bureau

two in Sikeston, one in Perryville, one in Cape, one in Jackson, one in Marble Hill, one in Benton

home, auto, farm, life, crop, health care

Modern Woodmen of America

three in Cape, one in Jackson, one in Sikeston

health, home, auto

Allstate

one in Cape, one in Sikeston, one in Perryville, one in Scott City

auto, home, business, life

AAA

one in Cape, one in Sikeston, one in Perryville

auto, homeowners, life, health

Arnold Chap

one in Cape, one in Jackson, one in Scott City

Auto, home, life, health, business, farm

Lakenan

one in Cape, one in Jackson, one in Perryville

home, auto

Farmers

two in Jackson, one in Scott City

auto, home, life, commercial

Aflac

one in Cape, one in Chaffee

accident, cancer, disability, hospital

Allied

one in Cape, one in Perryville

auto, home, business

Blue Cross Blue Shield

one in Cape, one in Jackson

individual and family and Medicare supplements

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: