After Joplin Tornado, Town Looked Like a War Zone, Adjusters Say

By | May 22, 2012

“One of the eeriest things was … the lack of noise. There were no birds. There was no sound. There was no vegetation. There was nothing. There were no dogs. There were no cars. It was just mounds of rubble,” said Steve Keeney, catastrophe response team adjuster for Shelter Insurance, describing the aftermath of the EF-5 (Enhanced Fujita Scale) tornado with 200 mph-plus winds that struck Joplin, Mo., at 5:41 the evening of May 22, 2011.

Emergency responders from 14 states came to the aid of Missouri’s fourth largest city after the spring storm devastated the community and caused 161 deaths.

More than 500 residential properties, 35 miles of roadway and 700 city blocks were destroyed. Also, 1.2 million cubic yards of debris had to be cleared from 2,700 lots.

Police sought the help of insurance claims adjusters, cross-referencing policyholders making claims with their list of the missing.

Dean Welton, catastrophe claims field manager for the Madison, Wis.-based American Family, grew up in southern Missouri. He was on his way to visit field adjusters in Minnesota when he had to turn around and head back to Missouri. Having worked in the catastrophe department since 2003, he’s seen his fair share of devastation, but nothing prepared him for Joplin.

“Usually in other situations, in other tornadoes, you talk to one or two people that have lived through this traumatic situation but in Joplin, it was everybody you talked to,” Welton said. “Everybody had felt the brunt of the storm.”

Half the city was gone, Welton said. He compared the scene to a war zone.

“In most tornadoes, you can see where a tornado hits a neighborhood or hits a certain area of the town, but usually, it’s pretty concentrated —the damage is. But with Joplin, it was just like the whole city — a bomb had been dropped, and just blew. It was like you were watching CNN in a country that was experiencing war-like conditions. … It was pretty mind-blowing,” Welton said. “I’ve been with the ‘cat’ department since 2003, so I’d worked several tornadoes, and several of them large tornadoes, but nothing like this.”

In an “average catastrophe loss” it usually takes a half-day to locate the perimeter of the loss. In Joplin, it took almost three days because of access issues and the sheer scope of the damage, according to Welton.

He estimated that claims involving homes that were a total loss were resolved within the first 10 days to two weeks. Contents losses took longer. Normally, adjusters working catastrophe losses put in 12-hour days; in this case, American Family’s cat team worked 16- to18-hour days.

American Family’s catastrophe response team processed nearly 2,300 claims and paid more than $100 million in property, auto and commercial claims.

Keeney, with Shelter Insurance, was already in the Joplin area handling hail damage claims when the skies began darkening that Sunday.

“On Sundays, we typically work two or three claims,” Keeney said. “I was on my last one at about five o’clock, just a few miles north of Joplin. It had been an extremely hot and humid day. The humidity was so high that you just knew that it was eventually going to result in a rain. It was one of those things in the back of my mind I kept thinking, eventually once it comes, it’ll bring some relief to that humidity and knock it down a little bit. So along about four o’clock or so, I could see that the sky was getting dark, and the storm was coming in.

Kenney finished his last roof at about 4:30 or 5:00 and headed east toward Springfield where he was staying. “Rather than come down and hit I 44 coming through the heart of Joplin, I decided to take some back county roads because the storm looked so dark that I thought I would avoid just driving through the heavy rain and try and get ahead of it,” Keeney said.

“Once I got back to Springfield at about 6:30 and turned the TV on and then realized that what I had saw and what I was trying to get ahead of was, in actuality, the F5 tornado that struck Joplin,” said Keeney.

Keeney put in 12-hour days and worked Joplin claims for seven months. “I was there right up until the week before Christmas, working three week straight rotation and then five days off, and then back for another three weeks,” he said.

“This thing … just leveled everything in its path. There was no structure standing; 7,000 structures were leveled — businesses, hospitals, office complexes, apartments, sheds, garage, outbuildings, trees, shrubs. There was virtually nothing left standing,” Keeney said.

Elisabeth Sobczak, a trainer with property claims experience, drove Shelter Insurance’s storm van down to Joplin on Sunday evening. She was one of the first to arrive on the scene along with emergency medical personal.

“It didn’t seem chaotic. It just seemed like people were trying to get their world back,” Sobczak said.

She helped storm victims change tires, provided food, water and even handed out trash bags so people could collect their belongings. “It would amaze you the value of a Hefty bag. Their possessions are just everywhere and those that were lucky enough to have it, still on their property … were trying to pick through the debris to see what they could salvage and it was only what they could carry in their arms because they had no place to put it. People were crying saying thank you because they at least had a place to start collecting their belongings,” she said.

Sobczak described holding Joplin residents who needed someone to listen and a shoulder to cry on.

About Denise Johnson

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