In This Issue

When the Sky Touches the Earth

In a season of deadly storms, service counts

July 1, 2008
By Kathleen Felong

What Greg Cline remembers about the night of Feb. 5 is how hot and humid it was.

He and a friend were out in his garage behind the house in Lafayette, Tenn. That night, he was working on a ‘98 Ford Explorer. And he was sweating in shirt sleeves in February.

Even for Tennessee, that’s unusual. But something more unlikely was headed to Macon County that night—a tornado that would travel roughly 40 miles along the ground and leave a federally declared disaster area and 26 dead in its wake.

“It was one of those tornadoes that acts like a road grader,” said Andy Brain, a member of ERIE’s Catastrophe Response Team. “It tore up everything in its path.”

The tornado that swept Lafayette was one of a number of twisters barreling through the southern U.S. that evening. That winter strike was the deadliest in almost a decade, causing more than 50 deaths in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.

And the tornados have been on a roll since. Through May of this year, the near-record number of tornadoes caused more than 100 deaths nationwide.

Those lucky enough to escape physical injury are often left with the emotional and financial toll of reconstructing homes, businesses and a way of life. 

‘Houses were gone’

When Greg Cline came in from the garage about 9:30, his wife, April, was watching the tornado warnings on TV. Their two young children—daughter Kaylie, 6, and son Garon, 3 — were already asleep in a nearby bedroom. Like many houses in that part of the country, their’s didn’t have a basement. But Greg, who had built the sturdy brick home, wasn’t particularly nervous about the warnings.

Tornado? Hurricane? Whatever the stormy weather, it’s best to clear the deck

The early start to the 2008 tornado season was unusual. According to the National Weather Service, tornado season generally runs from late winter through midsummer, then kicks up again in late fall. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30.

Together, the seasons create one long stretch of potential for severe storms, marked by high winds, heavy rain and hail. 

One of the best ways to minimize damage is to clear the deck. Literally.

“Lock everything down as best you can. Move things into the house or the garage—and urge your neighbors to do the same,” says Andy Brain, a 15-year claims handler who travels from one catastrophe to another for ERIE. “Anything airborne in a tornado can become a deadly weapon.”

Even a flower pot.

That was the culprit that crashed through a sliding glass door during a recent Virginia storm. “It wasn’t the insured’s,” said Brain. “We don’t know where it came from.”

More tips on weathering storms

More stories on surviving tornados

“We had a bad hailstorm in ’95, so I always relate tornado warnings and watches to ‘you’re gonna get some hail,’” said Cline.

At his wife’s prodding, though, they decided to wake the kids and head to his parents’ house to ride out the storm in their cellar.

It’s a good thing they did.

When they saw their property in the light of the next day, there were few things in the places they had left them. Both ends of the house were gone. Cars were twisted and scattered like broken toys. The recliner sat in the driveway.

Some residents of the town faced an even less believable sight.

“Trees were gone. Houses were gone,” said Neel Smith, an Erie Insurance agent at Smith Insurance in Lafayette. “In several places, all that was left was a slab.”

The tornado had missed Smith’s home, but not those of 70–80 of his ERIE customers, including Greg Cline, who lost several cars, his home and a rental property. And while the damage was severe, both physical and emotional—the road to recovery began quickly.

“With a tornado, there’s a lot of damage in a short amount of time,” said Dave LeFaiver, ERIE’s supervisor of Property Claims. “We have to mobilize quickly.”

Within hours, ERIE claims adjusters began arriving to help pick up the pieces.

 “In a storm like that, the local adjuster is the front line. They assess the situation and start working on the worst claims right away,” said LeFaiver, who activates ERIE’s CAT Response Team. In a catastrophe, trained team members come from other parts of ERIE’s territory.

In Tennessee, the CAT team helped ERIE’s Knoxville Branch with more than 125 claims, providing immediate assistance to local adjusters and agents. Their presence helps ensure prompt service to policyholders under difficult, and sometimes dire, circumstances.

‘Just super’

A recent survey revealed that one out of two Americans are insufficiently prepared in terms of their insurance coverage to rebound from a disaster.

That quick response makes a difference.

“I was really dreading it to be honest,” said Greg Cline, “but ERIE’s service was top-notch. I was hoping the adjuster would be fair with me. He was. It was just super. I tell everyone I talk to abut the great response.”

For agent Neel Smith, who signed on with ERIE seven years ago, it was a learning experience as well.

“Being an independent agent, I saw how important it is to be associated with a company like ERIE,” said Smith, “a company that not only says it has good claims service, but backs it up. They take care of your customers like you would want to be taken care of.”


Kathleen Felong is an Erie Insurance editor and former journalist who has covered tornadoes in Albion, Pa., and La Plata, Md.
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