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Encountering Storms

Is Your Smartphone Prepared for Tornado Season?

TornadoWhen I was in high school, a tornado ripped through my rural community, killing a local farmer and part of his herd, twisting massive hardwoods from the earth in which they’d been deeply rooted, and prying roofs off newly constructed dwellings. The scene, upon emerging from the safety of my basement, was both surreal and spooky.

Personal belongings scattered miles from where they belonged.

Home owners in search of a place to stay.

Curious souls rummaging through the rubble.

With the electricity out, we got our updates from a battery-powered radio and from friends.

In the months that followed, life eventually returned to normal for all those families affected by the twister, but it wasn’t without considerable challenges, including identifying what was lost and estimating values.

I can’t help but think the recovery process would have been simpler, and communication much more streamlined, had this twister arrived in the Digital Age.

With smartphones rarely out of reach these days, an abundance of helpful information fits right in your hand. Here are a few planning and preparation apps you might want to load to your mobile device … especially as we enter tornado season.

Red Cross Tornado Warning and Alert App 

When a tornado’s coming, seconds matter. This Red Cross app sends real-time tornado alerts right to your phone, so you can get to safety quickly. It also provides lots of helpful tips on what to do before, during and after a storm strikes. And there’s even an interactive quiz to test your knowledge of all things twister.

Know Your Plan – Natural Disaster App

This app, from the Insurance Information Institute, provides preparation checklists for all major natural disaster types – floods, earthquakes, wind storms, etc. You can even develop your own list for an emergency unique to your area.

DreamVault Home Inventory App

Disasters, by their very nature, come with little notice. It is possible, though, to prepare for the worst. This includes keeping a record of all you own, and storing it somewhere safe. American Family’s DreamVault app enables you to go from room to room, photographing your property and adding notes about its characteristics and value.  You can even upload the receipt. And for safekeeping, all your data is stored in the cloud, where it’s safe from fires, flooding and any other disaster.

While there’s never a good time for a storm or disaster, the Digital Age has certainly made it easier for us to prepare and recover.

So what are you waiting for? Get those apps in hand!

Posted by Paul Bauman on Tue, Mar 11 2014 9:58 amPaul Bauman is a web experience administrator for American Family Insurance. When not developing content for the company’s websites, he enjoys sharing the running trail with his thoughts, which move at a much faster pace.

'You're my hero'

Washington, Illinois tornado damageLast week, a customer called me a hero. Tonight, I’ll talk to someone else who considers me a hero.

I'm working a catastrophe event in central Illinois, where an extremely powerful tornado smashed through Washington and nearby communities the morning of Nov. 17. You may have seen stories in the news as it drew national and international attention.

I started out in American Family's Kansas City property claims office in 2008. In the next few years, I assisted at a number of catastrophe responses, and this sort of work appealed to me for various reasons.

For one thing, I like to see different parts of the country. I also like to meet people. And the team atmosphere is very strong – if I need information or the benefit of someone else’s perspective, I’m comfortable calling anyone on the team.

So, in 2011 I successfully applied for a job with the field catastrophe team. I love my job! You might think it would be depressing to go from one disaster to the next, but it’s quite the opposite. I’m a people person. Being able to meet someone face-to-face, and to offer comfort (or even a hug, if it’s needed) gives me a good feeling.

I arrived in Washington on Monday, Nov. 18, the day after the storm. It’s an incredible scene, when an entire community is challenged like this. You have people walking up and down the street, asking their neighbors or total strangers if they need a hand. Churches and other volunteer groups work long hours providing food, water and other needed supplies. There’s just this positive vibe all around you, as the community joins hands in the healing process.

I met with a customer in East Peoria, Ill., Wednesday, just down the road from Washington. About one-third of her home’s roof was torn off, and the inside was littered with drywall and insulation. Like many of us would be after experiencing such trauma, she was devastated and had trouble communicating with me.

We talked, we laughed, we hugged. As our customer started to open up a bit more, she shared that she had a hard time envisioning how her life would ever be the same again. And with the holidays just around the corner, those feelings of despair and helplessness were only magnified.

I was able to comfort her and help her to understand and believe that everything will come back together for her again. The roof will be rebuilt and the interior will be restored. Won’t be in time for Thanksgiving, but the contractor’s timeline may allow for Christmas at home.

“You’re my hero!” she exclaimed.

And that’s what I do for a living. That’s how I support my family, that’s what makes me feel like this is the right job for me. It looks like we’ll be here through the Thanksgiving holiday, teaming with the local and field claim units to get our customers back on their feet again.

The tough part is calling home to Kansas City every night. My daughter, Zayla, 7, demands to know, “When are you coming home, Mama?” My son, Zion, is only 3, and he’s just happy to hear my voice.

Someday soon, I will walk through that door, and get the chance to be a face-to-face mom again. That’s when I’ll really be a hero.

Posted by Jehanna Wilkins on Mon, Nov 25 2013 4:05 pmJehanna Wilkins is a catastrophe property claim field adjuster for American Family Insurance.

Remembering the Stoughton Tornado

Stoughton, Wis., tornado from Aug. 18, 2005 (from http://www.crh.noaa.gov/mkx/document/tor/images/tor081805/stoughton-c.jpg).Every year when severe storm warnings are issued, I’m reminded of just how strong some of these storms can be. Back in August 2005, I had a first-hand glimpse of the damage a severe storm can cause when I helped clean up after a tornado hit my town.

On Aug. 18, 2005, an F3 tornado carved a ten-mile long, half-mile-wide swath of destruction across rural subdivisions and farms in Stoughton, Wis. When the winds stopped, 156 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged and another 84 homes were slightly damaged. Countless cars, boats and other vehicles were damaged or destroyed. Damage exceeded $35 million. Tragically, one person was killed.

In the following days, I volunteered to help with the clean-up. Let me tell you, cleaning up after a tornado is a humbling experience. In the damaged part of town, everywhere I looked there were houses reduced to piles of bricks and splintered lumber, and cars condensed into twisted hunks of sheet metal.  

During the storm, Mother Nature went out of her way to show how fickle she can be. Amidst the destruction, one house I went to seemed completely undamaged. The dining room table was still set for dinner and there was a neat pile of papers on a desk ready for attention. The kitchen however, was gone. In fact, the entire back half of the house was gone. It was as though someone took a gigantic knife and carved off the back half of the house but left the front intact and undisturbed.

Throughout the day, I overheard many interesting answers to good questions:

Q: “I thought you had brown shingles on your garage?”
A: “I do. But the garage that’s leaning against my house belongs to my neighbor down the street.”

Q: “What happened to your car?”
A: “It’s in that tree over there.”

Despite the impact the tornado made on their lives, I was amazed how some people maintained their sense of humor. One man told me he now regretted spending the extra money for 40-year shingles when he had his house re-roofed the previous year. Another commented, “I hope my wife isn’t mad that I didn’t get the dishes done.”

Before the next severe weather alert hits your area, take a few moments to look around your home and identify where you or your family may be vulnerable. Find your best place for shelter and make sure everyone knows where to go and what to do when severe weather threatens. 

Posted by Eric Wolf on Sun, Aug 18 2013 9:46 am

Blasted by hail: Learning from indoor storms

IBHS Indoor hailstorm demonstrationI recently attended the first-ever indoor hailstorm. That’s right – an indoor hailstorm! Why? Every year, hail causes billions of dollars in damage to property and crops. An indoor storm like this can be studied in detail to find ways to make hail-resistant structures and reduce the destruction from hailstorms.

It was an amazing experience. Not only were insurance industry representatives like me there, but national media including “The Today Show,” (which broadcast it live). “The Weather Channel,” “Discovery Channel” and “This Old House” were there as well.

This storm was a test created by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBHS) to learn how different building materials withstand a hailstorm’s damage. For five minutes and some 9,000 hailstones, the “storm” pelted a house, a car, outdoor furniture and nearby toys. The only thing missing was a thunderstorm.

To deliver the hailstones with the same intensity as a real storm, IBHS engineers designed a series of multi-barreled hail cannons mounted 60 feet above the research center’s test chamber. When the storm started, the cannons were firing hailstones at the rate of 1,800 per minute at speeds up to 76 mph!

IBHS Indoor hailstorm demonstrationThe test structure had different building materials to compare performance. The roof featured asphalt shingles, impact-resistant architectural shingles, metal roofing and metal-over-shingles. Standard vinyl siding and fiber-cement siding were used, as well as vinyl and aluminum windows and aluminum gutters and downspouts. During the demonstration, the entire structure was pelted evenly with hailstones.

IBHS can now study the damage to the different materials. The windshield on the car for example, was shattered, and the test home received significant damage. We also learned while metal roofing does a great job keeping water out and will typically outlast traditional shingles, it shows every little ding from the hail.

American Family supports the work of IBHS because of our commitment to loss prevention. More research is needed to create building materials and techniques that can better withstand damage from storms. Our goal is to make homes safer by building them stronger, not cheaper.

Through our membership with IBHS, American Family helps fund research addressing the impact of hail and other natural disasters, and can lead to the establishment of better building standards. The end result helps manage costs through reduced property insurance losses, which helps keep insurance more affordable for everyone. 

Posted by Bill Eberle on Tue, Apr 09 2013 7:54 amBill Eberle is a product design senior specialist with American Family Insurance.