Dealing With Catastrophe: Joplin, Mo. State Farm Agent Describes Her Response to Killer Tornado

To experience how the insurance industry is responding to the tornado that took out a large swath of Joplin, Mo. on May 22—the EF5’s path through the city was nearly a mile wide and about 7 miles long— I “embedded” on June 7 with State Farm Insurance so I could witness the company’s concerted response to the devastating storm that left more than 150 dead and 1,000 injured.

During my visit, I met with a local State Farm agent, Karen Rutledge, to hear how her agency has been dealing with this enormous catastrophe—and the profound impact it has had on her clients.

“The people walking in, the phone calls—it was just overwhelming. And the stories [were] so emotionally devastating that it was just very challenging for all of us to try to give them the comfort they needed, besides the help they needed—in the timely manner that we’re accustomed to taking care of our customers,” Rutledge says, describing what the first 24 hours were like after the storm.

Rutledge, who has been an agent for 25 years—and is both the mother and daughter of an agent—was actually in Chicago when the tornado struck. She raced back to get to her clients—and technology played a crucial role in connecting her while on the road.

“On my ride back, the part of the [trip] that my parents were driving, I actually was able from my Blackberry to access the voicemails people had sent me and file the claims on my iPad through State Farm’s application—so I was doing that in the car while my mother was frantically trying to get me back to where I needed to be,” she says.

Related: Joplin Tornado Aftermath: A PC360 Slideshow

State Farm has a “Buddy System” that it can implement during disasters—where agents in unaffected areas offer their help to their colleagues in the center of the storm. And this outside aid played a critical role in making sure Rutledge and her three full-time employees were able to handle the inevitable surge of client interactions in the wake of the destruction.

“I’m sure I would have had a meltdown by now if I had not had the help of those State Farm partners,” Rutledge tells me with emotion as we sit in her office. “These are agents willing to walk away from their office and the way they make a living to come and help somebody else.”

Even before Rutledge arrived back from Chicago Monday morning, fellow State Farm agents had set up a generator at her office—which was near the tornado’s path but had been spared any damage. “So when I got here at about 11:30 on Monday morning, my team had power to at least operate the computers, to be able to take the calls, and help people coming in—which was just awesome. It was just huge for us to be able to have a place for people to come that was functioning and be able to help them.”

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Some of the State Farm buddies had claims backgrounds and were helping to write advance checks to customers. And the extra bodies helped make sure that every client who came through the door quickly was able to quickly have a person-to-person conversation.

Related: Joplin Aftermath: A Reporter’s Notebook and Video Diary

Asked about some of the stories that most stuck out amidst all the turmoil and trauma, Rutledge says, “There’s just been so many people who were actually in their homes—nothing left—and I asked them where they were in the home and over and over I have heard it was the bathtub. Word has gotten out over the years that the safest room in your house is possibly the bathroom. So many stories of people riding out the storm in their bathtub and that being all that was left and not even in the same place in the house—maybe it was in the yard. It’s just amazing, seriously, that there were not more [fatalities].”

And how will the tornado impact the agency’s business going forward? “I think now when we talk to people about the coverages on their homeowners, and we talk about here’s what we estimate with the tools we have on what it’s going to cost to rebuild—that we now have the experience to know the tools we work with are legitimate. And [clients] need to seriously consider this even though [they] think, “Oh well, I could only sell it for this”—which has nothing to do with the cost of reconstruction. And I think people will realize that those [increased coverages] are worth considering.

The other lesson both insureds and prospective policyholders are likely to take away? “That catastrophe does happen. And now we know because we’ve all experienced it, and it can be us, and it was us. So we need to be prepared in our coverages and everything that insurance can provide for us.”

Rutledge has been laboring literally non-stop since the storm struck.  And to me, the level of caring she demonstrated for her clients was remarkable—truly epitomizing State Farm’s “Like a Good Neighbor” slogan. Take this story, as an example.

“There was an elderly couple. I didn’t have their home insured, but I did have their cars insured. And I could not make contact with them. They did not have a cellphone. None of the land lines were working—and I knew from their address they had the potential of being in the middle of it. So I decided to go find them, and they were at their house with one wall standing. Neither car was drivable—they were buried in the debris.

“They had a little U-Haul truck next to the house and were kind of camping there with the dog. It was so warm that day, and they, though not in good health, were trying to dig through their things. He had cut his hand had not had a tetanus shot. We all decided it would be good if he went down to the Memorial Hall where they had set up a triage. So I put him in the car and took him down there and stayed while they treated him—cooled him off, removed debris from his eye. I took him back, and he just looked so much better—and his wife was so relieved.”

Before I left, I asked Rutledge if there was any way to find something positive amidst such trauma. “This is an experience that you hope you never have, but you certainly learn a lot from—and it certainly helps build your relationship with your customers.” 

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