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Tornado recovery is slow but steady in Arlington and Kennedale

ARLINGTON -- After Don and Celia Hirschenhofer's home was hit by a tornado April 3, they didn't get the quick response they'd hoped for from their insurance company.

It took more than three weeks to get reimbursed for the $6,000 they spent on temporary repairs, tree limb removal, a structural engineer's report and replacement of their electrical box.

But now, a month and a day after the storm, things seem to be on the right track.

That goes for George Gafford of Kennedale, too, who recently learned that he can keep living in his mobile home off New Hope Road, along with two neighbors. A twister heavily damaged or destroyed the seven or so other mobile homes at the park, and for a while Gafford and his landlord were unsure what the city would do.

But "they came out and did an inspection and said we can stay," Gafford said.

The Insurance Council of Texas estimates losses of $600 million from the storms, which brought hail and 17 tornadoes. Eight people in Arlington were injured, one severely; they are expected to recover.

Along the streets in damaged neighborhoods Thursday, yard signs advertised a multitude of contractors, empty pallets that had held shingles were stacked near curbs, and crews replaced roofs, bricks and fences.

Almost 500 homes were damaged in Arlington, 20 to 30 of which were left uninhabitable, interim Deputy City Manager Jim Parajon said. Thirteen homes were destroyed. As of Wednesday, the Community Development and Planning Department had issued 319 building permits to tornado victims and inspected more than 100 buildings, he said.

In Kennedale, 165 homes and 19 businesses were damaged, the city said. Fewer than five tornado-related building permits have been issued, since the city is not requiring them to repair or replace roofs, doors, windows or fences.

Arlington officials said they've spent about $1.25 million on personnel and equipment to help residents recover and to replace damaged public property. City officials say they expect to hear this month whether a federal disaster declaration will be made. If that happens, the city could recoup its expenses, Fire Chief Don Crowson said.

Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration for Tarrant, Dallas and Kaufman counties three days after the storms hit, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited the next day to evaluate the damage.

Because the threshold for a federal declaration is so high, county and city officials don't expect one.

Kennedale established an emergency relief fund, which now holds about $4,000. Applications for assistance will be available Monday and will be reviewed in late May or early June, city spokeswoman Amethyst Cirmo said.

Disaster loans available

The Small Business Administration tried to get the word out this week about its disaster loan program, which is available to residents in Tarrant, Dallas, Kaufman and neighboring counties.

Agency officials said walk-in traffic had been slow in the three centers set up to help victims apply for the low-interest loans. As of Tuesday, they had handed out 78 applications, 67 of them to homeowners or renters and the rest to businesses or nonprofits.

Agency officials theorized that North Texans are unfamiliar with the program and may not understand that it is a separate entity set up to help storm victims. In many cases, they said, victims can get a loan to tide them over until the insurance money comes through and then repay it without penalty.

Up to $200,000 is available to homeowners for home repairs and up to $40,000 for personal property loss. Property damage applications must be filed by June 18.

At least 50,000 automobiles and nearly 30,000 homes were damaged throughout North Texas, the insurance council said. Insurers have been working quickly to help their clients, calling in extra manpower, spokesman Mark Hanna said.

Victims who have coverage for additional living expenses often get a check within 24 hours to pay for a hotel, meals and clothing if needed, he said, but money for repairs takes longer and can depend on the availability of contractors.

For clients like the Hirschenhofers, who live south of Interstate 20 near Southwest Green Oaks Boulevard, the delays are annoying and unexpected.

"My frustration was a product of my perception of what was taking place," Don Hirschenhofer said. "In retrospect -- which always provides a clearer view -- they were probably overwhelmed, just like us. Still all in all, a visit ... the next day would have been very assuring."

If he ran an insurance company, he said, "I would get a bunch of people on-site the very next day just to do a little hand-holding. You can always bring in the adjusters and they do the actual work later, but to have someone on the ground who works for your insurance carrier right after you take the hit would go a long way towards making customers feel like they counted."

Arlington school district Trustee Gloria Peña, whose home was heavily damaged, reported a mixed experience with her home and auto insurers.

"My car insurance response was so fast I had the check before I could get the appointments for my two cars to be repaired," she wrote on Facebook in response to a reporter's query. "My home insurance carrier took almost two weeks before he completed the documentation and then divided up portions to different people within the insurance company to create confusion; my agent steps in each time I hit a wall. It could be worse."

Counting shingles

Delay or no delay, not everybody thinks insurers are working in policyholders' best interest.

Heath Wakeland, a former Allstate catastrophe response trainer who is now a public adjuster, said carriers are trying so hard to limit settlements that they have adjusters climbing on roofs and counting shingles.

"We had one house where they were only going to pay for 18 shingles and another house where they were only going to pay for two," said Wakeland, of Arlington. He started Cobalt Claims Services with another former Allstate adjuster after becoming convinced that insurers were more concerned with turning a profit than with helping policyholders. "The house with two shingles belongs to an insurance agent in North Richland Hills."

After Wakeland's firm contacted the agent's insurance carrier, its offer immediately went from $1,800 to $25,000 and the claim was left open in case the contractor finds other issues that weren't visible, Wakeland said.

In another case, an adjuster calculated $54,000 in losses, but Wakeland said that when he entered the information himself and corrected errors, the figure more than doubled to $110,000. Public adjusters, who like their private counterparts are licensed by the Texas Department of Insurance, serve as advocates for policyholders for a fee. They aren't well-known in Texas but are in other states, like Florida, Wakeland said.

But the insurance council holds them in low regard. Hanna likens them to fly-by-night contractors who flock to disaster zones. Public adjusters just want 10 percent of your settlement, he said, so they'll say all sorts of things about your needing someone who speaks the language.

"Your adjuster is there to do everything possible to put your life back together," he said. "Nobody is getting a commission to cut you short."

A joyful return home

Most of Arlington's expenses, about $727,000, were for personnel. Police and firefighters patrolled neighborhoods, and crews from several departments help residents at the temporary tornado recovery center and at City Hall.

In the days after the EF-2 tornado blew through three neighborhoods, public works crews hauled off more than 55,000 cubic yards of debris and limbs, Public Works Director Keith Melton said. Some of the city's expenses have gone toward replacing or repairing 206 street signs and 10 streetlights.

Green Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center lost an entire wing, reducing capacity from 142 beds to about 110. One patient was treated at the scene for minor cuts, Administrator Kyle Coleman said, and another was admitted to a hospital for a pre-existing injury that was aggravated during the evacuation.

Workers replaced the entire roof, but it could be two to four months before the wing is rebuilt.

Residents began returning April 20, Coleman said, and it was emotional for residents and staffers alike.

"I can't tell you how excited they were to be back home," he said. "We had signs indoor and out welcoming them home. We had balloons. There were tears of joy. It was just a great experience."

Patrick M. Walker,

817-390-7423

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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