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What municipalities can do to mitigate tornado damage

A word to the wise: When it comes to natural disasters such as tornados, municipalities should not automatically expect federal aid, and should have a contingency plan always at the ready. This was a lesson painfully learned by a number of Wisconsin towns following a series of tornados that tore through the central region of the state in mid-August 2005.

In the aftermath of the $47 million destruction in south-central Wisconsin, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) informed Wisconsin officials that the damage the tornados wreaked "was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments." Without insurance coverage for tornado cleanup, small Wisconsin communities will need to look beyond FEMA assistance for a new backup plan when disasters strike.

As the 2006 tornado season looms, the Wisconsin disaster illustrated the powerful community spirit municipalities can display in pulling together to assist neighbors. "I don't know that there's a lesson to be learned. I think those towns did what they had to do" in helping their neighboring communities, according to Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association. "It may show that we can't rely on FEMA,” he added.

Many of the small towns hit by the tornado have cooperative agreements with neighboring communities to assist one another when crises occur.  These cooperative agreements allowed neighboring towns’ staff to assist those devastated by the tornado with cleanup while only billing them for overtime pay.

Because small towns like Dunn and Pleasant Springs have liability coverage that doesn’t provide coverage for cleanup of roads and highways, these cooperative agreements saved thousands of dollars.  The towns do not carry insurance coverage for their road systems like they do for government buildings.  If they cannot obtain other forms of aid, such as Small Business Administration disaster funding, communities will have to borrow. But if they're nearing their debt limits, that's another problem.


Another small Wisconsin town, Viola, is located about 90 miles northwest of the area that was hit by an F3 tornado on the same day.  Carol Oliver, Viola’s Emergency Management Coordinator stated, “Viola suffered a $1.3 million uninsured infrastructure loss including damaged streets, downed light poles, etc.  If not for a $600,000 grant from the state of Wisconsin given after FEMA’s denial, the village would be in dire straits.”  As it is, the future of Viola now includes serious reductions in village services.  Without the state grant, 10,000 volunteer hours aiding in the cleanup, and creative fiscal management there would be little future or community to call home.

“Viola suffered a $1.3 million uninsured infrastructure loss including damaged streets, downed light poles, etc.  If not for a $600,000 grant from the state of Wisconsin given after FEMA’s denial, the village would be in dire straits.”

Borrowing necessary funds is no longer a viable option for these communities either because of a new state law passed which limits property tax increases to 2% annually.  Therefore, borrowing funds to pay for cleanup and adding the cost on to the property tax is no longer an option for Dunn, Pleasant Springs, and Viola.

However, while the state is receiving federal disaster assistance for sheltering Katrina victims, the request to declare the towns of Pleasant Springs and Dunn federal disaster areas had still been pending as of late 2005. Town of Dunn Chairman Ed Minihan said the Stoughton tornado had been overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina, but he's hopeful federal disaster funds will eventually be approved to help pay for $300,000 that the town had spent in cleanup.

Madison-based American Family Insurance paid out more than $10.3 million in claims and expected that figure to increase, company spokesman Ken Muth said. American Family had received 320 claims three months after the tornado struck, Muth said. The claims include 26 destroyed homes and at least 40 others with significant damage. 

Allstate Insurance Co. said damage from the storm reached the company's "catastrophe" level, which means the company anticipated claims to exceed $1 million.

General Casualty Insurance Company received nearly 60 claims as a result of the tornado in the Stoughton area and paid out $4-5 million in losses. 

Occasionally, tornados strike without warning and without the necessary preparedness to mitigate both the physical and emotional toll. Many experts advise people who reside in vulnerable “tornado alley” Plain States to chart a course for recovery now, and avoid greater disaster later. Some tornado tips to deploy advise individuals to:

  • Talk to your agent about once a year and tell him or her about any remodeling or additions, such as a new room or a deck.
  • Make sure that your policy covers the cost of replacing your home, keeping in mind that everything from inflation to new building codes could increase the replacement cost.
  • Make sure your policy is enough to cover belongings such as jewelry, antiques or expensive electronics.

  • Use receipts, written notes, photographs and videotapes to document your belongings and then keep those records in a safe place outside the home.

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