The shaky cell phone videos of the swirling black masses that devastated Ringgold, Ga., and parts of Apison on April 27 tell only part of the story.
Though less tragic than the vivid destruction and altered lives, every piece of tornado debris carried a dollar value.
In fact, when taken as a single event, the spring 2011 tornadoes rank as the ninth costliest incident in global insurance history, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
This spring's tornado season has cost insurers nearly $15 billion so far, just behind the $23.1 billion World Trade Center attack in 2001, this year's $35 billion Japan quake and the $72.3 billion Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, according to an analysis by insurers.
And it's not over yet.
Six months after tornadoes struck the Southeast, untold numbers of homes have been bulldozed, with only a patch of mud or a weathered driveway marking their absence. Many more are in various stages of repair, while others remain shattered and empty.
Cleveland, Tenn., resident Bill Chapman still is living with his dog Bear in the backyard tent he assembled from pieces of his damaged home and some heavy-duty tarpaulins.
It's his third tent in six months. The other two blew away.
Chapman has been in a struggle with Travelers Insurance since April. He says the company declined to repair his home's cracked foundation and damaged floor trusses, opting instead to send him a check to patch the roof and repair a few bricks.
The impact from the shed and two trees that crashed into his home damaged the structure to a greater extent than the insurer will acknowledge, Chapman said.
But contractors refused to start work on the structure unless insurers first fixed the foundation, he said.
"[Travelers] has just been playing pass the bucket," he said. "I tried to show the damage to the insurance people, and they blew me off."
Travelers, which did not return calls seeking comment, received mixed reviews in the immediate aftermath of the storm, with some homeowners reporting exemplary experiences while others felt ignored,
Though there may be snow on the ground soon, Chapman has no plans to leave his makeshift shelter during the coming winter.
Now 45 years old, he's ready to brave the winter weather with his propane heater for warmth, a solar panel to recharge his cell phone and a four-gallon bucket with which to bathe.
"I was born here," Chapman said. "This is my parents' property, and they've been paying premiums as long as I can remember."
His insurance policy runs out at the end of 2011, so he hopes for a settlement before then.
"The only other claim we've made was a small fire I started in the kitchen at age 12," he said.
It could take several more months before analysts know the true financial toll of the twisters, said David Colmans, executive director of the Georgia Insurance Information Institute.
Insurers already have spent billions of dollars on the spring tornadoes alone, and there are likely billions more yet to be spent.
Though it may seem a simple matter to cut a check and settle a dispute, it often is not.
"There can be a very long tail on these devastating events, especially when there is rebuilding involved," Colmans said.
Even in cases in which a tornado victim has fully insured their home or business, some are coming to realize that getting paid can be much more complicated than simply paying the premiums and filling out a form.
To get the full value of a policy requires careful documentation of each possession as well as meticulous record-keeping when hiring contractors.
And even with proper planning, those who rent can be out of a home if a property owner decides not to rebuild.
"With all the devastation in Ringgold, rebuilding was no easy task," said John Riley, co-owner of Ringgold Florist. "We had a couple of problems."
Riley and his wife had extensive insurance on their business, but not on their 1940s-era building, which was owned by their landlord.
The building's owner decided to take the insurance money and sell the property -- bad news for the Rileys.
"We still had expenses to pay, like the [mortgage] on the business from when we bought it three years ago," Riley said.
Though they were stuck with a business that had no building, no inventory and no revenue, their other insurance policies helped fill in the cracks, he said.
One policy covered their operating losses during the time they were closed. Another paid them the replacement cost of their lost inventory and equipment, Riley said.
"We took pictures of us crawling through the rubble," he said.
When he submitted his claim, the final tally was more than 100 documents and hundreds of photos. But he received more than $25,000 -- enough for a down payment on a new building and new inventory, and enough to reopen on Oct. 1, Riley said.
Everything worked out for the Rileys in the end, though it was no walk in the park.
That's the norm for most policyholders, insurance officials say.
Lenders typically require homebuyers to maintain insurance on their houses as a condition of the mortgage, Colmans said, which can turn into a good thing if disaster strikes.
The typically small number of complaints can be blown out of proportion, even when the vast majority of policyholders are happy, he said.
If you have an insurance complaint:
- Tennessee's Consumer Insurance Services mediates insurance disputes between policyholders and insurers every day. They also explain policy terms to customers. If a customer wishes to file a complaint with the state against an insurance company, they may file it with Consumer Insurance Services. Consumer Insurance Services can be reached at 800-342-4029 or CIS.firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Georgia residents may contact the Georgia Department of Insurance's Consumer Services Division at 404-656-2070 in Metro Atlanta or 1-800-656-2298 outside the Metro Atlanta Area. Online, help can be accessed at www.gainsurance.org/consumerservice/Complaint.aspx
- In Alabama, consumers wishing to file a complaint about an unresolved insurance issue should fill out the complaint form at http://www.aldoi.gov/Consumers/FileComplaint.aspx, or mail their complaint directly to the Alabama Department of Insurance, at P O Box 303351, Montgomery, AL 36130-3351.
Source: The states of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama
"Out of 100,000 claims, we'll get something like 500 to 600 complaints," Colmans said. "The way our Alabama director put it, 'Wouldn't you be happy if you got a 99 on your test?'"
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga tennis coach Carlos Garcia was one of the 99 percent.
An 85-foot tree fell onto his house when a tornado passed nearby, causing $55,000 in damage. But after months of repairs, things are back to normal, he said.
"The insurance company responded well," he said. "Once it started, things kept moving. I had somebody getting work done almost every day."
Teddy Harris, who suffered $93,000 in damage, "got a brand new house" after his Rossville home was destroyed.
Doug Anderson's Hixson home was crushed by two trees, but things are back to normal for him as well.
"Everything went very well, particularly with getting the house fixed up," he said. "Hopefully, my premiums won't go up."
Bu insurance premiums are going up in many storm-affected areas, officials say, as insurers deal with one of their most expensive years in history.
"We know we're seeing Georgia homeowners' insurance rates are going up," said Jim Winsett, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Better Business Bureau.
Year to date, worldwide losses due to national disasters have topped $265 billion, with insured losses closer to $60 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute. These are likely to rise even higher as losses are tallied, officials said."What we're dealing with today is that there have been so many disasters throughout the U.S. that your major insurance companies are financially challenged to meet their obligations," Winsett said. "When their board of directors is sitting in a room, thinking how we recover from this, they're going to have a rate increase."
State Farm already has made plans to raise Alabama homeowners' premiums by 5 percent, and 7 percent for renters, according to the A.M. Best Co.
Allstate said in June that it, too, was planning to raise rates to cushion losses from natural disasters, including $1.4 billion stemming from the April tornadoes, according to the Huntsville Times.
But even as insurers take steps to balance out billions in losses this year, some homeowners have yet to receive the first dollar toward rebuilding their lives.
Cleveland, Tenn., residents Don and Angie Morrow received widespread attention after they posted a sign on their storm-battered house outing their insurance company, Farm Bureau, for what they called its inaction.
The roof, which now consists solely of a blue tarp, and most of their home's siding is still missing, thanks to a tornado that crested the hill on which their house sits.
Many of the neighboring structures are simply gone, reduced to a cinder-block foundation or marked by an orphaned mailbox.
"The first estimate put the damage at $76,000. They came back and offered us $46,000," Don Morrow said.
The company then told him that if he removed his damaged roof as a show of good faith, he'd receive the rest of the money to repair it, Morrow said.
Unfortunately, strong winds and rain over Labor Day weekend blew away his tarp and filled his home with water while he waited for the adjuster to arrive, he said.
"I was irritable," Morrow said, biting his tongue. "Nobody would return my calls."
Now he's stuck quibbling about individual home components -- like whether a damaged beam was bowing before the rain came in, or after. Either way, the home still is uninhabitable.
"We've done everything they told us to do," Morrow said.
But the parties are no closer to agreement now than they were after the initial storm, said Dan Batey, director of corporate communications for Farm Bureau.
Batey said the insurer had paid out more than $31.5 million in Bradley County alone for the April storms, but in this case there's "a pretty substantial gap between the parties."
"If they accepted our offer, they'd have their money already," he said.
RATS AND ROT
Though it isn't clear how many homeowners are locked in disagreements with insurers over the cost of rebuilding their home, it is plain to see that much has yet to be settled.
A drive through the Williamsburg Estates neighborhood in Cleveland reveals many damaged homes.
Though each case is a little different, the result is the same: rats and rot.
"It's been six months," said Bonnie Suits, gesturing to a pair of condemned homes next to hers. "We never had rats before. Now they're everywhere."
Blue tarps and half-finished repairs on some homes contrast with overgrown yards and the smell of decay emanating from others.
Though one of her neighbors has received a brand-new house, she hasn't seen her other neighbor in the months since his house was condemned.
She's unimpressed, to say the least, with the responses from both insurance companies and property owners.
"I know the insurance companies are hurting, too, but I've been paying premiums for 21 years," Suits said. "I know one thing: I don't want to go through another one of these."