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After the Storms

AAA helping members recover following violent spring storms.
By Dennis R. Heinze

Spring typically brings its share of storms, but this year’s outbreak of violent weather has been historic, and thousands of AAA members and insureds were caught in the path of several of these deadly weather patterns.


A scene of destruction in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that resembles the devastation experienced across portions of the South. AAA photo

Starting in early April and continuing through the spring, the South and Southeast were inundated with dozens of major storms, ranging from damaging hail to powerful tornadoes. Thousands of homes and cars were caught in this cauldron of turbulent weather that stretched from Arkansas to the East Coast over several weeks and claimed more than 300 lives. The victims who survived are still sifting through the wreckage.

“This spring, we were reminded of the awesome power of nature as these unprecedented and relentless storms tore through our region,” said AAA President Art Johnson. “Tens of thousands of people are struggling to recover, including thousands of AAA members who are insured with us. From the start, our priority has been to be there for our members in their time of need.”

The time of need this spring has been great with estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that there have been more than 1,000 tornadoes so far this year, including 875 during the month of April alone–a new record. The average number of tornadoes for April is 161, and the previous record for any month was 542, which was set in 2003.

In the midst of this potent weather pattern, tornadoes touched down at several places in Arkansas, including Hot Springs, Little Rock and Vilonia. And in Mississippi, tornadoes tore through several parts of the state, including Philadelphia and Clinton. More than 50 people were killed in both states as the storms uprooted trees, downed power lines, damaged homes and caused massive flooding.

The devastation in neighboring Alabama was even worse, where a deadly storm system ripped through Hackleburg in the northwest and through the central section of the state, especially Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. In fact, the tornado that cut a swath through the center of the state had a maximum width of 1.5 miles and a track 80 miles long. At least 65 people were killed in that storm.

Among those in its path was Chad Harris, a AAA insurance agent in Birmingham. As he tracked the storm on television, he rounded up his wife, three children and two dogs and headed toward the bathtub with a mattress to cover them. Before hunkering down, he checked the weather one last time from the back porch.

“First, I saw debris and hail flying by the house,” he said. “Then I saw trees being sucked toward the direction of the storm, and then I heard it.”

People often describe tornadoes as sounding like a train, but Harris said it sounded more like 1,000 freight cars barreling at him. Then what seemed like an eternity later, the rattling finally ceased.

After pushing the mattress away, they discovered the bathroom was intact, if a little disheveled. They thought they had dodged a bullet, until they opened the door and saw daylight where daylight usually didn’t appear. More than a third of the roof was gone, windows were blown out and tree limbs pierced the walls.

“It looked like it went through the house,” he said.

While much of his house was standing, his neighbors weren’t so lucky. Nearly the entire neighborhood was demolished.

Almost immediately after that storm and the rest of the storms throughout the South, AAA launched its response, often getting to the scene within hours of the catastrophes. AAA has been processing claims as quickly as possible and providing insured members with checks to cover food, housing and living expenses.

“Getting people started on the road to recovery is what we do in times like these,” said Harris, who knows firsthand about the importance of insurance. “Making sure people have the proper coverage is one of the most important things we do as insurance agents. We can truly provide peace of mind in a time like this.”

During this difficult time, AAA employees across the country have offered support. In fact, AAA donated more than $200,000 to the American Red Cross in the affected communities throughout the South and Midwest, and AAA employees collected truckloads of food, toiletries, bottled water and more for the Salvation Army.

“From New England to California, AAA employees have been so generous in helping our members and neighbors through this heart-rending period,” said Johnson. “Picking up the pieces will take some time, but we’ll be there for our members from start to finish.”

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of AAA Southern Traveler magazine.

Jul/Aug 2011 Issue

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