By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceJanuary 20, 2011
WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2011 -- When a devastating tornado struck Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., New Year's Eve day, the Army Claims Service moved into overdrive to help residents of 159 housing quarters that were damaged or destroyed get back on their feet.
Making good on Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.'s pledge as he toured the area four days after the storm, the lawyers and claims processors pushed "business as usual" practices to the back burner to provide a faster and more comprehensive response.
They waived some of the requirements typically used to to substantiate claims, paid victims' private insurance deductibles, shortened the timeline for processing claims payments and even authorized rental cars for victims whose vehicles were damaged or destroyed, Henry Nolan, chief of the Army Claims Service's Personnel Claims and Recovery Division, told American Forces Press Service.
They also extended to two years, rather than the standard 60 days, the time victims have to request that their settlement be increased based on evidence that their loss is greater than what has been paid.
Now, officials plan to take what they've learned and institutionalize it to quickly draw on in the event that a similar tragedy strikes again.
And citing interest from the Army's sister services, Nolan and his team plan to share their experiences at a joint claims meeting later this month, with hopes of seeing a joint task force explore formalizing some of the initiatives militarywide.
"Hopefully, we will never have to do this again," Nolan said. "But when you have a situation like this where you have massive damage, and the claimants have little, if any, ability to substantiate their losses line by line, that's when this could be available."
The powerful EF-3 tornado that moved through a privatized family housing neighborhood at Fort Leonard Wood early Dec. 31, left a trail of destruction in its wake. Of 159 affected family housing units, 51 were totally destroyed and more than 30 others received substantial damage, Nolan reported. In addition, more than 200 vehicles were damaged or destroyed.
Miraculously, no one was killed and four people received only minor injuries, most likely, Nolan said, because many of the residents were away on leave for the holidays.
When Casey toured the damaged areas, he offered high praise for the Soldiers and their families who survived the storm, many by huddling in their closets or bathrooms, and the community that rallied to support them.
"I found resilience and teamwork among the soldiers and their families and their communities," he said.
Casey also said he couldn't recall in his 40-plus years of service ever seeing an Army installation get hit so hard by a natural disaster.
So when claims officials got called to the scene, they knew they had a challenge on their hands.
The Army Claims Service probably is best known for helping military members and civilian Defense Department employees get reimbursed when their personal property gets lost or damaged during permanent-change-of-station moves. Typically, the claims service seeks reimbursement from the commercial moving company responsible for the property, then pays out only what the carrier doesn't, in accordance with the Personnel Claims Act, Nolan explained.
So when claims officials began arriving from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and other Army posts as well as Washington, D.C., to assist their counterparts at Fort Leonard Wood, they helped victims assess their losses and file for reimbursement, and arranged to expedite claims payments made through the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, Nolan said.
The officials explained the best way for victims to recover the biggest percentage of their losses: by filing claims first through the private company that manages the housing area, then through their own personal insurance company, then through the Army Claims Service.
"We have monetary limits we have to abide by, and if they come to us first, they are pretty much going to be limited to those monetary limits, and they are not going to get much more from their private insurance or the [property management company's] insurance," Nolan explained. "But if they pay first, then we can come in on the back of that and start our adjudication with the things that insurance doesn't cover. So it has the potential to provide much more coverage for them."
Next, the officials set out to help victims substantiate their losses, a particularly difficult task when an entire house and its contents have been destroyed.
"Normally, when people file claims, they detail the loss, item per item. They line-item the loss with the value when they bought it, how much it will take to replace it," Nolan said. "The problem is, when everything is destroyed, you lose your records, too, or you don't have easy access to your records."
So officials looked to the insurance industry for ideas about how it operates in similar circumstances and began fine-tuning their own processes for determining the value of lost property.
One idea, not yet used, is to track down the commercial carrier that moved the family into the property to assess the inbound inventory list, Nolan said. Another is to use the authorized weight of the household goods shipment to help come up with a value.
Meanwhile, the claims officials partnered with claimants and physically walked the grounds of their properties. They jotted down details the victims were able to recall about their property, took photographs and did "whatever they could to take the burden off the claimant to substantiate the loss," Nolan said.
To further support the families, the claims officials were able to relax some of the rules that typically govern the claims process and get new authorities to cover additional losses.
For example, they received authority for victims to request reconsideration of a claim already paid up to two years after the incident. Typically, this has to be done within 60 days after the claims office notifies them how much it will pay.
"This greatly expanded that time, so they have more time to do it and don't have to do it all right up front," Nolan said.
The claims service also authorized 14 days of rental car payments so families whose vehicles were damaged or destroyed could get theirs repaired or shop for new ones.
"Normally we don't pay for rental cars when a car has been damaged," Nolan said. "But in this case, the damage was so widespread that we were able to justify tying in the rental car [costs] to the rest of the damage."
The claims service also authorized payments to cover the cost of the deductible on the claimant's private insurance.
"Normally, we don't pay the deductible straight out. We adjudicate claims, and then, whatever is not paid by the insurance company, we pay the difference," Nolan said. "But in this case, it seemed ridiculous to require that. If you had insurance on your vehicle or personal property and filed a claim [through that company], then we will pay the deductible."
As it worked to make it easier for victims to file claims and quickly processed claims it received, the Claims Service staff coordinated with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to expedite claims payments.
Defense Finance and Accounting Service' standard timetable is to make a direct deposit to the claimant's bank account within 10 business days of receiving an approved claim, Nolan said. However, if the Claims Office approves a claim from a victim of the Fort Leonard Wood tornado by 3 p.m. (EST) on a given business day, Defense Finance and Accounting Service will make the payment two business days later.
Nolan said these new initiatives embrace the spirit of the Personnel Claims Act.
"The purpose of the Personnel Claims Act is to improve morale. And if you don't make these payments quickly and fairly, the impact on morale is going to be exactly opposite of what the act intended," he said.
"This is intended to take care of folks for something that happened to them because of the nature of their military service," he added. "To a great extent, it's the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, all taking care of their own."