USA — Initiative Helps Leonard Wood Tornado Victims

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.

DFAS’ 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, DFAS 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.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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