This is the second of several posts. The first is here.
Dustin Sims grew up in Oklahoma and remembers a tornado hitting his grandparents' home -- twice. But when the sound of your own home coming apart at the seams serenades you as you huddle with your pregnant wife and two-year-old daughter, that's a unique experience, even for tornado veterans.
Dustin wrote me last week saying there were things he and his wife, Kelly, learned from the September 2006 tornado that struck Rogers, Minn., that can help the residents of Hugo, who are just now clearing the debris and beginning the reconstruction from last week's tornado.
Only seconds to get to safety, "You kind of sit there in the dark and the glass breaking, and you can hear this huge noise. It lasted about 45 seconds. You could hear the wind starting to creep up under the foundation. We sat there in the dark and we said, 'we're alive and breathing,'" Dustin told me Monday evening.
Then they got to work.
Their house was full of glass and pieces of somebody else's roof. A Frisbee embedded itself in a wall. Kelly found later that even pieces of debris had worked their way into the plastic sleeves of their photograph albums. The garage was gone. Putting on a jacket was useless; they were riveted with shards of glass. (Listen)
They grabbed pictures, financial records, and whatever clothes they could and escaped their now uninhabitable house.
They've learned the lessons they want to share with the residents of Hugo. Here's one, though, for everybody: Don't wait to come up with a plan. (Listen)
"Downstairs now we keep flashlights, a hammer, shoes, and cellphones," Dustin said. "Whenever a storm is coming through, we make sure that stuff is down in the basement where we're going to hide. We keep credit cards we'd need and when we go and hide, we've got everything we need to communicate with the outside world and at least fund ourselves to get to a hotel room so someone can help us."
In a small room downstairs (see picture) , the Sims have created a small bedroom, and selected its location as the least likely to collapse. When a tornado hit Parkersburg, Iowa 10 days ago, 7 people were killed; all were in their basements.
"The day after, we stopped by Menard's and picked up some brooms and plastic bags and we said, 'oh, well, we'll just clean it up,'" Kelly Sims said. "I think we were in a state of shock."
Another lesson: It takes more than brooms and plastic bags. That's when the insurance people showed up and gave them directions -- and money -- on how to clean up. Get a good insurance company, they told me. Theirs, American Family, got high marks from the Sims. "They were always here to give us help on what to do next," Kelly said.
What don't the people of Hugo know yet? "When we started out, we didn't understand the concept of the contractors, of who you're going to have to hire to rebuild your life. And that choice is very, very important," said Dustin. "You can make a bad choice right off the bat and make this whole recovery very miserable. The people who came to our house the first days were very shady people."
"They would show up and say, 'Here's a tarp and the only thing you have to do is sign this so we can get reimbursed by the insurance company," he said. The city of Hugo, at first, decided to require contractors be registered with the city, ostensibly to avoid a similar situation, but the credentialing requirement has since been rescinded, according to the city's Web site. (Listen)
The Sims recommend establishing a system to track finances and paperwork from all of the work that needs to be done. "Foster that relationship with them (insurance companies) right off the bat," Dustin said. "We established that trust with them and documented extensively. The ability to pass them the receipts in some sort of organized manner made everybody's life easier."
When it came to selecting a contractor, "we probably should've gone with a larger company that's used to building houses," Kelly said.
"We overtaxed our local builder," said Dustin. "He brought in quality people to rebuild our house. It was a struggle for him and he suffered because of that. We would probably go with a larger company that we're sure is going to be in business for the next 10 years."
Some residents in Rogers have been paralyzed by legal problems since the tornado. Subcontractors weren't paid by contractors and liens were placed on the homes. "We researched extensively about how to do this, and we put in the contract to rebuild our house that before he (the contractor) received any money, we had to have the mechanics lien in our possession, so that anybody that he hired, they had to sign off that they had been paid before he got paid."
It didn't hurt that Kelly, who, like Dustin, is an engineer at BAE Systems, has worked in law firms. She found pro bono legal advice on the Web, and also found trade associations for the building industry here were able to provide assistance. "That's why they say you pay the builder up to 80 percent done. We've heard some stories about people paying all the money up front and then they ask, 'Why isn't it getting done?'" (Listen)
When the Sims were looking for a place to live during the rebuilding of their home, they found property owners tried to increase the rent and deposits. "When they found out there's insurance involved, they tried to triple the prices on us, and sign a year lease," Dustin said. He said insurance companies will help with that, but you have to ask. "They (landlords) have you at an emotionally vulnerable time. After the first time it happened, we got mad about it. If they steal from my insurance company, they're stealing from me." (Listen)
By now, you know it's a good time to take a look at your insurance policy and home inventory, right?
The Sims also advise not to forget the kids. "Our little girl had a hard time with it. She still tells the story of the night her house got broke. And she'll line her stuffed animals up and tell them the story of the night her house got broke," said Dustin. "On the anniversary of the tornado, we took her to DisneyWorld, and we're trying to establish memories other than this. These people (in Hugo) are going to have to try to establish memories other than this tornado as soon as possible." (Listen)
And one final message from Rogers for Hugo: It'll get better.
We live right across the street from the Sims, we also lost our home but have since rebuilt. What Dustin doesn't say is how much closer we have become to our neighbors. We have a new respect for the weather and how it can effect your life forever. A lot of us have "safe" rooms in the basement and I bet we have all used them along with our weather radios, we have two. The memories of that night are still there and I wonder if we will ever forget. My advise is be tough, especially with the Insurance companies, the mortgage companies. My Mom never told me what to do if a tornado hit your house but I could write a book on it now. Don't be afraid to get some counseling, after all it can't hurt. Melinda