Apr. 21--This story was updated Monday, April 20, 2020, at 9:42 p.m. with more information.
The tornadoes and storms that swept through Southeast Tennessee on Easter night toppled or damaged more than 6,200 homes and commercial buildings and left more than 1,300 cars in need of repair, according to initial insurance claims filed in the first week after the April 12-13 storms.
More than 8,200 insurance claims have been filed so far for property and vehicle damages from last week's storms, the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance said Monday.
The National Weather Service said seven tornadoes ripped through parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties with winds of up to 145 miles last week. The storms in the region claimed at least 11 lives and injured scores of others, while displacing at least 450 people from more than 1,000 homes and apartments severely damaged from the tornadoes.
Including damages in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, it is likely that more than 10,000 structures and vehicles suffered damages from the storms in the Chattanooga region.
Along with rescue crews, power repair crews and tree cutters, insurance claim adjusters have been working on-site and online to assess the extent of damages and to help begin to figure out the best recovery for everything from temporary housing to rebuilding of entire homes and businesses.
In-person relief is being challenged, to some degree, by the coronavirus and the effort to keep people apart to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Hodgen Mainda, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, urged those hit by the storms to continue to practice social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus and urged consumers to stay in contact with their insurance agents and to use only licensed contractors for any repair work.
"This is a unique time," Mainda said. "We are right in the middle of mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. We had to respond to save lives from our first responders, but working with TEMA (the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) we've made sure that the most important thing was to safeguard our first responders and those who are affected by the storms."
Mainda, a former EPB vice president in Chattanooga, toured the storm damaged sites in Hamilton and Bradley counties last week and encouraged anyone seeking insurance payments for property damages to contact their insurer immediately and take pictures of any damages to help verify the damages caused by the storms. Mainda said many claims are being filed online, although some homeowners had trouble last week when phone, power and internet connections were cut off due to downed power lines and cell towers.
"During these vulnerable times, there are bad actors out there and, especially with this high unemployment rate, there are people who are going to try to take advantage of Tennesseans that were hurt by these tornadoes and try to scam them," he said.
To ensure that a contractor is properly licensed, persons can check online at verify.tn.gov.
"You should avoid high pressure sales tactics and be wary of contractors who are selling repairs door to door," Mainda said.
Mainda said his office also will handle complaints from consumers about either insurance problems or problems with any licensed contractors. But the insurance commissioner said after meeting with insurance company representatives Friday that most insurers are responding to claims requests and assessing damages in a timely manner in accordance with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control for COVID-19.
Farm Bureau Insurance of Tennessee, which has 300 claims professionals who work in the Chattanooga region and is one of the state's biggest insurers, said company representatives are authorized to write checks for immediate relief cases, when warranted, in response to the storm damages. Many of the claims are being handled online or via the telephone to limit in-person contacts due to the COVID-19 virus.
State Farm, another one of Tennessee's biggest property insurers, also said its agents and adjusters are using social distancing and other measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
"While assisting customers in-person and virtually, we are committed to the health and safety of our employees and the communities where we live and work," said State Farm spokeswoman Julie Smith.
The tornado damages in Chattanooga last week came less than six weeks after EF4 and Ef3 tornadoes hit Middle Tennessee on March 3, killing at least 25 people, injuring 300 others and causing more than $1.1 billion in damages. About three fourths of those damages were ultimately insured, according to a report from Aon PLC's Impact Forecasting.
The Home Builders Association of Greater Chattanooga (HBAGC) is urging anyone making repairs or rebuilding their homes due to the storm damages to make sure they hire qualified builders and contractors and get any work order in writing.
"Understandably, people want to fix the damage as quickly as possible, but it's important to do some research first and avoid rushing into a decision," said Doug Fisher, executive officer for the HBAGC.
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340.
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