Defying the Storm (Part I): Spirit of Collaboration Lands in St. Louis
By Joel Berg
While air travelers struggled to leave St. Louis after a tornado clobbered the city's main airport in April 2011, one person was scrambling to get back.
Susan Kopinski, the airport's deputy director for finance and administration, was visiting family in Michigan when the tornado hit. Knowing what her staff was going through in St. Louis, she longed to be on the scene, pitching in.
"It was driving me crazy," said Kopinski. "And it was driving my husband crazy."
Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, about 10 miles northwest of the city, sustained a direct hit from the tornado, which touched down around 8 p.m. on April 21, the Friday before Easter. Determined to have reached 4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the tornado was the worst to hit the city in 44 years, according to the National Weather Service.
Airport police already had begun evacuating people to safer areas, limiting casualties. Five people at the airport were treated for minor injuries and released, according to airport spokesman Jeff Lea, who noted that the tornado struck at a relatively slow time from an air traffic perspective.
Over the hours, days and weeks that followed, the claim -- expected to total around $25 million -- played out in a way that demonstrates how a large loss can be handled effectively, even in the face of great complexity.
When the tornado struck, for instance, the airport was undergoing a $70 million renovation project, with some work already completed. Insurance questions could arise over whether, and how much, post-tornado spending would have differed from spending on the renovations, said Mark Meyer, head of the space and aviation group for the law firm Edwards Wildman Palmer.
"In a way, it's a tribute to the airport and its insurer that they were able to resolve these issues without argument, without any legal dispute," said Meyer, who is based in London.
The airport's insurer was Boston-based Lexington Insurance Co., the surplus lines subsidiary of the property/casualty giant Chartis. Kopinski said the airport has had no litigation related to the tornado.
Occasional differences arose during resolution of the claim, said Kopinski and others who worked on it. But they were overcome by open, transparent communication, a responsive carrier brought into the picture from the beginning, and a policy holder that took an active role in the process.
"The airport personnel did an outstanding job of managing this claim," said Dean Owens, head of commercial property claims in the Americas region for Chartis.
Assessing the Debris
On the night the tornado struck, however, Kopinski's immediate priority was returning to St. Louis. She had been scheduled to fly back Monday. As her husband searched for a quicker way home, she was being apprised by phone of what was happening at Lambert.
Debris was scattered everywhere, on runways and on roads leading to the airport. Hundreds of windows shattered in the main terminal, strewing broken glass across the floor. A large section of the roof had lifted off a concourse serving American Airlines. Rain and hail poured in.
Airport officials also discovered that a 60-foot portion of the fence surrounding the facility had been flattened, raising security issues. Lambert closed that night, and officials urged people to stay away.
"This was a highly unusual event," Kopinski said. "You have to make sure that the safety and security of your passengers and your employees and those working here are dealt with first. If that means closing the airport first, so be it, and that's exactly what had to happen here."
A call also came in to Kopinski from the airport's insurance broker, Jo Ellen Thelen, a managing director in the St. Louis office of Aon Risk Solutions. Thelen had had a much closer brush with the storm. She lives about eight miles from the airport, and she and her husband rode out the tornado in the basement of their home, which was spared. She emerged, switched on a television and saw a reporter describing damage at Lambert.
After turning on her laptop, Thelen pulled up the airport's insurance policy. She left a message with the person answering an after-hours phone number for Lexington.
"I've had clients that went through Katrina, so you just kind of know, and I basically wanted to make sure to get the claim reported, because you've got to start working with all the resources," Thelen said.
While Thelen waited to hear back from Lexington, she was in contact with Lambert's risk manager, who has since left the airport. Thelen asked the risk manager what was needed for cleanup.
Airport officials knew post-storm mold would not be covered, so they raced to limit water damage. Plywood to cover blown-out windows and doors was a priority, as rain was still falling. The airport took a small amount of plywood from the renovation project, according to Lea.
Another load, arranged by Lexington that night, arrived later. Building engineers assessed structural issues, while airport staff cleaned up the glass. Contractors that had been working on the renovation also sent workers, as they already had the necessary security clearances.
A Lexington representative called back, and Thelen said she would need to speak to a decision maker. She eventually reached Dean Owens, who was then the Boston-based vice president of property claims for Lexington. They discussed the safety of airport personnel and the initial remediation that would be needed, Owens said. "We also told them to document as much as possible the damage that was done."
Next, Owens lined up an adjuster from Kansas City, Mo.-based NHI General Adjusters, which has a field office in St. Louis. He also contacted building engineers, remediation experts and forensic accountants, who could help determine the loss from business interruption. He anticipated everyone starting work early Saturday.
Initially, airport officials said the airport would be closed indefinitely. But as the cleanup progressed, officials got a better handle on when they could reopen, Lea said.
At a press conference Saturday morning, airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge announced Lambert was working to restore 70 percent of operations by that evening, provided power could be fully restored. The CEO of the local utility, Ameren, was in direct contact with Hamm-Niebruegge, according to Kopinski. Other priorities included finding new space for airlines that had been using Concourse C, which could not be reopened. Two other concourses, B and D, were available; they had been closed previously due to reduced air traffic at Lambert, a former hub for Trans World Airlines.
Airport officials decided to move American Airlines to D, Kopinski said. Three other airlines -- AirTran, Cape Air and Frontier Airlines -- also had to move. The relocation involved tracking down the correct jet bridges, wiring up computers and other equipment, and establishing temporary concessions.
The importance of resuming flights was driven home, in part, by calls from the convention and visitors' bureau in St. Louis. Two major conferences were slated to arrive in the city that Monday -- the International Biomass Conference & Expo and the FIRST Robotics Competition, in which teams of high school students battle to build a better robot.
But being open as soon as possible was also crucial to the airport's bottom line. Every missed flight meant a loss of revenue, not to mention the loss of income from parking, restaurants and retailers. The airport did not have deep reserves, whether to pay for the emergency cleanup or to cover lost income, Kopinski said.
The airport spent about $4 million in the first two weeks after the tornado, Kopinski said. Lost income covered by the airport's business interruption policy totaled $2 million.
"I just don't have that kind of money in the bank just waiting to be used," she said.
After a busy day cleaning up and assessing the damage, the first planes began landing at Lambert late Saturday night, after power had been restored. More planes began coming and going on Sunday. But Kopinski wasn't on them. She had decided to stay in Michigan until her scheduled flight Monday morning.
As her plane approached, Kopinski could see the boarded up windows on the airport's distinctive domed terminal building, originally built in 1956. "If I could have flown that plane faster, I would have," she said. "It was just killing me not to be there."
JOEL BERG is a freelance journalist and college professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 22, 2012
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