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Tornado Forces Damage Control

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When attorney Steven J. Steinhoff arrived at his law office on the morning of June 22, he was initially comforted that it appeared to be in one piece.

But once he stepped inside the two-story building, he realized that it was among the structures battered by a tornado that touched down in the village of Eagle the previous night.

“Water squished up from the carpet when I walked in,” Steinhoff said. “Then as I got to the backyard, I saw roofing material everywhere. The roof was gone.”

In the hours that followed, Steinhoff scrambled to cover the exposed areas with tarps and assess the damage not only to the building, but also the impact on his law practice.

Aside from a few soggy documents, he said critical client information and most office supplies survived unscathed. Still, it took a few days for Steinhoff to relocate to a temporary office space a few doors down and even longer to transfer his phone service.

“It was certainly inconvenient, but thank goodness for cell phones,” he said. “I was able to reach clients to reschedule a few things, but luckily I didn’t have any court dates.”

At this point, the real estate attorney said he has yet to field calls from people with legal questions related to the storms, although he has offered to provide advice to several organizations that are in the process of establishing relief funds.

Damage estimates from the tornado that swept through the village in Waukesha County have grown to more than $20 million, though no fatalities were reported. A week after the storm, officials announced that those who sustained damage would not be eligible for federal aid, but Gov. Jim Doyle announced that owners whose homes were leveled by the tornado could get a $7,500 state grant.

Eagle did not meet the minimum requirements for public property damage or uninsured victims to qualify for federal aid, but insurance providers have been quick to assess damage and in some cases issues checks on the spot.

Scott Thomas, Director of Claims for West Bend Mutual Insurance, said the vast majority of the 35 claims received from policy holders in Eagle have been settled.

“If we were able to write an estimate on the spot, we issued a check right there,” he said. “In a lot of cases work began immediately if a policy holder was okay with using recommended reputable contractors in the area.”

Thomas said the lack of federal aid hasn’t factored into West Bend’s processing of claims since that money would have likely benefited uninsured victims.

“We don’t really know about uninsured people, so as far as federal aid, there isn’t really any crossover with insurance,” he said.

American Family Insurance has received 180 damage claims from policy holders in the Eagle area and spokesperson Ken Muth said he expects the company will pay out about $5.7 million to local victims.

At this point, he said throughout the assessment and settlement process, the company has not encountered any problems with customers.

“I have not heard of any lingering disputes,” Muth said. “We are responding quickly to customers and helping them work with contractors to get repairs done. If there are any questions, we’re here to help resolve them.”

With insurance and state funds involved, a lot of homeowners will probably look for legal advice.

“It’s probably too early to anticipate, but my assumption is that a lot of locals might stop in and ask some insurance questions,” said Eagle attorney Carl W. Chesshir. “I expect it will be kind of like when people lost their jobs and asked about their creditors.”

The general practitioner, who has represented trade companies in the past, also said that as people file claims and rebuild, some construction issues could arise.

Local attorney David F. Traver said after the tornado, he called the village to advise officials to be on the lookout for fraudulent construction companies preying on local homeowners.

“Basically, I’ve heard of some grifters in these situations who slap a sign on the side of a van pretending to be a local contractor, get people’s money and disappear,” Traver said.

But so far, local attorneys have dealt mostly with the physical clean-up efforts, rather than legal issues.

Traver, whose office was north of the tornado’s path, spent several days after the disaster traveling around the village to help move trees with his tractor.

“I spent an afternoon with my chainsaw cutting up trees and hauling them away,” he said.

Chesshir spent the morning after clearing tree branches and brush away from near his office which was struck by lightning and was without power for almost two days.

His house also lost power for more than 40 hours, but Chesshir joked that at least his first scheduled court date didn’t come until that Friday.

“At least I was able to take a shower and make myself presentable,” he said. “But obviously, I didn’t work a whole lot that week and I’m just now catching-up.”

Chesshir said clients have been understanding of the fact that he was “taken out of the mix” for a couple of days.

The same was true for Steinhoff, who hopes to move back into his office by the end of July.

A new roof was put on his building at the end of June, but he said carpeting, ceilings, baseboards and some walls have to be replaced.

“Basically, it’s just a shell right now,” Steinhoff said. “I’ve been practicing here for 27 years and never seen anything like this.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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