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October 26, 2004   Email to Friend 

Ivan Wreaks Havoc
Tiffany Trueblood

Alfa President Jerry Newby talks with a customer in the Foley Alfa office as she files a claim after Hurricane Ivan.
After dodging hurricanes Frances and Charley, Alabama along with parts of Georgia and Mississippi directly felt Mother Nature's wrath when Hurricane Ivan thundered ashore.

Projected to make landfall near Mobile, the dangerous category 4 storm took an easterly turn and landed on the sugar-white beaches of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Pensacola, Fla. with 130 mph winds in the early morning hours of Sept. 16.

Heavy winds and rain caused massive damage across Alabama. Southern cities such as Monroeville, Atmore and Uriah were hit hard by Ivan's eastern eye-wall and were without power for days. Along Interstate 65, from Montgomery to the coast, billboards and signs were twisted and acres of trees were snapped or leaning from straight-line winds.

Alfa President Jerry Newby toured areas hardest hit by the storm, visiting farms and service centers soon after the storm had passed.

"It was awful," said Monroe county farmer and Alfa policyholder Kathy Griffin. "The winds shook our house so bad we have cracks in the bathroom tiles. We'll never stay if another category 3 or 4 comes through. We're leaving; I won't chance it again."

Even before Ivan hit, Alfa added a hurricane information center to its website, www.alfains.com, with valuable information for its policyholders, including tips, storm tracks, press releases and claims information.

After the storm, Alfa created a toll-free phone bank to assist policyholders with claims. The marketing department worked with agents and CSRs to make sure the claim process started for many policyholders in a timely manner. In the two days following Ivan, the phone bank received 445 calls while agents helped numerous policyholders in the field.

"Within our first hour of opening, we had 200 claims," said Agent Allen Walston of Atmore, a city that received heavy damage. "Everyone has been really patient and understanding, and we're trying to help them out as much as we can in these stressful circumstances."

Griffin had gone to the Monroeville service center and filed a claim for her home as well as her husband's grandparents. While the waiting line looked bad, Griffin said she was very pleased with Alfa's service.

"I waited for about 30 minutes and was in and out," Griffin said. "Everyone was so nice, even though they were extremely busy. I filed both claims quickly and was very satisfied with the service."

Newby stressed patience following the storm adding that the situation could have been much worse.

"We are extremely thankful that injuries and loss of life in Alabama have been limited," said Newby. "It will take weeks to fully evaluate the effects Hurricane Ivan has had on our policyholders, so we do not expect any monetary estimates soon.

"We are proud of Alfa's record of claims service, but we ask our policyholders for patience because handling this volume of claims will take time. While property damage is extensive, Alfa will remain one of the strongest insurance companies in the nation after every claim is paid."

Alabama farmers suffered heavy losses from the storm. Cotton was blown to the ground and corn was laid flat. Pecan trees were toppled while others lost their yields to the winds.

Tim Tucker's family farm in Uriah lost most of its pecan orchard, as 250-acres of trees lay uprooted, broken and battered. Twelve of his cows died when a barn they huddled in collapsed. Tucker believes his cotton crop is a total loss, but added that his peanuts still have a chance.

"Some of these trees are between 30 and 60 years old," Tucker said standing in his toppled pecan orchard. "I could hear them falling from inside the house, and I was just so glad to see daylight when it was all over. People have lost between 70 to 95 percent of their pecan orchards."

The Griffins estimate their farm received at least 10 inches of rain from the storm, not to mention steady hurricane-force winds for more than 12 hours. Chuck Griffin found strange objects in his peanut field following the storm: a life jacket, large pieces of tin ripped from his barn and two by fours scattered like sticks. Seagulls, blown inland from the storm, pecked remnants of peanuts he managed to harvest just days before Ivan.

The Griffins had one equipment shed completely leveled by the storm. Another was heavily damaged and was being held up in part by the new John Deere tractor parked under it. Both structures are just a few feet away from the Griffins home that now has a hole in the ceiling of the master bedroom where strong winds tore away parts of the roof.

Farmers in Mobile, Baldwin, Escambia and Wilcox counties also suffered heavy losses to cotton, soybeans, corn and timber as did farmers hundreds of miles from the coast like Bob Luker in Talladega County.

"A week ago, this was the best corn I had ever grown," Luker said as he walked across the field covered with flattened stalks heavy with large ears of corn. "We were harvesting 200 to 225 bushels per acre. We've got 300 acres on the ground, and most of it is like this."

Ellis Ollinger of Baldwin County, operations/general manager for Flowerwood Nursery, said damage to the state's coastal greenhouse and nursery industry is still being assessed, but he estimates losses from $2 million to $5 million for his company.

"Saltwater blown in by the storm can cause a lot of damage," Ollinger said. "We lost money before the storm even got here. Just to get ready for the storm, we had to strip our greenhouses of any plastic, otherwise you're going to end up with a mangled wreck of pipe. We came out good on saving the pipe, but cutting the plastic down cost us $200 per bow, and we have 600 bows--so that's just money gone. We also lose money from interrupting our planting, and then you have to use that same labor to put the plastic back up before it gets cold."

Ollinger said the loss of electricity caused stress for plants they weren't able to water properly. That damage may not show up until next spring, he said.

"I expect it's going to be months before we have a real grasp of the extent of damage caused by Hurricane Ivan," said Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers, who toured farms across the state shortly after the storm. He said he was surprised at the damage.

"Much of the focus from the media has been on the coastal residential and business areas, but farmers really took a hard hit from this storm, too," he said.

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