When the tornado hit Joplin, HBA board member Charlie Kuehn already had lots of work. Kuehn spent years working for Tom Mayberry as a supervisor on insurance jobs, before he started his own business; he still does a lot of insurance work, but he has also branched out into commercial construction. This spring, he was committed to an office park project, with a commercial build-out on the boards after that.

So when the tornado hit, Kuehn had a problem. How could he help with the rebuilding, when he was already so busy?

"A couple weeks after the tornado, Charlie called me at 5 in the morning," says Crystal Harrington. "He said, ‘Crystal, listen! I’ve been up all night. I’ve got an idea!’"

Kuehn knew that insurance adjusters from many different companies were flocking to Joplin to handle the avalanche of tornado-related claims. He also knew that local contractors were tapped out by the volume of work — but that Joplin townsfolk were understandably reluctant to trust their homes and their funds to storm-chasers from out of town (or out of state). And Kuehn had figured out how he could fit in.

He knew a lot of insurance adjusters. They were working out of hotel rooms, campers, even tents. So he offered them space in his office—desks, phones, the works. And he asked Crystal Harrington to help him link up with reputable builders from nearby Springfield who might be willing and able to handle a high volume of repair and rebuilding work. Charlie would show the out-of-town contractors the ropes: introduce them to the adjusters camped out in his office, teach them to estimate insurance work by the book, and help them navigate the paperwork maze. And Kuehn, with his strong local reputation, would warranty the work—easing the worries of Joplin residents who were not sure who they could trust.

People knew Charlie Kuehn wouldn’t be leaving town and leaving them with a faulty repair and no recourse. But before he promised to back up their work, he had to make sure that the builders he brought in were quality. He interviewed about a dozen, and he partnered up with three.

Pretty soon, Kuehn had 15 adjusters working in his office, fielding millions of dollars worth of claims. And with the setup he had cobbled together, the work was getting done, and done well.

Insurance work is a different ball game. Homeowner Everett Wallace explained it to me from his point of view, saying: "You have to spend more money than what you had in your insurance, to get all your insurance money—if that makes sense." The Wallaces had good insurance—their house had replacement cost coverage, up to 150% of the policy’s face value of $135,000. "That kicks it up to $205,000," he said. But he had to spend the money in order to collect the insurance. "And that’s why my house is like this," he said, waving at the extra bedroom and bath. "If I didn’t have to do that, I wouldn’t have it this big. Me and my wife don’t need it."

Everett said, "I talked to the guy from The Hartford and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And he said, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ And he did." Everett had to start by paying $8,500 to clear the lot and remove the old footings. Then he found out that the $8,500 would be subtracted from the $135,000 insurance company check. "That like to floored me," he said. "But the agent said, ‘Stay with me. You’ll get it back at the end.’"

Insurance work pro Tom Mayberry explains: "They owe for recoverable depreciation, if you actually do it. But that’s the way all insurance is. People don’t typically understand that very well. The bottom line is, you’ve got recoverable insurance on your place; and they owe you for that if you literally put it in. If you don’t build back, they owe you actual cash value, after depreciation—which is less."

On his own four-plex units, for example, damage amounted to about $350,000 per building, Mayberry says. But the insurance company held back $45,000 per building—10% to 15% of the total—for depreciation. "Until I built back," says Tom. "They want to be sure that you’re not taking that money and going and buying a big car. And if you can’t prove that you’ve put it back, well, then they don’t owe it to you."

Occasionally, the homeowner will forget about that last piece of cash that’s left on the table, and insurance companies just keep it. Pro that he is, Mayberry says he almost did that himself on his mother’s tornado damage claim. "We had a 30-some-odd-thousand-dollar claim. There was 3-4-5 thousand dollars, I forgot all about it. I asked my wife several months later—I said, ‘Honey, did you get the depreciation from Mom’s house?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to.’"

It’s the nickel-and-dime experts who tend to win that game—and in most cases, that’s the insurance company. But Charlie Kuehn says that in Joplin, the reverse also happened. With national attention on them and with so many undeniably valid claims to pay, he says, adjusters may have let a few questionable claims slip by. "There were people I know about who got new roofs in this town when the tornado didn’t even hit their building," he says. "Their roofs just rusted out. But none of these adjusters wanted to catch a lot of heat for denying a claim in Joplin."

When all was said and done, insurance companies came through for Joplin—big time. A year after the storm, an Insurance Industry Institute data analysis concluded that insurers had paid out $2.16 billion in claims. About $1.4 billion of that went to commercial policyholders, and $675 million—about a third of the total — went to homeowners. A hundred million dollars, 5% of the total, was paid out on automobile policies.

But not everyone in Joplin had property insurance. Many landlords, in particular, had no insurance on the block after block of older, single-family rental units that the storm destroyed; there wasn’t much point in taking out insurance on a fully depreciated property that you probably couldn’t sell for $75,000. But many homeowners were also uninsured or underinsured—retirees like Ed Boyd, whose houses were paid for, but whose insurance coverage had not kept pace with today’s cost of replacement for their homes. These uninsured owners, and the renters whose homes had been lost, made up a big portion of the Joplin population made homeless by the storm. Government — federal and state—stepped in to help fill the void. So did churches and organized charities. And so did ordinary people acting on their own: the volunteers.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Joplin, MO, Eugene, OR.