Advisers in tornado-ravaged Joplin under ‘a cloud of shock'

Killer twister decimated offices, knocked out power; ‘a lot of things are on hold'

May 26, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

By Lavonne Kuykendall

+ Zoom

In the days after Joplin, Mo. was hit by the deadliest tornado in more than 80 years, financial advisers there had two crucial tasks to perform — even as forecasters warned of more dangerous storms on the way.

First was to make sure their families and colleagues were safe. After that, they reached out to clients who might need access to funds or other help.

“There is still a cloud of shock over the group,” said Steve Carani, area leader for Edward Jones and Co., which has 11 advisers and 38 associates in the Joplin area. “There is a plan in place” for checking up on employees and maintaining business continuity, he said in interviews during the week. “Unfortunately, the firm has been through this a few times.”

Even in an area that gets its share of twisters, the casualty total from the Sunday-night tornado was shocking. As of Thursday, at least 125 people were known dead, with an estimated 750 injured and another 232 missing. Rescuers searched for survivors in the wreckage that covered more than a third of the city located in the southwestern part of the state. The National Weather Service said tornado winds topped 200 mph, putting it at the top level, or 5F, on the Fujita scale that measures tornado severity. The funnel itself was said to be nearly a half-mile wide. Around 8,000 structures within the city were damaged, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency report.

“A lot of things are on hold,” said Michael G. Richardson of Richardson Financial Services, Inc. in Joplin, on Tuesday. Mr. Richardson is a broker through ING Financial Partners. As with most area businesses, it took days for power to be restored in Mr. Richardson's office, which is outside the center of the city of about 50,000.

Some sections of Joplin were still without power as of Thursday, according to Mr. Carani, and there are some areas in the city — including a large swath between 16th and 26th Streets — that are essentially wiped out, Mr. Richardson said. Officials won't let anyone other than residents into some of the worst areas, he said.

The lack of electricity, restricted mobility and “spotty” mobile phone and Internet availability making it nearly impossible to establish reliable communications, Mr. Richardson said. “That is making things more difficult.”

Brooke Osterman, a client associate at Wells Fargo Associates LLC in Joplin said the office, on 29th Street, just got its power back late Monday, and some phone lines were working as of Tuesday. “We are trying to track down clients and contact as many as we can,” she said. The main message: “Are they okay, do they need anything?” she said.

Ms. Osterman said that advisers are trying to track down clients who they believe may be in shelters to get resources and supplies to them.

Advisers were struggling to assist clients even as they managed the effects of the storm on their own families. Among the advisers in her office, one had “quite a bit of damage to his property,” Ms. Osterman said. The mother of another employee lost her home, but “everyone here is safe and their families are safe,” she said.

St. John's Regional Medical Center in central Joplin was destroyed by the storm, and patients were being evacuated, according to news reports. One of Mr. Richardson's clients works at the hospital and he was able to reach her there — where she was helping with triage — to discuss a transaction he was handling for her. Wells Fargo adviser Troy G. Stovern was pulling babysitting duty on Tuesday to fill in for his wife, a nurse who was on call, Ms. Osterman said.

Of the 10 or so Edward Jones offices within the city of Joplin, two were “pretty much destroyed” and another one was without power, said Mr. Carani. Advisers were making due in temporary office space or sharing space in other Edward Jones offices while working to contact clients.

Of course, advisers living in this part of the country are used to living with the threat of tornados and have business contingency plans in place. While under a tornado watch in Bartlesville, Oklahoma on Tuesday, Mark Archambo of Archambo Financial Advisors said their office is paperless, backs up all data every night, stores discs off site and now “backs up to the cloud” as well.

He estimates it costs about $5,000 a year to ensure they are prepared for a disaster. Mr. Archambo said if his office was destroyed, he could get the business back up and running with new computers and systems in about two weeks as long as he could find a building. That could prove to be tough in the Joplin area c right now, he said.

“It's not cheap to have these systems in place,” Mr. Archambo said. “And I hope we never have to implement them.”

Most of Mr. Richardson's clients have readily available emergency funds they can tap, he said, at least in more normal times. No one has asked for any stock redemptions to raise cash, but Mr. Richardson said he would find a way to do that if a client needed it.

“We could arrange a wire to a local bank,” Mr. Richardson said, assuming they can get to an open branch. For example, one branch of the Commerce Bank was located on 20th Street, in the midst of the most severe destruction, and was flattened, Mr. Richardson said. Another in the southwest area of the city is closed due to storm damage, according to the bank's website. The bank's main branch on 3rd street is operating so people can access their bank accounts.

Waddell & Reed had an office in Joplin with one adviser, Burl Wimsett. That office has been destroyed, said spokesman Roger Hoadley. The adviser is contacting his clients, many of whom have been impacted themselves, he said. He and his family, who live in a nearby town, are fine. Client information and calls have been routed to the Waddell & Reed office in Springfield, Mo.

The Waddell & Reed headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, and the Edward Jones branch office in Republic, MO are among the many businesses that are collecting relief items or cash donations for the tornado victims.

Jordy Evans, a principal with Edward Jones, said that the St. Louis-based investment adviser considers Joplin “a very important city to Edward Jones' history.” The founder of the first branch there, Jim Goodnight, was a trailblazer who developed an important client management processes template that is known throughout the company as the Goodnight process.

Last Sunday was anything but a good night.

(Reporter Liz Skinner contributed to this article).

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