Advisers in storm-ravaged Oklahoma struggle to find clients, neighbors

Deadly tornado knocks out phone lines, cell towers; 'completely without everything'

May 21, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

By Darla Mercado

Advisers and their clients in the Oklahoma City area are reeling after the massive tornado that leveled a local suburb Monday afternoon.

The twister that hit Moore, Okla., about 10 miles due south of Oklahoma City, reportedly tore a path of destruction that was about 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long. Twenty-four people were confirmed dead as of Tuesday morning.

The devastating twister was a coda to three days of tornadoes, flooding and straight-line winds. All told, the storms killed more than 50 people, according to the office of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.

Financial advisers in the region have been spending the last day checking in on clients. It's been a harrowing 24 hours, particularly for those near the path of yesterday's tornado.

Peggy Doviak, a fee-only adviser at DM Wealth Management Inc., noted that her Norman, Okla.-based office was “five miles as the crow flies” from the devastation. She and her assistant evacuated the office, heading south, as weather reports indicated the storm would hit the northwest side of Norman.

Violent weather is nothing new to residents in this corner of Tornado Alley, but Monday's storm gave Ms. Doviak pause. “I would have argued that I was good with a redundancy system, but even your redundancies can fail,” she said. “I was amazed at how completely without everything I was.”

Following the storm, Ms. Doviak had no Internet access, television or phone capabilities for five hours. Even her cell phone was practically useless, as she was only able to send and receive text messages “once in a while.” She used text messages to try to contact clients. As of Tuesday morning, she still hadn't heard from one client who lived three blocks away from the tornado's path.

“I'm very wired. I have my regular phone, my cell phone, normal and backup Internet. I keep paper and e-files,” Ms. Doviak said. “And then I realized I could contact no one. No one at all.”

Dennis Packard, an adviser at Align Wealth Management in Oklahoma City, has also been relying on texting and e-mailing. The firm, located about 20 minutes north of the tornado's path, has been going through its list of clients and as of Tuesday morning, had not heard back from two of them. The son of one of Mr. Packard's clients lost both his home and his dog, but everyone else who's pinged back is OK.

Prior to the storm, the firm began sending its employees home early to be with family members. Coincidentally, Mr. Packard's area was on alert — not for the massive twister that blew through Moore — but for a hailstorm.

“We saw [the tornado] on TV and we tried contacting people in the area when it happened,” he said. “We get these smaller tornados all the time: we had a few the day before. You get used to it, a little damage here and there, but nothing like this. This was nothing you could prepare yourself for.”

Indeed, the storm was eerily similar to an F5 tornado that ripped through the same part of Oklahoma in 1999, as part of a tornadic outbreak that took place from May 3-6 of that year. This week's tornado, pegged as at EF5 (on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which came into use in 2007), brought back frightening memories for Doug Haws, a portfolio manager and vice president at Tom Johnson Investment Management LLC in Oklahoma City. “We went through a similar storm on a similar track in 1999,” he said. “It was eerie to watch that again.”

Two of the firm's employees are based out of Moore, but they suffered only some property damage. Clients in the region, as far as Mr. Haws knew, were not hurt.

The firm also shut down early to get its employees home. Mr. Haws and a few others stayed behind until later in the afternoon, at which point they were safer staying at the office than if they had tried to get on the roads. “We're fortunate,” he said. “It was gut-wrenching to see as the storm came through.”

Area advisers noted that it was a little too early to start thinking about pro bono and planning work. “Financial planning isn't where we are right now,” Ms. Doviak said. “It's fixing the people and their lives.”

Still, clients who have sustained property losses should contact their insurance carriers as soon as possible, said Annrose Isaac, an adviser at Modera Wealth Management LLC.

They should also have photographs and newspaper articles about the impact of the tornado on the neighborhood. Clients in the area should also save receipts for expenses like clearing debris and repairs. Those can help a homeowner show the impact to property, she said.

A casualty loss from a federally declared disaster can be treated as a loss that occurred in the previous year, Ms. Isaac said.

“Filing an amended 2012 tax return and obtaining a refund can be helpful if cash flow is an issue for the individual,” she said.

Liz Skinner contributed to this story.

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