Businesses learn hard lessons from twisters

It was a beautiful Friday in April 2008 when Percy Thornton stepped out of Southern States Utility Trailer in Richland to grab a bite to eat for lunch. He found it curious that the storm sirens were sounding. Gauging the sky and a few innocent looking clouds, he disregarded the warning and drove off.

It would be the last time he would see his facility intact.

“I got just a little piece down the road, and suddenly the sky got dark,” said Thornton, president of Southern States. “I immediately turned around and headed back, scared. I wasn’t gone but for a few minutes.”

Almost as if it had designs for Southern States, a tornado that left adjacent businesses unscathed ripped into Southern States. Employees clung to posts to keep from being sucked out of the facility. A front desk worker had left her post just before the doors blew in, spraying the lobby with shards of glass. Thornton could only point to Providence that none of the company’s workers who were in the building when the tornado hit were injured or killed.

The suddenness and unpredictability of tornadoes was the focus yesterday when the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), in cooperation with the National Weather Service, conducted a statewide tornado drill. Though aimed primarily at schools, MEMA encouraged businesses to participate in the drill, as well.

“We preach to families all the time about being prepared – having an evacuation plan, accounting for family members, etc.,” said MEMA spokesperson Greg Flynn. “The same principles apply to businesses.”

MEMA director Mike Womack hoped Mississippi businesses took advantage of the Oct. 21 drill. “We already lost one life this month when a tornado struck a mobile home park in Washington County Oct. 9,” he said.

“I learned a lot, and one of the things I learned is you have to have good insurance coverage,” Thornton said. “Make sure you’re covered, and conduct annual reviews to ensure you remain covered. If we had not had good coverage, the business would not have made it. It would have died.”

Bill Mathison, executive vice president of the insurance firm Fox-Everett Inc. in Ridgeland, agrees with Thornton. He said when it comes to coverage for natural disasters, there is no one-size-fits-all. Workers’ comp would cover any injured workers. But, sound property coverage varies. Companies must look at the replacement cost of the business and all its contents.

Proper business interruption coverage can be harder to gauge. He said using a worst-case scenario is a good bet.

“The best way to determine adequate business interruption insurance is to look at the time a business would be down if it were totally destroyed and had to be rebuilt,” he added.

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