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Insurance agent among those hit by tornado

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the week following the May 22 tornado strike in Joplin, Monettan Jerry Sitton worked through the debris from his office at 1921 E. 20th St. in Joplin. Toward the end of the week, he found his straw hat, still intact. The discovery was a high point in a difficult week. [Photo by Michelle Sitton]
Monettan Jerry Sitton has been a State Farm insurance agent in Joplin for many years. Sitton's office was located at 1921 E. 20th St., the way he liked it. His biggest challenge was finding things on his perpetually messy desk.

On May 22, Sitton was in Camdenton, playing golf with old friends from his days at Southwest Missouri State University. Storms chased them off the golf course, and then Sitton's cell phone brought him news that Joplin had been hit by a tornado.

After that, life has been different for Sitton and his business. Sitton's office had been in the middle of the storm's path. A bit of the back wall by the kitchen was still standing, held up by two filing cabinets.

"The highest thing in there was a metal desk," Sitton said.

Sitton prides himself on not getting emotional. His daughter Michelle said her dad's voice was breaking when he called home to share the news of what was left.

Then it was time to get to work. Sitton had clients to help, and he wasn't going to let them down.

Sitton's family members jumped in. His wife, Linda, and daughters, Misty and Michelle, came to help dig through the rubble. Michelle recalled the itchiness from digging around in the insulation- covered office and how thrilled her father was when she dug up old family pictures from the debris.

Sons Jay and Kyle were hired to go through all the papers in the office and scan them so the water-damaged and moldy originals could be eliminated.

Sitton's office has temporarily relocated to 2102 S. Roosevelt, between Schifferdecker and Maiden Lane on the west side of Joplin.

"My job is to take care of people, even though I lost my office and not everything is squared away," Sitton said. "I try to be hands on. If my clients have got a problem, I want to try and help."

Initially, State Farm switched Sitton's phone to a central office to maintain service. Once he got a land line back, Sitton said he was often on one phone with a client and on his cell phone at the same time trying to run down an answer.

"My cell phone ran out of juice a lot," Sitton recalled.

Sitton and his staff of two full-time and three part-time employees has been in touch with all his clients. State Farm sent in new office equipment and extra liaison people to help process claims. Agents came in from St. Louis and Kansas City to help write checks to clients. Sitton has been very pleased with how the company has responded.

Not everything is back to normal. Sitton said his biggest difficulty is finding phone numbers he used to have. He used to be able to direct people to specific services in the community, many of which are gone now. Helping clients find a car or another place to live have been major challenges. Some are living in motels; others have moved out of state.

Ninety percent of the cars on which clients filed claims were destroyed by the storm. Sitton said processing claims for completely destroyed homes or cars has gone smoothly, and clients have been pleased with the response. Homes that have been damaged and may be repairable have presented more complicated scenarios.

Operations in the office are working through some bumps. Sitton hasn't figured out how to run his new computer printer at the office. Two of his colleagues had their homes destroyed, and a third, who was renting, had her landlord sell the house she was living in, leaving her to find a new place to live.

"We always worked past the end of the regular work day," Sitton said. "Now it's 'I've got to take care of this or that person first.' Getting home late is not unusual. I still wake up in the middle of the night and think about stuff and how I'm going to do it. I'm not going to be able to rest until everything is back the way it was."

Sitton's lot has been cleared in the massive push to remove all the tornado debris by Aug. 1. He met with his architect yesterday to start plans to rebuild on his original location.

Many people have played a part in helping Sitton pick up the pieces. Shane Dinan, a Monett High School graduate who works as a contractor in Joplin, went through the office debris, at times with his hands, to clear it out. Dick Scott, with Olsson Engineering, a high school classmate of Sitton's, "has taken me by the hand" to get through some of the big bumps in the road.

Sitton had advice for anyone facing a similar situation.

"You need an inventory to replace what you have," Sitton said. "You need a plan of action, where to go to be safe. We're probably going to put a safe room in when we rebuild. And you need to have a high quality building."

Sitton has spent a good deal of time looking at his clients' insurance to see if they were properly covered. He has been pleased the decisions seem to have been on target.

"I look at the devastation and wonder why thousands weren't killed," Sitton said. "Thank goodness I didn't lose any of my clients. I look at what I had, it gets to be personal. What they say about stress and strain from an experience like this is true. My daughter, Misty, says, 'It's just stuff, Dad. You can't replace people.'"

The last few weeks have been some of the busiest times

Sitton has seen as an insurance agent. The pace has given Sitton direction and purpose. He has taken comfort in his work.

"The biggest thing now is to get people back to normal as much as possible," he added.

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