Return to Table of Contents

"Team spirit" proves its mettle

Foresight, disaster planning and teamwork help Iowa agency face historic flooding

By Bob Bloss

In June 2005 Rough Notes magazine’s “Agency of the Month” cover story focused on TrueNorth of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of America’s leading commercial insurance firms. A continuing thread of that story was teamwork.

Teamwork—as it applied to TrueNorth’s relationships with carriers, suppliers, and policyholders. And teamwork within TrueNorth’s 175-employee family itself. Little did anyone realize then just how dramatically that teamwork would be manifested three years later.

Historic flooding along the Cedar River devastated much of downtown Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities in June 2008. From June 9 to June 13 the region suffered the most severe national disaster on record there. Some referred to it as Iowa’s “Biggest Adventure in History.” But with careful foresight, a solid disaster recovery plan, and uninterrupted employee teamwork, the TrueNorth family immediately met the calamitous situation head-on.

Composing that historic event’s chronology for the company’s archives, Kim Doyle, marketing and communications specialist, began her review this way:

“Monday, June 9, 2008, did not begin like an average work week. Early reports predicted that Cedar River flooding up north would hit downtown Cedar Rapids and nearby neighborhoods by week’s end. While no one could predict how high the water level would rise, it became increasingly apparent that the impact would be significant. TrueNorth’s office sits just outside of the 500-Year Flood Plain. That means a one-in-500 chance of the water level’s rising high enough to reach our building. Following a building-wide power outage in 2005, our management team created a comprehensive disaster recovery plan. Step One of that plan was to maintain client service and employee communication. To ensure continuation of electrical power, a 230kw diesel-fueled generator was ordered immediately.”

No one foresaw the flooding’s intensity and the disastrous results that followed those ominous June 9 weather warnings.

Tuesday, June 10—Communities north of Cedar Rapids experience unprecedented damage. Officials issue “voluntary evacuation” announcement.

Wednesday, June 11—Cedar River expected to reach “historic levels.” All of downtown Cedar Rapids under mandatory evacuation. At 4:00 p.m., TrueNorth receives official evacuation notice. National Guard deployed to the city.

Thursday, June 12—Heavy rain. Power outage engulfs downtown area. TrueNorth IT servers and equipment moved to second floor and convert to generator power.

Friday, June 13—Rain resumes. Cedar River finally crests at 31 feet, 11 inches—the highest in history. Water spills over riverbanks for 10 miles. Many counties declared federal disaster areas.

Saturday, June 14, then into following week and beyond—Disaster response activity shifts to recovery mode.

Monday, June 23—TrueNorth office officially re-opens.

TrueNorth Managing Partner Loren Coppock, CPCU, CLU, observes: “This was the worst physical disaster here in my 30-some years in this business. Previously the highest recorded flooding reached 19 feet, nine inches in 1993. Would this be worse? Maybe 22 or 23? Suddenly torrential rainstorms just north of us delivered 7 to 10 inches in a very short time. Soon we heard predictions for 25 to 27 feet here. Maybe even 30.

“When the Cedar River finally crested at noon on Friday, water level had reached almost 32 feet,” Loren continues. “Fortunately we evacuated the TrueNorth building when downtown businesses were instructed to do so. Some firms did not, however, until a day or two later. Over the final 36 to 48 hours, water levels absolutely overwhelmed everybody. Sewage treatment facilities were inundated. A lot of people were caught short on their planning. The good news? No fatalities, no accidental drowning attributed directly to the flooding. According to the Red Cross, that was a miracle.”

When mandatory evacuation was announced, groups of TrueNorth employees immediately headed home to change into different types of work clothes. Sandbagging soon began. Ironically, the evacuation alert was issued just as TrueNorth was starting its disaster preparedness-planning meeting. Dru Bridges, chief operating officer, called an impromptu staff meeting. Employees were instructed not to return to the building until further notice.

It was made clear that client services would be maintained by using Web mail, cell phones, and the company’s Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Having access to a generator was a key factor in TrueNorth’s ability to provide workable levels of business activity. “The generator was up and running within an hour after losing power downtown,” says Loren.

Loren explained TrueNorth’s strategy for notifying policyholders about how to submit claims, and to answer related concerns. “Typically homeowners policies do not cover flood damage, so we quickly determined who likely had coverage and who might not. The generator enabled our computer system to stay up, and our phones were in continuous operation in our Iowa City and Cedar Falls locations and at our employees’ Cedar Rapids-area residences. Our phone chain system worked remarkably well.”

Dru praised Vice President Shannon Moss and her marketing team for prompt and efficient establishment of media- and client-contact systems. The agency’s Web site——was transformed into a flood victim resource page and put into operation promptly.

“We made certain to be back in operation quickly because many clients were affected,” says Moss. “Our TrueNorth ‘dispersed work force,’ working remotely, answered and discussed clients’ issues. Eventually we established mail runs, handled clients’ billing matters, and delivered pertinent communications to our policyholders and the community in general. The operations staff apprised our employees with updated information on everything that was taking place. The objective was to make everyone feel that they were right in the middle of the operation and, in fact, they were.”

“Early in the week we decided to remove our building’s work stations from likely flood target areas,” says Dru. “You don’t get any practice beforehand for something like that. There’s no dress rehearsal! From disaster preparedness we quickly entered a disaster response mode.”

One group of employees was busy siphoning water from the TrueNorth building. Transportation Specialist Trent Tillman canvassed the city for sump pumps, hoses, electrical cords, fans, and duct tape. After purchasing the limited items available, Tillman and others set up equipment and added sandbags to the facility’s perimeter. They assisted at neighboring buildings, too. Tillman commended his fellow employees:

“This event demonstrated again that TrueNorth is more than just a typical insurance agency. We are a culture defined by our respect and generosity for one another. It’s a great group to be a part of.”

According to Loren Coppock, “...numerous businesses simply rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Nobody was just sitting on their roofs. There was clearly a force of will to dig in, to prepare for reconstruction.”

One point of critical concern was Mercy Medical Center, one of two local hospitals and a TrueNorth client. On June 13, all patients were successfully evacuated to nursing homes or other hospitals. Floodwater impacted 200,000 square feet of the facility, including the Emergency Department and other key services. Officials there quickly contacted TrueNorth.

“Loren Coppock came here to assist us, even though he had a lot going on. But he still came,” says Kay Crist, the medical center’s controller. “We knew the flood would be a major challenge, and he provided great insight. Since then we have worked with Loren’s team, e-mailing questions on coverage limits and other issues, on a weekly basis. In all the time we’ve worked with TrueNorth, they have always been very professional.”

Now, six months after the city’s worst natural disaster, Mercy Medical Center is fully operational again. Despite an estimated $65 million loss, the hospital did have flood insurance. Some businesses were not as fortunate. Flood-related damage to downtown commercial properties and many city facilities, including City Hall and Police Headquarters, is estimated at $500 million. More than 7,100 Cedar Rapids properties—83% of them residences—were affected by the Flood of 2008. Most did not carry flood insurance, but according to TrueNorth estimates, roughly 70% of homeowners policies have modest coverage for such matters as damage caused by sewer backup. Loren judges that only 2% or 3% of the U.S. population carries adequate flood insurance.

Over at the TrueNorth offices on 4th Avenue, Dru Bridges proudly salutes her dedicated teammates: “We are thankful we could respond and return to our building so quickly. By working together and being supportive of each other, we’ve been able to accomplish many things.” Dru and marketing official Shannon Moss recalled that TrueNorth had 10 days to stage a re-entry.

“We personally welcomed our staff back to the building with a white carpet,” says Shannon. “Every day, our management team held on to the belief we’d be back in the building ‘tomorrow.’ That June 23rd re-opening event was as important as the day TrueNorth had originally opened for business. You could see and feel the happy camaraderie when everyone was safely together again.”

On the home front, six TrueNorth families suffered significant flood-related problems. One family—Risk Management Account Manager Jacquie Hensley, husband Bill, and Sterling the cat—lost their basement and virtually everything on the main level and second floor. When flooding ebbed, mud everywhere and an overwhelming odor greeted the Hensley’s upon returning to their residence in Palo, Iowa, north of Cedar Rapids.

When Shannon Moss learned of her associate’s devastating property damage, she issued a call for help. Within a few hours, several TrueNorth employees had driven to their fellow worker’s home, donned plastic gloves, pitched in immediately, and “...for three days, slaved away. They offered help wherever possible,” exclaimed their grateful friend Jacquie.

That kind of dedication typifies the caring and sharing for which TrueNorth is widely respected by its insurance industry colleagues, its community business partners, and its longtime policyholders. Teamwork—in its highest sense.



"This event demonstrated again that TrueNorth is more than just a typical insurance agency. We are a culture defined by our respect and generosity for one another."

— Trent Tillman
TrueNorth Transportation Specialist



Despite floodwaters lapping at its doors, TrueNorth successfully carried out its disaster recovery plan during the June 2008 flooding of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


Buildings in downtown Cedar Rapids became islands as the Cedar River spilled over its banks for 10 miles. It crested at 31 feet, 11 inches, more than 12 feet above its previous historic high.










Return to Table of Contents