On a Sunday morning before church, Steve Hargis' wife, Mandie, looked out the window and saw the kinds of eerie clouds that make you pause before heading outside.
It was Nov. 17, 2013, in Washington, Illinois.
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Sirens interrupted the sanctity of Mass.
A peek out back revealed a tornado in the distance.
"We all kind of hunkered down at the church," Hargis said. "There was no basement. When the power went out, we just all kind of tried to get away from the windows."
Wreckage clogged the road home. Hargis resorted to trudging through a cornfield in his church clothes. He soon saw holes where trees once grew and metal shards that had been his chain-link fence.
The tornado leveled three quarters of his home. Hargis' footsteps sloshed with the weight of water, muck and loss.
The saving grace was hearing the jangling collar of his 23-pound dog, Bone, who huddled in the portion of the house that remained. It was no longer a total loss, but Hargis faced the same question hundreds of his neighbors also puzzled over: "I didn't know where to go," he said.
Hargis called his insurance company.
The company turned him over to ALE Solutions in St. Charles.
When calamity strikes
Few St. Charles residents know the space above Kimmer's Ice Cream and Bull & Bear Tobacco Shop is home to a 24/7 disaster response team. When homes burn down, or a community like Washington is leveled by a tornado, insurers call ALE Solutions to find emergency housing for their customers.
"Whenever you call, there's somebody in here to answer," said CEO Rob Zimmers. "Christmas morning, or whatever morning you call, someone is going to be here."
For a large-scale catastrophe, such as the tornado that wiped out Hargis' home, or the 160 tornadoes that hit 14 states in late April, ALE Solutions can find housing only by sending people like Michelle Licht into the disaster zones to negotiate with hotels, landlords and vacation homeowners for their space.
"When disaster strikes, I'm there," she said.
When Licht is on a plane or driving to her latest disaster, she spends the time preparing for the devastation and human suffering she's about to surround herself with. She must harness the adrenaline of the moment enough to fuel her search for emergency housing, but also stay calm enough to listen to the needs of families who have lost homes, possessions and loved ones.
"I definitely take a moment," Licht said. "I rehearse for how I will react when I meet a family. I have to have the right answers."
Licht is in constant contact with a catastrophe team back in the St. Charles office. The team updates her on the size of the disaster, the estimated property losses, how many homes and hotel rooms she must find. She's also assessing how to match the needs of particular families with available housing. Families with someone who has a disability might need wheelchair access. An aggressive dog might require an enclosed yard.
"I'm out meeting with families, insurance companies, landlords, hotel managers and plunking down credit cards to secure any property that I can," Licht said. "If someone has a housing challenge, we need to find a way to solve it."
For events like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that task required some creative thinking, said Christa Landgraf, ALE Solutions vice president. Hundreds of federal and BP employees needed temporary housing for the duration of the cleanup.
"Every day we have a situation that's a disaster to a family," Landgraf said of the company, which helps about 60,000 people a year find shelter. "But when we have a large-scale event, each one has its own unique properties. For the spill, there are not a lot of Marriotts down in the bayou. We had to go out and rent fish camps and vacation homes. And when they tell you it's two floors, you have to make sure the first floor isn't stilts. We probably rented out about 500 camps."
Then there are disasters that don't meet the traditional definition. During this winter's polar vortex, ALE Solutions averaged about 500 calls for temporary housing every day across 18 states for three months.
"Everyone was coming back from Florida to homes with frozen pipes and water damage," said CEO Zimmers. "That's the busiest we've ever been, more than any other hurricane."
As a result, ALE Solutions, the largest temporary housing placement company in the country, outgrew its office space. Zimmers is now searching for a larger, permanent space for a new headquarters.
Room to grow
Future growth is tied to the number of people who have insurance. Homeowners typically have insurance as a requirement of their mortgage. Renters are a different story. They are most often the people Zimmers' employees run across in a disaster situation who truly have nowhere to turn.
Recent surveys from J.D. Power show 46 percent of renters don't buy insurance. The report indicates most renters believe such insurance is too expensive and unnecessary because they are covered by their landlord's policy.
"What they don't know is if that house burns down, and all their stuff burns down with it, the landlord's insurance covers nothing," Zimmers said. "If you've got a young couple with all their stuff, maybe some kids, and they are working paycheck to paycheck, they are done. They are behind. How do they get back started again? Renters insurance is one of the most affordable investments you can make."
Renters insurance can range from $185 to $1,000 a year depending on coverage, location and what company a renter selects, various quotes on the Internet show.
Steve Hargis discovered the value of his insurance policy in less than 24 hours.
"I called my insurance company around 3 p.m. on Sunday," Hargis said. "By Monday morning, I was in contact with ALE Solutions. Shortly after that I was in a rental house. I was blown away. Not only did they find us a place, they paid the rent and furnished it. Dishes, bath towels, all the amenities."
Not only did that solve an immediate need, it also helped him plan for the future.
"It really took a load off my mind because I had to plan to build a new house," Hargis said. "Because of everything they provided, I was able to give that my full attention."