Prayers answered: Moore title office finally recovers from 2013 twister

Thrilled to have this project completed for our amazing clients at First American Title – Oklahoma!

By Richard Mize  July 18, 2015

MOORE — Not only were houses wiped down to their slabs on May 20, 2013, so was the documentary evidence that they had ever existed.r620-7140f8e1cdbd55e61cb157f59bd256bc

The tornado that leveled so many houses also took out a title insurance office, heaping insult onto injury.

Around 400 abstracts of title, blown away or soaked and ruined by rain — was a mostly unseen impact of the EF5 twister.

Another: The tornado sucked up copies of contracts, paper and digital, leaving transactions in progress slammed to a halt like so many bowling balls crashing into the parking lot.

Bowling balls? Bowling balls. They came exploding from the neighborhood bowling alley.

That Monday was twisted in more ways than one at First American Title Co.’s office building in Moore.

Bowling balls everywhere. Cars stacked — flattened and stacked — against rubble and in wads at the credit union next door.

A preacher handy; with the tornado barreling from the southwest, he and his family ducked into the title company for shelter. Yes, he prayed. Out loud. For which all are still grateful.

The tornado struck houses, but by demolishing the title company offices, it hit the nervous system of the housing business.

First American Title finally is back in its place, the spot it’s claimed since the 1970s, in a new building at 615 S Interstate 35. Employees recently recalled that day and the two years it took for them to be able to return.

That day

“We had a pastor on his way to Westmoore High School who realized he couldn’t make it so he, his wife, father-in-law and three children were in the basement with us,” recalled Pam Phillips, operations manager, who fled with 20 other employees, 15 others and three dogs to the basement. “Just about the time we lost power, within five minutes we started hearing glass breaking, and his father-in-law said, ‘This man is a preacher, would you like for him to pray?’ And in unison we all said ‘Yes!’

“And that’s when we started hearing the roar, items hitting the building, and he was praying, other people were praying out loud — it was children weeping, dogs barking. At one point, the tornado just really bore down, and the best way I can describe this is the concrete above us just started to crumble. We all just kind of fell to our knees and started to protect our heads.”

Debbie Winter, senior title officer, said they figured they were safe in the basement but it was still scary, especially after the power and lights went out.

“I kind of just dropped to my knees,” she said. “There was a lady sitting on the floor. She scooted over and she just hugged me the whole time it was going over. I couldn’t see her. I said, ‘What is your name?’ and she said, ‘Tammy,’ and I’ve never seen the lady again. I couldn’t tell you what she looked like today.”

Shirley Ham, escrow assistant, is one of those kinds of Okies, a Tornado Alley lifer. So, of course, she and a couple of others stayed upstairs until the last minute, watching through big windows “as that tornado filled the whole sky.”

They hit the basement, the tornado hit the building, and her jaw hit what was left of the floor when she crawled out.

“I was not prepared for that. I had seen tornadoes. The May 3, 1999, tornado took almost the same path, but did not hit our building. I’ve seen devastation,” she said. “But I was not prepared for what we saw.”

Tinker Federal Credit Union just to the south, in a pile. The bowling alley knocked down. A strip center smashed. Moore Medical Center, just to the west, devastated. Cars littering I-35 like toys.

The days after

Then, there was a vacuum: no documents, no data, no work, no place to do it.

“You had someone who had a house for sale, and all of a sudden that house was gone, and maybe the house they were buying was gone,” Phillips said, and with the title offices blown to kingdom come, no way to help.

It was temporary, of course, because of digital records and “the cloud” — the good kind, Internet-based data not subject to storm clouds scraping the ground in Moore.

“We were back up and doing business in 48 hours, and that’s pretty amazing,” said Monica Wittrock, president of Santa Ana, Calif.-based First American Title’s operations in Oklahoma.

It helped, she said, that employees knew the importance of escrow and title work in the first place. They knew that title work in the wake of the storm was critical. It took four days just to pore through the rubble and salvage what was salvageable.

“The employees wanted to get back to work, even though they had damage at their homes, or their own families in trouble, they wanted to be here,” Wittrock said. It was “motivating for them, healing for them, to be able to get back to whatever normalcy they could.”

Nobody minded working crammed together in borrowed office space, Winter said.

For months, people doing work previously done at 615 S I-35 were relocated to First American Title offices in Oklahoma City and Norman.

Days to come

There was never any doubt First American Title would rebuild, and that’s something that makes Wittrock especially proud: The corporate office in California and Dennis J. Gilmore, CEO of parent First American Financial, had Moore’s back.

“The company could have said, ‘You know, that’s a really valuable piece of land and we could sell it for a whole lot of money. They didn’t ask that,” she said. “The question they asked me was: ‘What do your employees want to do?’ I said: ‘They want to go back.’

“No questions asked. They didn’t ask how much it would cost. … They rebuilt without ever asking. That’s employees first. That part makes me cry.”

Still, it took longer than anyone imagined it would in 2013; six months to get plans drawn for a new, larger building — two stories and 19,000 square feet. The old building had 10,000 square feet on a single floor.

Ground was broken in January 2014, then winter rains set work back and there were water problems with the basement. Last March, another storm blew debris onto the roof, damaging it and two air-conditioning units.

But it wasn’t just the usual obstacles that can knock construction off schedule that delayed things. There was a run on commercial and institutional construction after May 20, 2013, when businesses, schools and other structures as well as houses were destroyed.

First American Title bided its time to get the plans it wanted.

“We could have gone ahead and pushed it, hired a contractor and got going,” Wittrock said. “but instead we just thought, ‘Let’s wait a little bit, let those schools get taken care of.’ And we wanted to work with Timberlake (Construction Co.), so we waited.”

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