February 27, 2007

Two Responses, Two Recoveries

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 11:24 am
UPDATE (4:20 PM EST):
I discovered this report from the Institute for Southern Studies’ “Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.” It gives an overview of a number of problems facing the Gulf Coast and proposed solutions to them. Unfortunately, it neglects to mention global warming’s impact on sea levels, including the inundation of the barrier islands and the low-lying wetlands that would take place under these conditions. However, the rest of it is sound.

The problems have been identified, and solutions have been proposed. It is time to act. Enough is enough.

It’s no secret that the response to Hurricane Katrina was a fiasco, wherein no one got really suitable treatment but the level of recovery was still dramatically divided by race and class boundaries. Based on some of the stories in the news, which speak glowingly of Mardi Gras or the rehabilitation of the Superdome, you’d be led to believe that these disparities only surfaced during the immediate response attempts, and that things have been hunky-dory since then.

Well, you’d be wrong. The recovery of Hurricane Katrina is plagued with problems, the first of which I have already touched on–it does not consider the coming rise of the sea levels or the inundation of the coast’s natural defenses, which global climate change is predicted to cause. As I’ve said, there are several others: environmental damage, the domination of the rebuilding process by big industry, and the class-based inequality of personal property recovery. Although they are all closely related, today’s blog will only look at the last one.

The homeowners of coastal Mississippi have been parties to a lawsuit headed up by the state’s Attorney General. The basis of the suit was that their home insurance companies wrongly denied them damages for wind damage, because water damage that occurred later (and may or may not have been insured) obscured what part of the damage was actually caused by wind. Contrary to a popular claim, the lawsuit did not seek to award flood insurance damages to anyone who did not have flood insurance, nor did it award any damages to anyone who didn’t have hurricane insurance. In its sales pitches, the insurance industry misrepresents just what “hurricane insurance” really is (it’s homeowners’ insurance and does not include flood damage), but they don’t outright lie in the legal contracts. The fine print is there to read. Any lawsuit based upon this would have been, well, dead in the water. (Sorry for that.)

They won their suit. And one of the companies, State Farm, retaliated by freezing new policies for the state, as well as issuing a veiled threat to the entire Gulf Coast that they would pull as much existing coverage as they could legally get away with before the 2007 hurricane season begins. Louisiana pre-empted this by implementing a rule for insurers that:

suspends the right of any insurer to cancel or nonrenew any personal residential, commercial residential or commercial property insurance policy covering a dwelling, residential property or commercial property located in Louisiana that sustained damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina or its aftermath, or Hurricane Rita or its aftermath.

As appalling as the treatment of Mississippi’s insured coastal homeowners is, though, the plight of the uninsured or under-insured is far, far worse.
Usually, the total damage cost for a hurricane landfall in the United States is twice the cost to insured property. Although complete statistics are not available for Katrina (disgusting in itself), it is clear that the usual relationship didn’t hold for this storm. Total losses for the storm are a bare minimum of $80 billion, likely much higher than that. The $80 billion figure was computed using the standard 2-to-1 ratio of total damage to insured damage.

Much has been said about the 9th Ward of New Orleans, and New Orleans itself, for that matter. With two Mardi Gras events now behind it and the Superdome restored, the city may appear to be in a period of recovery. However, this is definitely not the case.

Some businesses have returned, certainly. Some residents have returned, although this is no more than about 55-60% of the original, pre-Katrina population. A very large part of the city has moved away permanently, settling in Texas, Arkansas, or Mississippi, in most cases.

The 9th Ward and those parts of the city with similar socioeconomic demographics are largely uninsured. The houses were flooded during the storm. Most of them sustained Category One or Category Two winds, which–although definitely damaging–will not level a house. These are some of the homes that appeared in photographs submerged to the rooftops. These are some of the people who were reported as having crawled to their attics or even their rooftops to get away from the rising waters.

After the storm, these are the houses that were reported to be molding and rotting. They’re mostly uninsured, but because of the unlivable conditions and extreme health hazards, in many cases, the homeowners simply paid for them to be demolished. This is a notable problem in the Lower 9th Ward–not enough unlivable homes have been removed. The people have simply been forgotten, left uninsured, living in Third World conditions–or FEMA trailers, if they were lucky enough to get one. This is what John Edwards was attempting to do something about when he made his presidential announcement from the area. I was too harsh towards him at the time. At this point it doesn’t matter if someone helps these people out and gets political benefit from it, as long as they actually help the people out.

This is the fate of the uninsured victims of Hurricane Katrina. Whatever living conditions they had before the storm, they are exponentially worse after it. Anyone who thinks that these people are living high, leeching off the government for undeserved handouts while gypping taxpayers, is under serious delusions. I’m not in favor of a long-term “welfare state” by any means, but you know, the people who actually choose that rather than choosing to be financially independent are few and far between… kind of like the people who choose to remain on the coast and have a hurricane party when they had the means of making a getaway. The key is having the means. People request government assistance because the money they currently make is not sufficient, not because they don’t want to work.

I don’t know what can be done about the poverty issue and the uninsured. I’ve been looking at all the issues that reared their ugly heads during and after Hurricane Katrina, and this is the one that leaves me stumped. Global warming is something that we can predict, prepare for, and try to minimize, but we as a society have learned enough about the world we live in to know what’s coming. The sleazy dealings of the insurance industry with their policyholders are something that can be settled in court with good lawyers and fair judges. Small and locally owned businesses can be favored in the recovery if the federal government chooses to do so. Those same locally owned businesses can be prevented from going bankrupt by prompt and sufficient disaster loans, an issue that I will be looking at later this week. Even the levees of New Orleans could have been maintained better, possibly preventing the tragedy that unfolded in that city. But the poverty issue is one that is not specific to the hurricane or to natural disasters; it’s just something that is brought home in grim detail under such extreme circumstances because it is only under such circumstances that our media see fit to shine a spotlight on it.

It is a sad, sad day when they’d rather shine that spotlight on Britney Spears’s bald head or Anna Nicole Smith’s corpse.

There were corpses in New Orleans, too.


I have read a number of links relating to these issues, and while I’d love to cite every claim I make in this blog to one of them, I was on a roll while writing it and didn’t want to stop. So here they are:

Louisiana Insurance Facts
PBS Online News Hour: New Orleans Health Care Struggles After Katrina
Wikipedia: Hurricane Katrina
Wikipedia: Effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina and Insured Property Losses
New Orleans in Numbers

1 Comment »

  1. Two years ago at this exact day and exact minute, Hurricane Katrina made its first Gulf landfall on the Louisiana coast.

    I would like to mark this day by providing a series of links to recent news about the recovery, or what passes for it. First i

    Comment by PolitiCalypso — August 29, 2007 @ 4:14 am

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