February 15, 2007

State Farm Poised to Pull Insurance on the Gulf Coast

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 8:43 am

In the wake of the lawsuit in favor of coastal homeowners who were victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, State Farm Insurance has announced that it will not write any new policies for residents of Mississippi:

Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America said he believed State Farm’s action was a warning to other Gulf Coast states.

“I would say it’s a warning shot,” Hunter said. “The insurance company here, State Farm, is basically saying, ‘If you make us pay what we owe, we’re gonna … take it out on your citizens.'”

And here’s Mississippi’s Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood on it, after the company tried to blame “judicial uncertainty” for its move:

“They [State Farm] created the problem,” he said. “If they would have paid what they owed in the first place, there never would have been a lawsuit filed.”

I could not agree more with either person.

In a printed article that I read this morning, the company is also cited as “assessing how many of the current policies in Mississippi will be renewed this year.”

That’s a red alarm that homeowners on America’s most vulnerable coastline will have their insurance revoked before the 2007 hurricane season kicks off — a season that is forecast to be a repeat of seasons such as 2003 and 2004, after the current El Nino dissipates. If one company is allowed to get away with it, you can rest assured that others will follow in its wake.

Apparently, the company tried to pull this in Florida as well, but — in a series of events that truly blows my mind — was stymied by the new Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist. Credit where it’s due, I guess, although from this article, it appears that he did it for the wrong reasons.

Insurance companies can’t cancel your homeowner policy before December or raise your rates for the next 90 days.

Throwing another hard jab at the property-insurance industry, Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded his fellow Florida Cabinet members to pass an emergency order to that effect Tuesday.

The 90-day rate freeze is intended to make sure companies preparing rate-adjustment requests take into account the steep savings they should get under an insurance law Crist signed last week.

The order, which prevents insurers from dropping customers until after the next hurricane season, was approved despite strident objections raised by insurance-industry lobbyists and concerns from state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who both said the rule could put some companies in too much of a financial bind.

Although Florida does tend to treat its hurricane victims better than the victims of Hurricane Katrina in MS and LA, this whining about profits really rings hollow when you consider that

[a] year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, 35,000 Mississippi households remain at odds with State Farm, and now the company says it won’t issue any new homeowner policies in Mississippi.

Yeah, cry me a river.

I sat through this hurricane. My family’s house in Mississippi took roof damage that still has not been repaired. I have since then moved out of the area, but I follow developments very closely. I have come around to the conclusion that disaster victims and potential disaster victims need a media-savvy group to lobby for them. Their entire livelihood depends on the whim of political power-brokers, and, while the insurance industry is rich and powerful, the small businesses and homeowners have NO voice after the storm passes through.

(Cross-posted on the Daily Kos.)

July 18, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Part VI

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 5:31 pm

Part VI: A dire situation

Somehow, emergency management for the Coast—America’s “Hurricane Coast,” incorporating the Atlantic and Gulf—has missed the boat, and badly. As of mid-July 2006, thousands of hurricane victims along the totally devastated Gulf Coast are living in various unsafe forms of housing: damaged homes, FEMA trailers, tents, RVs, etc. If the Katrina and Rita evacuations were a nightmare and, arguably, a failure, one does not really want to consider evacuating thousands of displaced and basically homeless people during a 2006 Gulf of Mexico hurricane—which will almost certainly occur once again. This is much more than ignoring the small businesses and residents of the coastline in favor of big industries, although that has been going on as well. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
Hurricane Katrina formed east of Florida in the Bahamas, entered the Gulf of Mexico, and exploded in both size and intensity. Katrina was a product of the Gulf Stream Current and Gulf of Mexico, which have been—along with the Caribbean Sea—considerably warmer in April and May 2006 than they were in April and May 2005. They were actually below average for April and May in 2005, but in spite of that, heated to temperatures that could support three of the six strongest Category Five hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. With summer fast approaching, these waters will not cool off anytime soon. Most of the Atlantic Basin is warm enough to support a major hurricane, and wind steering patterns are thought to place the entire Atlantic and Gulf Coast in danger this year.

Hurricane season is upon us, with the strong possibility of a repeat of the past two years. Along the coastline from east Texas to the Atlantic coast of Florida, there are few communities that have not been impacted by one hurricane or another since August 2004. Some areas have been struck repeatedly, such as the central Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Pensacola, Florida (struck by four hurricanes since 2004), and the southern half of the Florida peninsula (struck five times with an additional close shave from Hurricane Rita). That’s a lot of damaged or destroyed homes. That’s a lot of people in unsafe housing, unable to obtain a safe place because their insurance—if they had any in the first place—has denied their claim or stalled paying, and the government is more interested in helping multibillion-dollar industries get “back on their feet.” America’s Hurricane Coast cannot afford a faith-based recovery.

July 12, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Parts IV and V

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 8:25 pm

Part IV: A Warning Shot in 2003?

Victims of Hurricane Isabel, a large storm that struck the East Coast in September 2003 as a Category Two, had been neglected and given short shrift by the insurance industry, and had not been compensated for damages a full year after that storm made landfall. Fortunately, that part of the coastline has not received a blow of comparable intensity since then. However, had such a thing happened, their damaged houses would have been much less stable in a subsequent storm, especially if they had experienced significant roof damage. Once breached, a roof is significantly less structurally sound against winds—which have a way, once they reach hurricane strength, of finding gaps and entering the house through the spaces. A strong wind to a damaged roof could easily tear it off the walls, and when it came time to assess damages, the insurance would have records to indicate that the roof was already damaged, and could use that as justification for denying claims. Clearly, the housing problem for hurricane victims after the storm is not easily solved by simply putting something over their heads.

Hurricane Isabel was the first hurricane to significantly impact the United States since Hurricane Floyd in 1999. (Hurricane Lili struck a relatively uninhabited part of Louisiana in 2002 as a Category Two, but it did less than $1 billion in damage and was a small storm that was weakening rapidly even as it made landfall.) One could say, then, that Isabel was the Bush Administration’s first significant test for hurricane recovery. Obviously it didn’t do so hot, especially for an administration whose byline and claim to fame was how well it supposedly was able to handle disasters.

Part V: Fiasco in Florida

The Administration continued to fall down with the 2004 season. Although this did not receive very much press, the state of Florida, which got battered repeatedly in 2004, received the “ignore” treatment as well for its recovery. The president and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, were more than willing to photo-op with victims for campaign purposes, but when it came to doing much to help, they failed badly. As of October 2005, victims of Hurricane Charley—a small hurricane that struck the Florida Gulf Coast on August 13, 2004—were still living in FEMA temporary housing, although that hurricane was very small and did only localized damage (as compared with a large storm such as Katrina). It does not take fourteen months to build a house, but Charley victims were still living in trailers after that long.
One woman was quoted in the news as being concerned that her FEMA trailer would not stand up to Hurricane Wilma, which was threatening the Florida coast at the time. She had good reason to worry: Mobile homes are considered unsafe during thunderstorm winds of 50-60 mph. They have been known to flip and literally fly to pieces during strong thunderstorms, which is why they are so frequently death traps in hurricanes and tornadoes. Weather forecasters actually advise mobile home residents to abandon them and lie in a ditch if they are in the path of a tornado; that is how unsafe they are. Hurricane Wilma ended up making landfall well south of Charley’s impact point, but it struck Florida as a Category Three hurricane with 120 mph winds and exited on the east side of the state as a Category Two with approximately 100 mph winds. The trailers would not have stood up.

Florida’s southern coast is wealthier than the parts of Louisiana and Mississippi that were damaged by Katrina and Rita, which is an obvious advantage. Also, Wilma moved across Florida very rapidly and was primarily a windstorm, rather than Rita and Katrina, which did most of their damage with massive amounts of water. However, even without these complications, reports from after the storm indicated that emergency management was mishandling the cleanup. As an example, storm victims reported being denied access to clean bottled water because the officials “guarding” the water had not been given official permission to dispense it… after 24 hours of sitting there. Although it received much less coverage than the Katrina aftermath, Florida apparently received similar treatment to the central Gulf Coast.

A cursory search of weather-enthusiast Floridians’ personal websites uncovers that many victims of Hurricane Wilma (and some whose homes were damaged in the 2004 Florida hurricanes), like their counterparts in Louisiana and Mississippi, still have not received payment for damages to their homes. They have what they call “blue roofs,” referring to wind-damaged roofs covered with blue plastic tarps. Roofs that, were another strong hurricane to strike, would be much more vulnerable than before to wind, because they had been breached and the holes not patched.

Part VI: A Dire Situation: What might 2006 hold?

July 10, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Parts II and III

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 6:27 pm

Part II: "Nothing Left" — A Volunteer’s Perspective

During Spring Break 2006, thousands of college students went to the Gulf Coast to help with recovery of communities and small businesses. Church groups and charitable organizations have been sending groups of volunteers since last September. One volunteer, “Jake,” who went to the devastated town of Waveland, Mississippi, says the following:

It’s only church and private groups there [in Waveland] now. No FEMA, no federal government workers to speak of. They’ve left. The entire population of this county [Lauderdale County, MS, which has a population of approximately 100,000] could go down there to work and it’d still take months. These people are living in tents and FEMA trailers. They have nothing and feel abandoned by their government.

Jake’s account is typical of volunteers who see the devastation, and apparently his statement that the hurricane victims feel abandoned is true as well. This is far from the first time that they have expressed that emotion. Along the destroyed coast, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed, of being ignored and left to pick up their lives and communities. No doubt this is an example of the Bush Administration’s “faith-based services” that Bush promoted in his campaign in 2000. Private charity is a great thing, of course, but in a situation like this, leaving a completely devastated community to its own devices only results in a “faith-based recovery,” in a wholly different sense of the term “faith.” A sense that actually means something like “wishful thinking” or “fool’s hope.” That is not good enough. The hurricane relief and recovery problem is tremendous in scale, much bigger than people realize until they see it firsthand, and it will need more than can be provided by the resources of private altruistic groups.

Meanwhile, “big industry” gets the aid packages.

Part III: The Priority List

It is noteworthy that within days after Katrina struck, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pushed for, and got, legislation allowing the gambling casinos to move inland, whereas before, they had been required by law to anchor themselves offshore. The casinos bring in billions in tourist revenue, and that tourist revenue was his priority.
At the same time that Barbour was pushing to legalize onshore gambling, the insurance companies (with the exception of one, Farm Bureau of Mississippi, which later filed for bankruptcy when other divisions of the company did not pool money to help out the MS division) decided that they didn’t want to pay off the coastal homeowners and refused to pay anyone who did not have a flood insurance package. These homeowners had been sold something the companies billed as “hurricane insurance” and believed that they were covered. The state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the companies on behalf of the victims, but as of the end of 2005, it was still in court. Initially, Katrina damages were estimated at well over $100 billion, with about half of it insured (a ratio that is typical for hurricanes). However, late last autumn, the insurance industry reported a comparatively paltry $37 billion in insured damage, which would mean $75 billion total for the storm if the insured-to-total-damage ratio held. This disparity was not simply initial overestimation. Total damages certainly must exceed $100 billion, considering how many communities have been completely washed out to sea, but insurance companies seem not to want to pay for more than about a third of that.

Curiously, the media seemed to ignore or remain in the dark about the situation in Mississippi and rural Louisiana, all the while condemning Louisiana state officials for the failures in New Orleans. In October 2005, history professor Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote an editorial about the “Mississippi Myth” that the mishaps were strictly Louisiana-based and that it had been handled better in Mississippi. However, since then, there has been very little acknowledgment of the situation on the coastal areas of Mississippi and southern Louisiana that were literally “wiped off the map” by Katrina’s storm surge.

In New Orleans, on the other hand, entire neighborhoods were abandoned during the pre- and post-storm evacuation. These neighborhoods, which are almost exclusively poor or lower middle class, remain unoccupied, the homeowners unable to return, while their houses slowly disintegrate. The evacuees, meanwhile, remain in other parts of the country. Many of them did not have their houses insured, and, of course, many of those that did have insurance have not received any payments. No one at the scene seems to care, which recalls the class and race distinctions in the recovery from the 1928 Florida hurricane.

The abandonment of large parts of New Orleans is utterly shameful and is indicative of a pattern—and a looming problem. The 2006 hurricane season officially began on June 1, and already there has been one storm strike the Gulf Coast that nearly reached hurricane status, but thousands of people remain on the storm-battered coast in thoroughly unsafe and substandard housing—as accounts such as Jake’s would indicate. This is a major part of why the hurricane recovery is such a massive, enormous problem.

Volunteers to the Coast describe the devastated towns between New Orleans and Biloxi, MS as having “Third-World” conditions. A quick search on the Internet for Hurricane Katrina damage photographs proves this description to be quite apt. This strip of coastline, encompassing numerous small towns in Louisiana and Mississippi, is where the worst part of Katrina’s eyewall passed. It is where entire neighborhoods have been obliterated. –And it is the location that the private volunteers reveal has been most shamefully neglected in the recovery.

Given what we know about Governor Barbour’s push for onshore gambling, and given that the surrounding metropolitan areas are on the road to recovery in places, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that this part of the Coast has been, as the residents say, abandoned by the government because of the comparative lack of wealth and economic (read: tourism) revenue it has brought to the region. Of course, the tourist money can’t be forgotten, and no one would suggest that the revenue-generating large businesses should be abandoned. However, they—by their very nature—have more resources and are better equipped than the private residents and small businesses on the Coast. Simply put, the “regular people” need the shot in the arm more, and instead they are getting the metaphorical back of their government’s hand.

What makes it especially disgraceful is that this is not unique to Hurricane Katrina. Leaving coastal communities to fend for themselves has been a pattern ever since 2003, when this administration first really had to deal with hurricanes.

Part IV: A Warning Shot in 2003? How Hurricane Isabel of 2003 was just the beginning.
Part V: Fiasco in Florida: What about the victims of the other hurricanes?
Part VI: A Dire Situation: What might 2006 hold?

July 8, 2006

The Faith-Based Recovery on the Hurricane Coast, Part I

Filed under: Katrina — PolitiCalypso @ 1:36 pm

How the government has failed hurricane victims… repeatedly

Part I: Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was an unusual storm in many ways. It was the first hurricane that killed over 1,000 people in the United States since 1928, when a Category Four storm struck Florida. In fact, there have been only five such hurricanes since the U.S. became a nation: two hurricanes in 1893, the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900, the 1928 Florida hurricane… and Katrina, in 2005. And its toll in human life and property is not even finalized yet.

As of July 2006—ten months after Hurricane Katrina–over 1,800 people in Mississippi and Louisiana remain reported missing. Certainly some of these are duplicate names, and some of the people likely have been found (dead or alive) but not removed from the missing persons databases. However, for a number of this magnitude, this cannot account for more than a fraction of the total.
Engineers and building experts have determined that most of the total destruction on the Coast occurred because of storm surge. Storm surge in the hurricane acted as a “reverse tsunami” and slowly flooded the coastline, only to be “sucked” back into the sea as the storm passed—pulling buildings and people with it. It is grimly easy to make a guess as to the fate of many of the missing.

The number of missing, ten months after the storm struck, is as high as the number of confirmed dead. This is yet another way that Katrina is, shall we say, different. After most recent major hurricane strikes, the number of reported missing is fewer than 100, and the death toll is finalized far earlier than ten months after the storm. It begs the question, “What’s taking so long?”

After a natural disaster of this magnitude, unknown in the United States since before the Great Depression, surely the relief agencies would make an unparalleled effort, one would think. Following the catastrophe of 1928, which resulted in more than 2,500 deaths along Lake Okeechobee, what disaster relief existed did a notoriously poor job of handling the recovery. For years after that terrible storm, the death toll was listed as significantly less, around 1,800, because hundreds of victims had been poor, often black, and their bodies were not identified before burial. It was a disgraceful scandal that was finally acknowledged when the storm’s death toll was officially raised in the records. Surely, in these modern times, the country would not allow gross negligence, racism, and classism to interfere in the aftermath of a tragedy. Surely the government would take proper care of the survivors this time.

Obviously, I would not be writing this piece, had that been true. As has been documented in the media, the government, on multiple levels, utterly failed the residents of the city of New Orleans. What is less commonly known is that the negligence was not limited to that city, nor, in fact, was it limited to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Part II: "Nothing Left"–A Volunteer’s Perspective
Part III: The Priority List
Part IV: A Warning Shot in 2003?
Part V: Fiasco in Florida
Part VI: A Dire Situation

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