The Littles and the Kitchens watched helplessly as Hurricane Katrina battered their New Orleans homes. Both families waited patiently for an insurance adjuster to settle their losses. And both were sorely disappointed with the outcome.
Then, their paths diverged.
Richard and Cindy Little, a white couple living in a predominantly white neighborhood, filed a complaint with the Louisiana Department of Insurance. Eventually, they won full reimbursement for their repairs.
Doretha and Roy Kitchens, a black couple living in New Orleans’ overwhelmingly black Lower Ninth Ward, simply gave up and took what their insurer gave them. They didn’t know they could appeal to the state.
Though poor and minority neighborhoods suffered the brunt of Katrina’s fury, residents living in white neighborhoods have been three times as likely as homeowners in black neighborhoods to seek state help in resolving insurance disputes, according to an Associated Press computer analysis.
The analysis of Louisiana’s insurance complaints settled in the first year after Katrina highlights a cold, hard truth exposed by Katrina’s winds and waters: People of color and modest means, who often need the most help after a major disaster, are disconnected from the government institutions that can provide it, or distrustful of those in power.
“The blacks didn’t complain ’cause they got tired,” said Doretha Kitchens, 58, who recalls numerous phone calls to her insurer that often ended with her being put on hold. Ultimately, she accepted her insurer’s offer of about $34,000 for damages that actually total more than $120,000.
The insurance industry and state regulators say they made special efforts – even in the midst of Katrina’s chaos – to reach out to poor and minority neighborhoods to inform them of options.
But their ad appeals on local radio did little to inform the thousands of mostly black residents who were displaced to Houston. And giving a toll free number for help didn’t help poor minorities who stayed behind with no telephone or cell service. Officials acknowledge victims slipped through the cracks.
“The message doesn’t get to everyone,” Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said.
More than a year after the epic hurricane laid waste to much of the Gulf Coast, frustration and anger still simmer.
More than 700,000 insurance claims were filed for damage resulting from Katrina in Gulf Coast states and to date, only $14.9 billion out of $25.3 billion in insured losses have been paid, the national risk modeling firm ISO estimates.
In Louisiana, more than 8,000 residents have filed Katrina-related complaints with the state insurance office. Using open records law, AP obtained the files of more than 3,000 complaints that have already been settled and analyzed the outcomes by the demographics of the victims’ current zip code neighborhood.
Nearly 75 percent of the settled cases were filed by residents currently living in predominantly white neighborhoods. Just 25 percent were filed by households in majority-black zip codes, the analysis found.
The analysis also suggests income was a factor. The average resident who sought state help lives in a neighborhood with a median household income of $39,709, compared with the statewide median of $32,566 in the 2000 Census.
AP analyzed 3,118 complaints filed by homeowners still living in Louisiana. The state’s data did not identify whether the addresses on complaints were the same locations as the damaged homes. The state also refused to release any information on approximately 5,000 complaints still under review.
The findings surprise few on the front lines of a disaster that has reawakened issues of racial equality.
Donelon, the insurance commissioner, said his department made an extra effort to reach as many people as possible and let them know the agency was willing to press their case with insurers.
State workers crisscrossed the state, using mobile complaint centers, user-friendly Web sites and advertisements on television and radio. When complaints were received, state insurance officials determined whether they had merit, and lobbied insurance companies for more money for homeowners when warranted.
That message, however, never reached the water-stained stoop of Doretha Kitchens’ house, which was enveloped in a 9-foot wave of muddy water when the Lower Ninth Ward’s aging levees broke. For months, she had no access to computer, radio or TV and couldn’t hear the state agency’s messages.
Kitchens also didn’t know she could appeal Allstate Corp.’s settlement offer to the state, but doubts it would have changed anything. Her husband, she said, simply lost faith that anyone would help.
“My husband didn’t want to be bothered. I asked him, ‘Why don’t we sue the insurance company?’ He said, ‘They ain’t gonna do nothing no way.’ White just decided they was gonna go file. Black, we just gave up easier.”
The Kitchens didn’t have flood insurance but their dispute with the insurer was over damage in their attic, where winds ripped off the roof.
At first, Richard and Cindy Little didn’t fare much better.
Four towering pine trees crashed into their tidy ranch-style home in Slidell, a predominantly white bedroom community north of New Orleans.
The crashing limbs unleashed a cascade of water that spoiled the walls, soaked the hardwood floors and brought puffs of pink insulation tumbling from the ceiling.
When their insurer agreed to pay only two-thirds of the cost of the repairs, the Littles used their savings to cover the cost of the construction – then began battling Allstate, the state’s No. 2 insurer, over the final settlement.
They wrote letters to congressmen, secured copies of an adjuster’s report, spent hours compiling receipts, made countless phone calls and filed a complaint with insurance regulators.
Eventually, their efforts paid off, but they acknowledge the fight wasn’t easy and that the family’s finances played a large role in their perseverance.
“We had money in the bank so we could wait them out,” said Cindy Little, 50. “We could wait to get what’s owed.”
“It’s kind of scary to think of fighting a big corporation,” added Richard Little. “I can see how people with not as much money, education, take what’s given them.”
Mike Trevino, a spokesman for Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate, said the state agency had treated minority and white homeowners equally. The figures obtained by AP support his contention.
In cases where Louisiana insurance regulators were able to get more money from insurers for homeowners, the amount for minorities and whites was roughly the same: about $40,000.
But Trevino also acknowledges that the insurer was overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster that led half of its 300,000 Louisiana customers to file claims.
“It could be that there were mistakes, that it wasn’t a good performance by the adjuster. But what’s important to remember is that it was then, and still is, an extraordinary event … and it certainly did stretch our ability to serve customers in the very best way possible,” Trevino said.
Though there was no disparity in the outcome of state complaints, the racial divide is clearly apparent in who accessed the system and how often they did so.
In New Orleans, where blacks made up two-thirds of the 454,863 pre-Katrina population, only about 445 homeowners resolved complaints with the state department. In contrast, the mostly white residents in suburban Slidell resolved more complaints (489) even though their population is 16 times smaller.
Minority distrust in government also shows up in polling. AP-Ipsos polls taken shortly after the hurricane last year showed 56 percent of minorities said they doubted the government could really help them during a disaster.
Alan Jenkins, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration who lobbies for minority opportunities, said AP’s analysis reinforces a little-discussed reality exposed by Katrina.
“The promise of opportunity isn’t equally available,” he said. “Race and income has made a big difference in people’s ability to start over.”
Jenkins said state and federal agencies need to adopt different techniques to reach historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Aloyd Edinburgh, who lives not far from the Kitchens in the Lower Ninth Ward, exemplifies the problem.
The 75-year-old retired cab driver said he doesn’t have much use for insurers or state regulators. All around him are signs of abandoned battles – buckled homes, distorted cars, hip-high weeds and the smell of decay.
Edinburgh’s insurer gave him $35,000 out of a policy worth $85,000. He is slowly and painstakingly repairing his gutted house, sleeping in a trailer parked in his driveway. Like many in his neighborhood, he didn’t know the state could help. But like many neighbors, he has little faith – and at his age – little time.
“The best thing I can do is take the money I did receive and go to work,” says the old man, his eyes clouded with cataracts. “Am I satisfied? Hell, no, I’m not satisfied … Am I mad? Hell, yeah, I’m mad. But to complain about it. What’s the use?”
Associated Press Writer Frank Bass contributed to this package from Washington.
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