Retired Meteorologist Testifies in Katrina Dispute

July 14, 2006

Some of Hurricane Katrina’s highest winds, not water, damaged the home of a couple suing their insurance company, an engineer testified Wednesday in what could be a landmark federal trial.

Paul and Julie Leonard of Pascagoula want Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. to pay for $130,000 in damage to the home. Nationwide, which cut the Leonards a check for $1,600, says storm surge was responsible for almost all the damage to the home, and the couple would have needed flood insurance to cover that.

Previous witnesses have testified that the Nationwide agent who handled accounts for the Leonards and other customers told them they didn’t need flood insurance.

Structural engineer Peter de la Mora, a witness for the Leonards, testified that their roof has to be replaced due to damage from wind and wind-driven rain.

A Nationwide attorney questioned de la Mora’s qualifications and credibility, noting that the Texas-based engineer has never testified in a case involving hurricane damage prior to this trial. De la Mora, who has worked for Nationwide many times before the Leonards’ attorneys hired him, also has twice been reprimanded by the Texas Board of Professional Engineers for not following “generally accepted engineering practices.”

Earlier Wednesday, retired Air Force meteorologist Rocco Calaci testified for the Leonards that Katrina’s highest winds pounded the Mississippi Gulf Coast for several hours before the storm surge peaked and inundated thousands of homes. Katrina’s winds remained at hurricane-force levels for several hours after its storm surge began to recede, Calaci said.

“Looking at the hurricane as an entire event,” Calaci said, “the Pascagoula area was basically pounded.”

Calaci’s testimony was designed to help the Leonards prove that Katrina’s winds damaged their home before it was flooded by wind-driven water from Mississippi Sound.

Nationwide spokesman Joe Case dismissed Calaci’s testimony.

“I think what we got was a very general, weak explanation for what happened on Aug. 29,” he said. “We literally got a satellite view of what happened.”

The insurer’s experts are expected to testify later in the trial that Katrina’s winds peaked about the same time as its storm surge. The company says the storm surge was responsible for almost all the damage to the Leonards’ home.

Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, an attorney for the Leonards, said many other post-Katrina insurance cases will hinge on proving that wind damaged or destroyed homes before the structures were flooded by water from the Gulf of Mexico.

“If a house was blown to pieces (by wind) and then water came in and washed the rubble around, you don’t have an exclusionary argument that it was flood that caused all the damage,” he said during a break in Wednesday’s proceedings.

Scruggs, however, said meteorological testimony doesn’t figure as prominently in the Leonards’ case as others pending in Mississippi courts.

Scruggs’ law firm represents about 3,000 policyholders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The firm also has filed lawsuits against other insurers, including Allstate Insurance Co., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., State Farm Insurance Cos. and United Services Automobile Association.

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. is hearing the case without a jury.

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