Friday, November 30, 2007
GIVING BAYOU La Batre residents still living in FEMA trailers priority in a new federally funded housing development is a good way to avoid housing issues that have arisen in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Modular homes are scheduled to be built in two neighborhoods. Most of the money comes from a $15.7 million FEMA grant, part of a larger program aimed at providing housing for hurricane victims on the Gulf Coast.
At a community meeting Tuesday, residents learned that families still living in FEMA trailers in the city and others who received housing assistance from FEMA will get first chance at the new homes, which city officials hope will be finished by February. Other people still living in FEMA trailers in Mobile County will have a chance at the remaining homes.
Mobile County families are still living in 142 FEMA trailers more than two years after the devastating hurricane, so the 120 furnished modular homes won't completely solve the problem. The housing problem is not nearly as severe as in Louisiana, where thousands of residents are still living in FEMA trailer parks.
But getting the modular home neighborhoods under way in Bayou La Batre will help resolve the issue of affordable housing for people who lost their homes and may not be able to afford to move or rebuild on their own.
In Louisiana, a severe shortage of affordable rental housing has made it very difficult for people to leave the trailer parks. The trailers were never intended for long-term housing, some families are living in terribly overcrowded conditions and there are questions about air quality inside the trailers because of the presence of formaldehyde.
FEMA has tried to move people out of the Louisiana parks, but there simply has been no place for all of them, including elderly and disabled residents, to go. But in Alabama, expediting construction of the modular homes in Bayou La Batre will provide some relief and make relocating the remaining trailer occupants easier.
Nobody is giving the houses away, and at a maximum of 1,600 square feet, they are hardly mansions. The program is aimed at giving people a chance to help themselves by offering safe, sound housing and chance to buy into the development.
People will have to apply for the housing and will pay rent in the first year of 20 percent of household income. After that, occupants have the option to buy the homes, and a portion of the rent can be used for a down payment. In addition, the occupants will get help finding mortgages.
In addition, those applicants whose original homes were condemned must agree to have them demolished. The new neighborhoods are located outside the federal 100-year flood plain, so those who lost their homes to Katrina's floodwaters won't be living or rebuilding in the same place and risking the same destruction in the future.
Bayou La Batre has the opportunity to serve as a model for the Gulf Coast as the recovery from Hurricane Katrina continues. Hurricane victims can't live in FEMA trailers indefinitely, but they must have somewhere to go.
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Friday, November 30, 2007
from Pensacola Beach Blog
It's been an eventful week for the Lott clan. On Monday, Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) announced that he'd be retiring late this year. The next day, FBI agents raided the law office of his brother-in-law, Richard "Dickie" Scruggs. Yesterday, Scruggs, his son, and three associates were indicted for bribery.A search warrant was executed this week in the law office of Mississippi lawyer Dickie Scruggs. Barely a day later, he also was indicted on charges of bribing a state trial judge. Conservatives and liberals, alike, are chortling over what they imagine to be the imminent downfall of one of America's most successful, and richest, trial lawyers.
-- Paul Kiel atTPM Muckraker, Nov. 29, 2007
No surprise, really. Both sides see the event through partisan prisms that tend to blind one to the whole truth, whatever that turns out to be.
Republican neocom fanatics who reflexively side with corporate interests against individuals view "plaintiffs' lawyers" as bogeymen out to undermine America's capitalist foundation. As for Democratic Party liberals, it seems they can't see beyond the fact that the sister of Scruggs' wife is married to U.S. Senator Trent Lott, which makes the two men brothers-in-law. On no discernible evidence other than that, a good number of Lott critics are suggesting the Scruggs indictment explains why, just two days beforehand, the senior Mississippi senator announced that he intends to resign his seat before January rolls around.
Color us skeptical. It may be, as alleged, that a third man, also a lawyer, who supposedly offered a bribe to a Mississippi state judge was acting for Dickie Scruggs. Or, it may be that he wasn't. It may be that this other lawyer offered a bribe. Or, it may be the judge was fishing for a personal campaign contribution, as is the widespread practice among judges in that state.
With no proven facts to speak of yet, what we're left wondering is what does the known history of each side in this drama suggest about their motives and capabilities? On that score, we're ready to give more than the legal presumption of innocence to Scruggs. We give him the benefit of a doubt.
The most likely reason for Senator Lott's resignation, as it seems to us, has nothing to do with Scruggs or his family ties. It's more in harmony with Lott's character and political history that he simply doesn't want to wait an extra year to pig out on lobbyist fees.
It's the political ties we find more intriguing. Dickie Scruggs and his law firm, as we have noted before, are among the leading litigators battling property insurance companies over their penurious -- some juries would say, even fraudulent -- handling of Hurricane Katrina claims. Scruggs undertook to represent well over a thousand devastated hurricane victims in Mississippi -- including that self-same brother-in-law, Trent Lott, who was the scourge of trial lawyers himself until he needed one. The Scruggs firm also led the way in knitting together a number of other law firms to form what's now known as The Katrina Group.
As Newsweek noted a few years ago, Scruggs has a long history of representing the little guy against the insurance industry and their corporate clients. He made his bones suing tobacco companies, then represented thousands of blue collar ship-builders afflicted with asbestosis. More recently, the intrepid lawyer added the health insurance industry to his list of targets.
One can surmise there are plenty of huge, well financed corporations out there who would happily contribute whatever it takes to see Dickie Scruggs brought down. If that isn't reason enough to reserve judgment at the news of his indictment, consider this:
- The indictment was engineered by U.S. Attorney Jim M. Greenlee in the Northern District of Mississippi. Greenlee has been a "loyal Bushie" U.S. attorney throughout the entire period [Karl Rove] Bush's lapdog, Alberto Gonzales, was busy politicizing the Justice Department.
- Allegations of Justice Department "selective prosecution" and "targeting" of prominent Democratic party supporters across the nation have been at the heart of investigations by both the House Judiciary Committee and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
- It's already a matter of record that the Justice Department has been using "criminal prosecutions to help Republicans win elections" in Mississippi by selectively prosecuting Democrats. Although he's given to both parties, Scruggs is best known for being one of the largest individual contributors to Mississippi Democratic Party candidates.
- Barely three weeks ago, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and other news sources began reporting that Scruggs was funding "a new attack ad on Republican insurance commissioner hopeful Mike Chaney." Last July, he gave a quarter of a million dollars to "Mississippians for Fair Elections, a PAC 'created to raise awareness about the role the insurance commissioner plays'" in Mississippi government.
- Last June, Scruggs filed a 100-plus page complaint in the Southern District of Mississippi, accusing State Farm Insurance Co. of a "racketeering enterprise" to suppress or destroy engineering reports it received from its own chosen expert evaluators that found insured homes had been damaged by high winds rather than flooding water. The allegation is the legal equivalent of nuclear war, potentially subjecting State Farm to treble damages and a host of other severe punishments.
- Just one day before the indictment was made public, Scruggs filed an amended complaint [pdf format] in the ongoing litigation. As described by Biloxi reporter Anita Lee "a team of policyholders' attorneys led by Richard 'Dickie' Scruggs" added new allegations that State Farm had actually financed the start-up of an engineering firm which then wrote hurricane damage reports with conclusions dictated by State Farm:
- The owner of an engineering firm hoped to make up to $1.5 million over three months by adjusting Hurricane Katrina claims for State Farm, borrowing $150,000 and establishing a line of credit with State Farm Bank to set up shop on the Mississippi Coast in September 2005, according to records filed late Tuesday in federal court.
- Because of the arrangement, Forensic Analysis & Engineering Corp. was beholden to State Farm, which wanted to minimize its Hurricane Katrina losses for wind damage, the lawsuit says. Another vendor that adjusted Katrina claims, the independent adjusting firm E.A. Renfroe & Co. Inc., at times owed 80 percent of its income to State Farm, the court records say.
- The 73-year old Calhoun County, Mississippi, judge, Henry Lackey, who claims a Scruggs intermediary tried to bribe him waited less than 48 hours before hitting the interview circuit to share his story with Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.
It may be difficult for folk living in a normal state, or even a politically subnormal state like Florida, to believe that the federal and state judicial systems in a place like Mississippi could be so bent that the weight of the law might be brought down on someone just because they belong to the wrong political party. But the erudite international lawyer and Harper's Magazine blogger, Scott Horton, has some familiarity with the depths to which his native South can sink.
He's been exposing the through-and-through corruption of Alabama's system for much of the past year, now. Here's a sampling. It isn't easy reading but it is eye opening.
Horton has occasionally remarked that things in neighboring Mississippi are much the same. As he wrote a few weeks ago:
In the last several months, we have looked in some detail at the prosecution of Democratic Governor Don E. Siegelman in Alabama. There is now substantial evidence that this prosecution was politically motivated, involving a number of key figures in the Alabama G.O.P., Karl Rove, U.S. attorneys in Birmingham and Montgomery, and political appointees at the Justice Department in Washington."For five years Washington has had a Department of Political Persecutions where the Department of Justice used to stand," Horton also has written.
* * *
[W]hile studying the Siegelman case, I have been looking over a series of cases in Mississippi which are remarkably similar to the Siegelman case in many ways. At this point I believe, based on documents and evidence which have come to me, that the Mississippi prosecutions will also shortly be exposed as being politically motivated and directed. In any event it is clear that they were designed to, and did, have a key role in influencing elections in Mississippi for the benefit of the Republican Party.
It is some measure of the damage done to the Justice Department under the Bush administration that one can even entertain the thought Scruggs' indictment may be politically inspired. But we know, now, that the Justice Department has perverted justice elsewhere for just that reason. The likelihood that's its happening again in Mississippi is too plausible to be dismissed.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 6:19 AM
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
By ANITA LEE
November 28, 2007
The owner of an engineering firm hoped to make up to $1.5 million over three months by adjusting Hurricane Katrina claims for State Farm, borrowing $150,000 and establishing a line of credit with State Farm Bank to set up shop on the Mississippi Coast in September 2005, according to records filed late Tuesday in federal court.
Because of the arrangement, Forensic Analysis & Engineering Corp. was beholden to State Farm, which wanted to minimize its Hurricane Katrina losses for wind damage, the lawsuit says. Another vendor that adjusted Katrina claims, the independent adjusting firm E.A. Renfroe & Co. Inc., at times owed 80 percent of its income to State Farm, the court records say.
A team of policyholders' attorneys led by Richard "Dickie" Scruggs" unearthed the information and other new allegations against the insurer and vendors while researching a policyholders' lawsuit originally filed in June. The attorneys now want to amend the complaint.
They now allege that State Farm essentially acted as head of "mob boss," with the vendors serving as "hit men." The purpose of the racketeering scheme was to make money, the lawsuit says, by minimizing or denying policyholder claims.
It alleges destruction of documents, perjury, obstruction of justice and fraud.
State Farm and the vendors have previously denied any wrongdoing. State Farm spokesman Fraser Engerman said Wednesday the company has not reviewed the complaint and couldn't respond to new allegations.
"Although we haven't reviewed it yet, we still contend this lawsuit is a combination of every wild allegation Mr. Scruggs has thrown at us since Katrina," Engerman said.
State Farm termed the initial lawsuit "fiction," saying in June that the company has paid Mississippi policyholders at least $1.2 billion for Katrina damage. Since then, the company has paid an additional $55 million through a claims re-evaluation process.
However, the amended complaint says: "State Farm's market share, wealth and unscrupulous methods of doing business give it coercive force within the home insurance sector. Adjusters that deviate from its plans are cast aside. Engineers who issue reports that would result in payments by State Farm are fired."
Policyholders who disagree with State Farm's conclusions face a dilemma, the complaint says: either accept pennies on the dollar or spend years, forfeiting time and money, "to simply get what is rightfully theirs."
The attorneys are asking U.S. District Court Judge William H. Barbour Jr., who is presiding over the case in Jackson, to accept the amended lawsuit in place of the original. They want to add State Farm Bank, a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance company, as a defendant and remove Forensic, which has confidentially settled its grievances in the case with policyholders.
The policyholders' attorneys claim State Farm is defrauding policyholders through the re-evaluation process because the company does not reveal any multiple engineering reports that may have been produced for properties. Insurance companies use expert reports to help determine the cause of damage and whether it is covered under their policies.
The amended complaint, which also adds three policyholders to the 21 already listed, says one engineer at Forensic altered, spoiled or falsified at least 30 reports.
Evidence turned over under subpoena in the case indicates for the first time that State Farm wanted a Forensic engineer removed from company claims investigations. The engineer had found wind damage covered by State Farm policies.
The Forensic office manager, Nellie Williams, wrote in another instant message: "State Farm would prefer that all reports make water the cause of destruction (then they don't have to pay) - they have been returning our wind cause reports and demanding another inspection as they don't agree with our findings."
Williams had previously denied under oath that she had Forensics information on her personal computer, but the Scruggs group found it there after they secured her computer hard drive through a subpoena.
Forensics owner Robert Kochan said in an instant message to his office manager that he had spoken with "Mark," which the lawsuit says refers to State Farm employee Mark Wilcox. According to Kochan's instant message, Wilcox said his boss wanted Forensic engineer Brian Ford, who found wind damage to properties, removed from State Farm catastrophe inspections.
State Farm offered policyholders a different explanation for multiple engineering reports. The company in April began notifying Coast policyholders that they could have their claims re-evaluated. State Farm explained, according to the lawsuit: "At times, inadvertent duplicate assignments were made on a single property and/or follow-up on engineering reports was necessary, resulting in some cases, in multiple engineering reports."
Insurance Commissioner George Dale, who recently lost his re-election bid after eight terms, ordered the re-evaluation. But Attorney General Jim Hood has sued State Farm for failing to live up to an agreement he reached with the company in January. That agreement said any multiple reports would be revealed to policyholders.
State Farm says it has lived up to its promises through the re-evaluation, maintaining the agreement with Hood was part of a proposed global settlement with policyholders that a federal judge rejected.
The insurance company and Hood are currently embroiled in a federal court dispute. State Farm is asking a judge to stop a criminal investigation by Hood, claiming he filed it to harass the company.
State Farm and Scruggs also are battling because Scruggs engaged whistle-blowers, as he did in successful lawsuits against Big Tobacco, to glean information about the company's Katrina claims adjusting. The FBI served a search warrant Tuesday on Scruggs law firm, but an attorney for the firm, Joey Langston, said agents were seeking a single document that would be "ancillary" to Katrina litigation. Langston said he does not believe the document exists and the firm is cooperating with investigators.
Also, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Jackson has indicated it is investigating State Farm's Katrina claims handling practices and will decide by January whether to prosecute a lawsuit the whistle-blowers have filed against the company, also in U.S. District Court in Jackson.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 1:53 PM
46 spared; razing bids received; Hancock board condemns 64 properties
By J.R. WELSH
November 28, 2007
HANCOCK COUNTY -- Nearly 27 months after Hurricane Katrina, county supervisors are still ordering the removal of storm-wrecked houses that litter the county.
Supervisors decided this week to condemn and order the destruction of 64 properties, all considered hazards and public nuisances. Most are in the southern area of the county, particularly in Bayside Park, Pearlington and Shoreline Park.
The vacant homes are in various states of disrepair. All were inspected by Compton Engineering, the county's contract engineer, before being condemned. Supervisors notified property owners, and on Monday the board reviewed each property at a public hearing.
The county started with 110 houses on its hazard list, but some were removed. Numbers of houses actually condemned and ordered destroyed were not available until Tuesday when it was announced 46 properties were taken off the list.
Costs of demolishing the structures will be reimbursed by FEMA. "This is your last chance to have your property cleared at FEMA's expense," board President Rocky Pullman said at the hearing.
A standing-room-only crowd of property owners showed up Monday, asking that their houses be spared. Their stories were as varied as their faces. In one case, supervisors removed a house from the demolition list at the request of a woman who said she finally had received a grant to rebuild.
In another, they removed from the list a house whose owner, according to Pullman, was deceased. That case was delayed until the county can determine who now owns the land.
In yet another, supervisors declined to condemn a house because photos of the property presented by inspectors showed a new door on the structure and a pile of shingles standing next to the house. Supervisors considered that evidence that renovations are ongoing.
"We're not here to hurt people," Pullman said.
There will be a final public hearing Dec. 17, when supervisors are expected to hold condemnation proceedings on 54 more houses. Those costs, too, will be covered by FEMA.
Also Monday, supervisors received bids from five companies to demolish the condemned properties. Bids ranged from $637,400 to nearly $2.5 million. The bids will now be reviewed by FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency before an award is made.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:08 AM
Chris Granger / Times-Picayune
Johnny Jackson, right, holds onto the shirt that he remembers David Martin, left, wearing when he rescued him by boat following Hurricane Katrina.
By Bruce Nolan
November 27, 2007
David Martin was standing outside the agreed-upon rendezvous point, the headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, when the approaching Johnny Jackson caught his eye. In Tuesday's dying light they regarded each other as the distance closed, different in many ways -- Martin, the white, weather-beaten, small-town outdoorsman, and Jackson, the black, city-bred former politician and gregarious bon vivant.
"There he is," called Jackson, extending his arms.
The two embraced briefly, a little awkwardly. A guy greeting.
They hardly knew each other. They had not seen each other since the terrible morning of Aug. 31, 2005, when Martin, a stranger, nosed his aluminum flatboat below a second-story window and plucked Jackson, his 80-year-old mother and two others out of their house in the Upper 9th Ward and ferried them to safety.
They were together probably less than an hour that day. They did not exchange names and did not expect to meet again, until Jackson arranged the meeting Tuesday to thank the stranger who appeared out of the dark that day two years ago.
'Y'all need a ride out?'
The night of their first encounter, thousands of New Orleanians for miles around Jackson's Press Park neighborhood were still marooned on roofs or trapped in attics or upper floors two days after the passage of Hurricane Katrina.
The military was mobilizing. And so were hundreds of private citizens like Martin, fishers and hunters with boats who were running their own ad hoc rescues all over the flood zone, pulling people out of houses, dropping them at gathering points on interstate ramps, then turning back for more.
Early on Aug. 31 Martin and a fellow member of the Cajun Redfish Club, Shannon Ordoyne, found Jackson; his elderly mother, Josephine; a disabled cousin, Kevin; and a nephew.
In the predawn darkness they played a spotlight into the window over the blacked-out second floor, Jackson remembered. "Ya'll need a ride out?" they said.
The Jacksons did. They pulled themselves into Martin's 16-foot boat and sat, soaked, as Martin and Ordoyne made for railroad tracks on high ground near Interstate 10.
"I remember we just talked about how bad it was," Jackson said Tuesday. They did not exchange names. But Jackson never forgot a distinctive shirt his anonymous rescuer was wearing.
Even in the dark he could tell it was a knit polo shirt with a fish on the breast. He thought he remembered the words "redfish" and "club."
Landing in Dallas
Martin and Ordoyne dropped the Jacksons near Louisa Street and the interstate, then turned back to gather more people.
Over the next three harrowing days, Jackson, a former state legislator and City Council member, shepherded his family to the chaos of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, then out of the city to shelter and food in Westwego.
A week later, they were in Dallas. There they were adopted by two Texas families, Alan and Kathy Box and Charlie and Cathy Fisher, who enveloped the Jacksons in extraordinary care and helped them settle in the Dallas area.
Two years later The Times-Picayune featured the Jacksons' story, from the anonymous rescuers in the boat to the Boxes and Fishers in Texas, in second-anniversary storm coverage that focused on how strangers aided storm victims in the desperate time after Katrina.
In subsequent weeks the newspaper was able to identify Martin as a man who might have been Jackson's rescuer. The two were put in touch.
Jackson and Martin exchanged e-mails. Martin sent Jackson a picture of his shirt. Jackson mailed back from Dallas his deep gratitude, for himself and his family.
Shirt sticks out
They arranged to meet for the first time Tuesday on the sidewalk in front of the Zulu clubhouse; Jackson is a member and float captain in Zulu's annual Mardi Gras parade.
"I want you to see something. I got the shirt," Martin said.
They walked to Martin's black pickup. He reached in and pulled out a hanger holding a polo shirt with a redfish on the breast and the words "Cajun Redfish Club."
"Yeah, that's it! I remember. That's it!" Jackson said.
Jackson escorted Martin inside and introduced him to a dozen club members sitting at the bar.
"What'll you have?" he asked Martin.
Salvage turns to rescue
Over Jackson's Crown Royal and Martin's vodka and 7UP they traded recollections.
Martin, 51, the president of the fishing club, said he had towed his boat to New Orleans from his hometown of Montegut the day after the storm hoping to salvage equipment from a club travel trailer parked in Chalmette for a Labor Day club rodeo.
But that was clearly irrelevant, given the condition of the city. Instead, he said, he and Ordoyne launched their boat and motored into the flood zone, thick with people calling for help.
"We stayed out three days and two nights," he said.
Ferrying people from roofs to high ground, Martin said, they burned through 24 gallons of gas they brought, plus another eight they cadged from the National Guard.
They worked at night until they broke the last of their hand-held spotlights.
They borrowed drinking water. "I don't think we slept much," Martin said.
Martin said he didn't keep count, but he estimated he and Ordoyne collected perhaps 100 people.
After several days they returned to the Houma area, where Martin lives when he is not working on a huge Exxon construction project in Africa. He shuttles back and forth, a month on, a month off, he said.
Martin said his old fishing club is dead, its 80 members scattered. "What Katrina didn't wipe out, Rita finished off," he said.
"I got club members, I still don't know where they are. I mean, I don't even know if they're all alive or not. Is that the way it is with you, Johnny?" he asked.
In the clubhouse together, the men sipped their drinks and compared notes.
Jackson's mother and brother live in Slidell now. He and his wife live in Dallas and will remain there. But he frequently returns to New Orleans, where he hopes to repair his ruined house.
"I never looked to get anything out of it, you know?" said Martin. But to meet Jackson again and see him well, "this is a blessing."
And more than a blessing.
When Jackson, typically loud and social, introduced Martin to his friends at the Zulu bar, someone shouted over the noise, "Put that man on your float!"
"If he wants a ride," declared Jackson, "he's got it."
Bruce Nolan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3344
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Posted by Ana Maria at 5:56 AM
By MICHAEL A. BELL
November 29, 2007
HARRISON COUNTY -- The county has written members of Congress in hopes of gaining support against FEMA's refusal to reimburse $12 million for Hurricane Katrina cleanup.
An internal probe by FEMA in 2006 questioned nearly $9 million worth of debris on public rights of way and nearly $3 million on cases involving private properties.
FEMA, which inspected more than a dozen roads where TCB Construction workers removed leaning and dead trees, could not match the number of stumps left on roadways and private properties to what the Poplarville company had ticketed. FEMA also believes TCB charged excessive fees.
Tim Holleman, the county attorney handling the appeal, sent letters to Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran and Reps. Gene Taylor and Bennie Thompson. MEMA is backing the county's appeal.
"It's simply a letter setting forth the basic issues and asking them if they can review it," Holleman said. "We're hoping that FEMA will follow recommendations of MEMA to begin with and pay the county's claim for benefits."
"The alternative is we hope the representatives or senators can help us, get FEMA to pay it off," he said.
Harrison County is not alone in haggling with FEMA. Earlier this year, nearly two dozen counties and cities across the Gulf Coast were in danger of losing more than $18 million after FEMA questioned debris removal costs, The Associated Press reported.
County leaders have supplied FEMA with more than 30,000 pictures documenting and validating TCB's work, which FEMA has until Nov. 30 to act on.
FEMA believes that Harrison County agreed to pay TCB too much for debris cleanup. But Holleman said the TCB rate is less than what FEMA pays the Corps of Engineers for such work.
Holleman said he requested the contracts between FEMA and the corps. However, FEMA has refused, citing proprietary information.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 4:14 AM
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Lott says he's trying to tie up loose ends on hurricane legislation
By Natalie Chandler
November 27, 2007
A retiring Sen. Trent Lott promised Monday to continue pushing legislation that will help the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina, a storm that made him reconsider earlier plans of leaving office.
But he said it would be difficult to advance the bills before he leaves at the end of the year.
And Gulf Coast leaders said his absence will make it much more difficult for the area to rebuild from devastation that still lingers.
Lott, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, and others in the state's congressional delegation won praise for securing billions of recovery dollars for south Mississippi.
A state-run grant program seemed to move more quickly one year after the storm after he and 4th District Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat, publicly urged officials to make changes and speed distribution.
Of Lott's retirement, the Rev. Richard Young of Escatawpa said, "Nobody down here's ready for that yet."
"If they put somebody in there that don't know us and have the feelings for us, it will be many years before this Gulf Coast recovers," said Young, whose church has not been rebuilt.
In a statement, Taylor said that Lott, whose Pascagoula home was destroyed in the storm, "understands the sense of loss that so many of us experienced, and this perspective has made him an especially effective advocate on recovery-related issues."
Taylor, who also lost his Bay St. Louis home, has worked with Lott on legislation that would offer federally funded insurance for disaster victims.
Insurance companies denied claims made by Lott, Taylor and many of their constituents after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm.
Company officials have said their policies cover a hurricane's wind but not its rising water.
"Hopefully, Trent can arrange a Senate floor vote before he retires, and I pledge to help with any assistance that I can provide," Taylor said.
Lott said he's had problems "getting the appropriate committee in the Senate to step up. I'll keep working on it."
He also has championed a bill that would revoke an antitrust exemption for insurance companies, which have been accused of conspiring to deny claims.
Lott said that while he still supports the legislation, it may be too difficult to pass.
Other issues have slowed the bill and killed its momentum, he said.
A committee chairman in charge of the legislation doesn't believe there are enough votes to sustain the bill, he added.
Lott said he spoke with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy on Monday. "I said, 'Pat, do me a favor. Get a vote on this repeal of the antitrust exemption. This is something I feel strongly about. Help me with a going-away present,' " Lott said.
Lott had considered retiring before Katrina flattened and flooded his hometown. His mother died earlier that year.
"I dare say that without Lott and (Sen. Thad Cochran) and Taylor, the Gulf Coast would be pretty much still in the Stone Ages," said Jackson County supervisor John McKay. "It's just going to be extremely difficult to replace (Lott's) leadership for (hurricane recovery) and for the whole state."
"The feeling in Washington has been, 'It's been two years; let's move on to the next thing,' " said Mayor Tommy Longo of Waveland, where city offices still are housed in FEMA trailers.
"(Lott) has understood our needs and that it was going to take longer and that we were going to need more help," Longo said.
Lott's office quickly helped whenever issues with FEMA arose, officials agreed.
In June, Lott settled with his insurance company. He and his wife, Tricia, live near Jackson.
Lott has placed a manufactured home on his Pascagoula property. He has not rebuilt, although he has said he would like to.
"So many people had needs for materials and workers," he said. "Our neighbors were still trying to rebuild.
"We didn't think, since we had a place to hang our hat, that we need to rush and (rebuild.) And I have to be honest. My wife is very concerned about rebuilding on the water."
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:15 AM
Monday, November 26, 2007
While casinos prosper, hurricane's mark lingers in working-class areasBy Peter Whoriskey
Sun., Nov. 25, 2007
BILOXI, Miss. - Nowhere has the rebound from Hurricane Katrina been gaudier than along Mississippi's casino-studded coast.
Even as the storm's debris was being cleared, this city's night sky was lighted up with the high-wattage brilliance of the Imperial Palace, then the Isle of Capri, then the Grand Casino. More followed, and so did vacation-condo developers.
Yet in the wrecked and darkened working-class neighborhoods just blocks from the waterfront glitter, those lights cast their colorful glare over an apocalyptic vision of empty lots and scattered trailers that is as forlorn as anywhere in Katrina's strike zone.
"At night, you can see the casino lights up in the sky," Shirley Salik, 72, a former housekeeper at one of the casinos, said this month while standing outside her FEMA camper with her two dogs. "But that's another world."
More than two years after the storm, the highly touted recovery of the Mississippi coast remains a starkly divided phenomenon.
While Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has hailed the casino openings as a harbinger of Mississippi's resurgence and developers have proposed more than $1 billion in beachfront condos and hotels for tourists, fewer than one in 10 of the thousands of single-family houses destroyed in Biloxi are being rebuilt, according to city permit records. More than 10,000 displaced families still live in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Now, long-standing resentment over the way the state has treated displaced residents has deepened over a proposal by the Barbour administration to divert $600 million in federal housing aid to fund an expansion plan at the Port of Gulfport. The port's recently approved master plan calls for increasing maritime capacity and creating an "upscale tourist village" with hotel rooms, condos, restaurants and gambling.
"We fear that this recent decision . . . is part of a disturbing trend by the Governor's office to overlook the needs of lower and moderate income people in favor of economic development," 24 ministers on the Mississippi coast wrote in September in a letter to state leaders. "Sadly we must now bear witness to the reality that our Recovery Effort has failed to include a place at the table . . . for our poor and vulnerable."
State leaders rejected the complaints. Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, which is leading the state's recovery efforts, called the port expansion a "key piece" of the state's economic recovery and said that already-funded programs will be enough to address the state's housing needs.
"The people at this table are very compassionate about the people on the coast," he said. "We feel housing has been addressed, and it's in our plans."
Swoope said that because storm-displaced Mississippians are being accommodated by the state's housing programs, the state is comfortable asking the Department of Housing and Urban Development for permission to redirect the housing aid to the port project.
Exactly how much help residents should receive for rebuilding has been a flashpoint from the beginning of the recovery, when Louisiana and Mississippi adopted starkly divergent approaches to dispensing federal housing aid.
Louisiana leaders designed a homeowner grant program that is far broader. Essentially, any homeowner with significant hurricane damage is eligible to receive as much as $150,000 for rebuilding, less any insurance payouts received. A special provision for low-income homeowners added as much as $50,000 to the award if the damage claim was not enough to rebuild.
Mississippi's primary homeowner grant program, by contrast, was much narrower.
The program, known as Phase 1, focused only on the relatively narrow group of homeowners who lived outside the designated flood-prone areas -- and as a result did not have flood insurance -- but were flooded by Katrina.
It excluded thousands who lived in the flood zone and lacked adequate flood insurance, as well as anyone who experienced only wind damage.
Bailing them out, the argument went, would encourage homeowners to forgo insurance coverage in the future. But because low-income households were more likely to lack insurance or to be underinsured, Mississippi's exclusions fell most heavily on the poor, advocates said.
"Mississippi had to be pushed every step of the way to a compassionate position, and it's only partway to the finish line -- that's why losing this money to the port would be so wrong," said Reilly Morse, a lawyer for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a legal aid organization that has lobbied for the housing money. "It's just not compassionate to stop here when so many people still aren't cared for."
Mississippi did eventually begin compensating low-income homeowners who lacked insurance. But that program, Phase 2, limited awards to $100,000, and about 20 percent of the 11,000 applicants for that money have received checks so far.
Mississippi's program for rebuilding affordable rental properties has lagged even more. A proposed $262 million program for the owners of small rental complexes or houses, the primary type of rental on the coast, has yet to dole out any money. Another program, for low-income housing tax credits, is supposed to generate about 5,730 affordable rental units, but fewer than 1,100 have been built.
More than 20,000 rental units in Mississippi sustained major or severe damage in Katrina. The post-storm scarcity of rentals has driven prices up as much as 30 percent, making it more difficult for families in FEMA trailers to find new homes.
"Renters -- well, a lot of us sort of fell through the cracks," said Salik, the former casino housekeeper.
A widow, she quit her job after having a knee replacement years ago but still works three days a week at a mini-storage facility.
For a month after the storm, Salik lived in a tent. After a few more temporary living arrangements, she landed a FEMA camper that she has parked in her son's yard. Her son's camper flanks his house on the other side. He is still repairing the house, and though Salik had rented a house before Katrina, she expects to move in with her son when he finishes.
Like many of the residents struggling to rebuild in eastern Biloxi, Salik said she opposes spending housing aid for the port.
'Lot of people around here who need help'
"Whatever turns their crank," she said when asked about the proposal. "You know, really, there's still a lot of people around here who need help."
All along the road Salik lives on, Hoxie Street, people are struggling to get back into their homes. And while city officials have blamed the slow recovery on new FEMA guidelines that call for elevating houses by as much as 12 feet off the ground -- an expensive and sometimes impractical requirement -- those rules do not affect everyone, and most said their primary challenge is financial.
Daniel Beavers, 52, a surveyor, is rebuilding his house himself because his insurance payout and a state grant fell well short of what he has needed.
Emily Sponsler, a bartender, and her 11-year-old son are living in a FEMA trailer while they wait for their landlord to gather enough money to rebuild the house they once rented for $625 a month.
Earl Parrish, 72, a retired pipe fitter, and his wife, Betty, are still living in their grandson's home in Ocean Springs, the next town over, trying to put their Hoxie Street house back together on a limited budget.
They received about $50,000 from the housing grant program, but it was not nearly enough to complete the job. Katrina flooded their house with about six feet of water.
They have put in their own savings, and a Lutheran church group handled a lot of the labor. But their home is not quite ready for them to move in -- it has no furniture.
Like his neighbors, Earl Parrish opposes redirecting the housing aid to the port. But he seemed to regret making a complaint.
"We're grateful for what we got -- don't misunderstand," he said. "But the people around here were just working folks who didn't have much. You see all these empty lots around here? These are people who just can't afford to come back."
© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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Posted by Ana Maria at 5:52 AM
AN EDITORIAL OPINION OF THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Posted November 17, 2007
The odds of the federal government bringing fairness and stability to states' property insurance markets used to run about the same as an umbrella withstanding a hurricane.
Those odds finally are changing, however, thanks to a perfect, well, storm of:
• Insurers relentlessly abusing their policyholders.
• Some federal policymakers responding to that abuse with creative legislation.
• And some major contenders for the White House embracing the cause of reform.
The abuse is legion and growing. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians have seen their policies dropped or their premiums skyrocket in the wake of eight hurricanes from 2004 to 2005, even though Florida lawmakers reduced insurers' risk by providing them with backup insurance that protects them after catastrophic storms. Thousands more loyal policyholders from Georgia to California had their claims denied after Hurricane Katrina and calamitous fires destroyed their properties.
That hasn't been enough for President George Bush to say Washington should carry a big stick to the insurance industry. On the contrary, he favors a hands-off approach and says he'd veto legislation designed to make the industry more responsible.
The next White House occupant, though, could bring relief to millions of policy-owners by agreeing to sign two bills.
Taylor's legislation is critical
The bill from Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi would allow folks who get flood insurance through the federal government to also purchase wind policies from Washington. That's a critical fix for a system which, after Katrina, saw companies hurriedly determine that flooding, not wind, damaged homes. That finding allowed them to pocket premiums and make Washington disproportionately pay claims.
The bill from Florida Reps. Ron Klein and Tim Mahoney would allow a state like Florida with a government-sponsored insurance fund to pool, if it wished, its risk with those of other states. The risk would then be shared by private markets by the selling of long-term catastrophe bonds. Reducing the insurance industry's risk, it should allow more competition and with it, more reasonably-priced policies for homeowners.
Any savings that insurers gain, which the Treasury secretary would determine, would be passed on to consumers.
Sen. Hillary Clinton is sponsoring the Klein-Mahoney bill in the Senate, which hasn't voted on it or Mr. Taylor's bill. The House has passed both bills. Fellow White House candidate John Edwards supports Klein-Mahoney, while Rudolph Giuliani generally supports the principles in both bills. Mitt Romney says he's open to supporting the needs of homeowners. Other major candidates are saying little.
Voters wanting a say in whether Washington reforms the property insurance landscape would do well to remember that come the next election.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 5:37 AM
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Posted by Ana Maria at 6:33 AM
Friday, November 23, 2007
Fountain Baptist raises $1 million ahead of self-imposed 2-year deadline
Nov. 22, 2007
SUMMIT, N.J. - Parishioners at Fountain Baptist Church set a goal of raising $1 million in two years for communities hit by then beat their deadline by six months.
A group that tracks philanthropy says it is one of the largest amounts ever raised by a single U.S. church.
The church in this suburb made the promise in May 2006, with a self-imposed two-year deadline to raise the $1 million. The goal was reached this month.
"Anytime you help someone and know they're going to be blessed by your effort, there's no better feeling," said Michael Williams, a trustee of the church.
The Rev. J. Michael Sanders said that among other things, the money went for job training, housing and aid to churches impacted by the storm.
"After a while, people often forget certain things and people lose their commitment, their excitement or concern," Sanders said.
The Center on Philanthropy at says it's aware of only one other donation from a single church that was larger: the Los Angeles Oriental Mission Church's $3 million donation to earthquake victims in El Salvador in 2001.
Fountain Baptist Church officials said about 1,200 of the church's 1,900 members gave an average of $833. A donor who wished to remain anonymous gave $33,000, and another gave $15,000.
The Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, an African-American Baptist organization based in Washington, administered the donation. Fountain Baptist Church was started in 1897 by a group of black workers who gathered to pray together.
Some members don't think the giving is about to stop.
"There's still a lot of work that has to be done in that area," said Patrice Edwards, a church member for 17 years. "It's not like we met a goal and that's it."
© 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:15 PM
Barbara P. Fernandez for The New York Times
Charles R. Williams’s home was damaged during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
November 23, 2007
PALMETTO BAY, Fla. — Charles R. Williams stood near the glass sliding doors in his home south of Miami and pointed out parts of the ceiling and walls that had crumpled after Hurricane Andrew ripped open the roof 15 years ago.
The visible damage from that storm, one of the worst of the century, has largely disappeared. But Mr. Williams and homeowners nationwide are still feeling its effect in their pocketbooks.
The storm stunned insurance companies and, after paying out more than $22 billion in claims in inflation-adjusted dollars, they began rewriting policies to protect themselves as much as homeowners. They also developed computer programs intended to limit payouts on claims.
As a result, American homeowners are having to make do with much less coverage at steadily rising prices. In Miami and other places along the coast, insurance prices have skyrocketed, deepening the national slowdown in home sales.
The insurers say they have had to take defensive measures to stay in business and pay claims as operating costs have climbed. “If you’re being overly generous in covering risks and you’re not taking in sufficient premium, it doesn’t make business sense,” said Richard Ward, the chief executive of Lloyd’s of London, a large insurer of homes and businesses in the United States.
Yet some industry experts and consumer advocates say that efforts by the insurers to increase profits, after years of taking losses on home insurance, are shifting more of the burden of repairs and reconstruction to homeowners. The cutbacks in coverage, consumer advocates say, have contributed to the slow recovery of the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina and will most likely hamper recovery from the recent wildfires in California.
“You have a different mentality at the insurance companies,” said Andrew Barile, a consultant who has spent his life in the industry. “They no longer worry about the public service aspect. They’re concentrating on the bottom line.”
The bottom line has been good recently. The property insurance industry, including home, auto and commercial coverages, reported a record profit of $44 billion in 2005, even after paying $41 billion in damages from Katrina. The industry set another record for profit in 2006 at $64 billion. And as a second hurricane season is coming to an end without a hurricane hitting the coasts, 2007 is shaping up to be another lucrative year.
The changes in insurance coverage have been gradual. They are spelled out in the revised policies. But few homeowners read their policies, and they are often unaware that coverage has been reduced until they are faced with making repairs or rebuilding their homes. In most of the country, reduced coverage is much more of a burden than rising premiums.
Ten years ago, for example, the average cost of home insurance in America was $455 a year.
Today, it is an estimated $886 for much less insurance. Along the coastlines, annual premiums on houses routinely run into the thousands of dollars. Contending that even those premiums are not high enough for the risk they face, the insurers have canceled or declined to renew several million policies.
Two years ago, the annual cost of coverage for Mr. Williams, a retired airline pilot, and his wife, a former flight attendant, rose more than 50 percent to $2,599, for about $250,000 in coverage.
The insurers say they have tried to strike a balance that works for them and their customers. “What insurers have tried to do,” said Robert P. Hartwig, the president and chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group in New York, “is to sell policies that provide people with coverage for the vast majority of losses they are likely to suffer at an affordable price.”
“A policy that covered every peril would be unaffordable for many if not most people,” Mr. Hartwig said.
Before Andrew, the insurers sold home insurance as a loss leader and loaded the policies with lavish benefits to attract customers for their car insurance and to build up capital in their investment portfolios.
“It was a kind of avuncular, sleepy line of business,” said William R. Berkley, the chief executive of W. R. Berkley, a commercial insurer in Greenwich, Conn. “Then losses started to outstrip even what investment income might have been able to make up.”
In those days, the standard home policy promised to pay for the replacement of a destroyed home, regardless of the cost. Now most policies pay the insured value of a house and up to about an additional 25 percent — which is often not enough to rebuild, as many victims of the recent wildfires in California are discovering.
As an example, a typical policy for a home valued at $300,000 usually pays up to $375,000.
One home destroyed by the California fires, for example, was insured for $4 million. The insurer, Chubb Insurance, estimated that rebuilding would cost $6 million, or 50 percent more than it was insured for. But Chubb is one of the few insurers still offering full replacement coverage.
By issuing full replacement policies, the risks of higher reconstruction costs and underestimates on home values fell on the insurance company. Now most companies put the risk on the homeowner.
In much of Miami and along the coast, the insurance companies no longer provide coverage for the most costly threat to homes: damage from hurricanes and other high winds. Now, Florida and several other states have created state-run insurance companies to provide the coverage.
Insurers that still sell policies against wind damage impose deductibles of at least 2 percent and as much as 5 percent, which is another way of reducing coverage. On a $300,000 home with a 5 percent deductible, the homeowner pays for the first $15,000 in damage, compared with the once standard deductible of $500.
After Katrina, the reductions in coverage and the insurers’ reluctance to pay claims contributed to thousands of lawsuits and out-of-court disputes and made it difficult for many to rebuild.
Flooding was extensive along the Gulf Coast. The insurers do not cover flood damage, and their policies say so. But most policies also contain clauses that rule out payment for wind damage that occurs in combination with flooding.
Many homeowners could not accept that flooding caused by hurricane winds could cancel out the battering by high winds that their homes suffered for hours before the water arrived. And they took their insurers to court. But a federal appeals court recently ruled that the insurers were within their rights to deny payments in those circumstances.
Besides many angry customers, the insurers are facing federal and state investigations and a lawsuit by the attorney general in Louisiana into their coverage and claims-paying practices.
In a lawsuit filed this month, Charles C. Foti Jr., the attorney general in Louisiana, accused State Farm, Allstate and other insurers of using computer programs to gain “an unjust advantage over policyholders” in calculating premiums and paying claims. Private lawyers in Louisiana have filed similar lawsuits based on the testimony of former claims adjusters.
“The idea that insurers conspired to limit claims is completely without merit and unsubstantiated,” Mr. Hartwig said.
The insurers say they have resolved 99 percent of the 1.2 million claims from Katrina for damage to homes and that most people are satisfied. Most of the complaints, they say, have not been related to reductions in coverage but have resulted from expectations of homeowners that insurance policies would cover flood damage.
Many people, Mr. Hartwig said, are “searching for ways to fill the economic gap” created by Hurricane Katrina. “But,” he said, “the gap principally boils down to two words: flood insurance. If there had been 100 percent penetration of flood insurance, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Tightening coverage and claims payments have produced spectacular results for the insurers, as shown in an economic snapshot of their performance in home insurance in 1992, the year of Andrew, and in 2005, the year of Katrina.
In 1992, the companies collected $20.5 billion in premiums and reported a pretax loss of $11.8 billion on home insurance, not counting earnings from investments, according to A. M. Best, an insurance rating agency. In 2005, the home insurers took in $52.2 billion in premiums and reported a pretax loss of $643.6 million; losses had been cut to a sliver of sales. In 2005, with investment earnings of $1.9 billion, the home insurers had a net gain, before taxes, of $1.3 billion.
One measure of the new efficiency of the home insurance business is its ratio of claims expenses to premiums. In the year of Hurricane Andrew, the industry paid out $1.27 for every dollar of premium it collected. In 2005, the year of the more destructive Hurricane Katrina, the insurers paid out 71.50 cents for every dollar of premium.
“I could understand it if the insurance companies were cutting back on coverage, lowering their costs and passing on some of the savings to homeowners,” said J. Robert Hunter, the director of Insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. “But they’ve hollowed out their policies and they’re keeping the benefits for themselves.”
The insurers say that in a time of more powerful and more frequent hurricanes, they have to tailor their coverage and prices for overwhelming jolts. The huge increase in condo towers and homes along the coasts, they say, have multiplied their potential losses.
“I guarantee you,” Mr. Berkley said, “as we move down the line, the profits you’re seeing in the business today are going to take a significant hit.
“One meteorological wobble,” he said of Hurricane Dean, which tore through the Caribbean and Mexico in August, and the storm “would have hit Miami. And that’s a $100 billion hit.”
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Posted by Ana Maria at 12:45 AM
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
STAFF FILE PHOTO BY MICHAEL DEMOCKER James Arnold, curator of life support, checks on a hogfish (top) and squirrelfish he caught from the reef off Big Pine Key in Florida in 1996. FEMA will reimburse the aquarium for the cost of restocking.
By Mark Schleifstein
Posted by The Times Picayune
November 21, 2007
A senior FEMA official has reversed the denial of a request by the Aquarium of the Americas to be reimbursed $99,766 for replacing fish killed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina.
Federal Emergency Management Agency regional officials had denied the request after estimating the cost of getting replacements for the 3,000 dead fish from commercial sources would be $616,849. FEMA officials determined the fish were "one of a kind" items similar to lost works of art and declared them ineligible for reimbursement.
The aquarium appealed the initial denial, reducing its request for reimbursement to the actual costs involved in its own expeditions to capture fish and of collecting fish donated by other aquariums.
FEMA denied the revised request for the same reasons, a decision affirmed earlier this year by FEMA Regional Administrator William Peterson.
But in a Nov. 20 letter, FEMA Assistant Administrator Carlos Castillo said the fish being replaced were "non-exotic" and should be considered contents eligible for replacement, just like furniture.
"The applicant has demonstrated that it was more cost effective to catch the replacement fish than to purchase the fish commercially," Castillo wrote, and is eligible for regular and overtime labor costs associated with the fish collections.
"We were expecting a good outcome on this because it made so much sense," said Audubon Nature Institute Chief Operating Officer Dale Stastny.
He said the money would plug part of the hole in the aquarium's budget caused by the Katrina-related losses, and the year-long period the attraction stayed closed to the public.
"Actually, right now, we're out chasing stingrays," he said.
John Hewitt, director of husbandry for Audubon, recently visited Landry's Restaurants' Downtown Aquarium in Houston to pick up some donated rays, and this week was at the Virginia Institute for Marine Sciences in Gloucester Point, Va. to collect several more, Stastny said.
FEMA spokesman Bob Josephson said it will still take a few weeks to complete the paperwork involved in transferring the money to the aquarium. FEMA must rewrite the request forms based on Castillo's ruling, then transfer the money to the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which will then transfer it to the aquarium.
Josephson said the successful appeal shows FEMA's careful review of damage requests by local agencies is working.
"It's there to ensure that everything is looked at and we provide the maxium funding eligible," he said. "The important thing is that we got it right in the end."
Mark Schleifstein can be reached at email@example.com or (504)¤826-3327.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:43 PM
FEMA Admits Fishing Expedition Paid Off, Relents on $100K Reimbursement to La. Aquarium
By JOHN MORENO
The Associated Press
November 21, 2007
Reversing a decision that some found bureaucratically absurd, the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted $99,766 Wednesday to an aquarium that saved taxpayers a bundle by catching replacements for the fish it lost to Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA had said that the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas needed to buy the fish from commercial vendors, a method the agency said would cost $616,849 but would comply with disaster aid laws.
When aquarium staff went out and caught them for $99,766, FEMA denied their petition for reimbursement, though the move had saved half a million dollars.
The aquarium appealed, and the dispute dragged on for 17 months until Carlos Castillo, FEMA's assistant director of disaster assistance, notified the aquarium in a letter Wednesday that the federal agency would pick up the tab after all for the aquarium's catch of 1,681 fish from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys and Bahamas.
"We felt confident that our appeal would go through. But of course, it's a nice Thanksgiving," said Melissa Lee, a spokeswoman for the aquarium. "We'll be able to use this to make things better at the aquarium."
A linchpin of the city's tourism-based economy, the aquarium is seeing only 70 percent of its pre-storm visitors and has laid off 80 percent of its staff.
FEMA initially denied the aquarium's petition because it believed catching new fish improved the collection. Under federal law, facilities cannot be improved upon with federal money, only restored to their pre-disaster condition.
State officials say the majority of 35,000 Katrina rebuilding projects have been stalled in strict interpretations of the same law, generating mountains of paperwork in which FEMA takes stock of damages as minute as the number of pencils lost at a school.
Bob Josephson, FEMA's director of external affairs in Louisiana, said the reversal is proof that the process works.
"That's why we have a formalized appeal process, to ensure that the applicants are getting a first and second look and we are providing all the disaster assistance available," said Josephson, who was first alerted to the aquarium case by The Associated Press. "I think were always looking for cost-effective measures to save taxpayer's money."
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Copyright © 2007 ABC News Internet Ventures
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:31 PM
By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
November 20, 2007
Construction work continues on the 17th Street Canal near the levee wall that failed during Katrina and flooded parts of New Orleans. Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images
NEW ORLEANS — The project to rebuild this region's critical levee system is in need of some good old Louisiana clay.
But a clay shortage — and a subsequent rise in its price — may slow progress in rebuilding the levees in and around New Orleans.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. agency in charge of the levee project, will need an estimated 145 million cubic yards of clay to fortify 350 miles of earthen levees around the greater New Orleans area, said Soheila Holley, a senior program manager with the corps charged with finding the clay.
In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers has only acquired 20 million cubic yards, she said. An additional 50 million cubic yards are being tested.
"This is one of the most complex issues of the hurricane protection system," Holley said, noting that Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes are nearly out of quality clay, which keeps water from penetrating levees.
Importing clay from neighboring states would add costly hauling fees, she said.
Levee and flood wall breaches were the main causes of the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans following Katrina. The corps has begun work on a $7.5 billion, 100-year hurricane protection system that includes more than 300 projects, such as reinforcing levees, installing new floodgates and closing harmful canals. A 100-year hurricane is a storm with a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year.
Though it's still too early to tell what impact it may have overall, a lack of good clay could potentially impede the project's progress. "There's not enough land in the vicinity," she said. "We need a lot of material, it has to be good, and it has to be at a reasonable cost. Those are our current challenges."
Both the reddish-orange Pleistocene clay and gunmetal blue Holocene clay are found along the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana and both could make strong levees if mixed properly, said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California-Berkley who has led studies of the levees.
The clay is found about 20 feet under backyards and fields near the riverbank, pushed there by the Mississippi over millenniums, Bea said.
The corps acquired as much of the clay as possible immediately after Katrina. But as the need for the clay increased, a new breed of entrepreneurs, known as "clay brokers," began acquiring properties from landowners and selling the clay to the corps, often at increased prices, Bea said.
DRC, a Mobile, Ala.-based construction management firm, has acquired around 10,000 acres in Louisiana containing 20 million cubic yards of clay since Katrina, said Chuck Prieur, a program manager with the firm. DRC has sold the clay for levee construction since winning a contract late last year, he said. There were 20 other firms vying for that contract, Prieur said.
"A lot of people are getting into the business of selling clay," he said. "It's a commodity we're looking to sell. The opportunity is there for potentially a good profit."
Clay prices soared to around $80 a cubic yard immediately after the hurricane, then settled to $20 to $30 a cubic yard this year, Prieur said. The clay sold for around $10 a cubic yard pre-Katrina, Bea said.
For now, the Corps of Engineers is trying to deal directly with landowners and avoid the brokers to keep costs down, Holley said. But as clay becomes scarcer, the agency may have to go to market for the firm earth, she said.
"We'll avoid that to the point we can avoid it," Holley said. "But there may be a point where we'll have to."
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:39 AM
Posted by NOLA.com November 20, 2007
Three Democratic presidential candidates Tuesday chided the Commission on Presidential Debates for not selecting New Orleans for one of four nationally televised debates next year.
Meanwhile, amid speculation that partisan politics dealt New Orleans out of the mix, the commission's co-chairman denied that the decision was based on anything but the merits of the 16 cities that applied to host the debates.
Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee, brushed aside speculation that Republicans vetoed New Orleans as a presidential debate backdrop for fear that the Bush administration's hapless response to Hurricane Katrina would reflect poorly on them.
"That's stupid," Fahrenkopf said. "This isn't a bunch of fly-by-night politicians making these decisions. We don't play games."
New Orleans, the acknowledged sentimental favorite in the competition to host one of four debates in 2008, lost out to Oxford, Miss.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Hempstead, N.Y. St. Louis was chosen to host a vice presidential debate.
The decision prompted criticism from three Democratic presidential candidates. Five Democrats and two Republicans running for president had urged the commission to schedule one of the debates in New Orleans.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said the commission "missed a golden opportunity to show New Orleans that the entire country is committed to its recovery," while Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said the event would have provided "an economic boon to the city" and reminded Americans "about the unmet promise to rebuild and restore the Gulf Coast."
Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who launched his presidential bid in New Orleans, urged the panel to reconsider.
"As a nation, all of us have a responsibility to do everything we can to help rebuild this great city, and holding national events in this city, like a presidential debate, will help New Orleans move forward," Edwards said.
Private group, private files
A day after the decision was announced, questions continued to swirl about why post-Katrina New Orleans -- which successfully played host to the 2007 Sugar Bowl, has staged numerous conventions and was chosen as the locale for the 2008 NBA All-Star Game -- didn't make the cut.
Contributing to the confusion is the secretive way the commission operates. It provides no formal explanation about why certain cities are chosen and others are not, leaving the losing bidders to speculate about how their applications were deficient.
Asked whether the commission would be willing to make public its evaluation of New Orleans' bid, Fahrenkopf declined.
"We're a private group. We're not going to produce our files," he said.
The only document made available Tuesday was released by Anne Milling, founder of the hurricane recovery group Women of the Storm, which spearheaded the debate application. It was a Sept. 24 e-mail from Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, which indicated that the panel was concerned that promises made by the city would be kept.
"Important questions have arisen concerning the bid from New Orleans," Brown wrote. The e-mail went on to say that given the "unique configuration" of the New Orleans bid, the commission wanted to know which organizations would "accept legal responsibility for performing which tasks."
Norman Francis, president of Xavier University, said Fahrenkopf gave him a specific reason for the denial Monday before the decision was announced. Francis said he was told that New Orleans' primary arena for the debate, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, lacked the necessary technological capabilities. Francis, whose school would have been one of four colleges hosting the event, dismissed the suggestion as nonsense.
Milling said she was told by the other commission co-chairman, Paul Kirk Jr., that the city had not recovered sufficiently from Hurricane Katrina to stage the event.
Kirk, former head of the Democratic National Committee, didn't return phone calls, but denied that account in an interview in The New York Times. Milling on Tuesday stood by her version of the conversation.
The paucity of details led to speculation about the reasons for the snub. Francis suggested that the city was too dramatic a setting for members of the commission who may have been nervous that scenes of destruction and despair more than two years after Hurricane Katrina would be embarrassing.
"There is no rational earthly reason that we weren't ready to host a presidential debate," Francis said. "If the word was that New Orleans wasn't ready, that's not the issue. They weren't ready for us."
No disrespect intended
Fahrenkopf said the decision not to pick New Orleans "should not be interpreted as an attack" on the city or its "ability to handle an event."
He could point to no specific criterion -- facilities, transportation, hotels, communications -- that the city would be unable to provide.
Like Fahrenkopf, Mike McCurry, another commissioner and the former spokesman for President Clinton, brushed aside suggestions that politics played a role in the decision.
McCurry, who has rebuilt houses in Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward since the 2005 storm, said "so many of us had sympathy for New Orleans. We really wanted to make it work."
He said there was "no stronger advocate at the beginning than Frank" Fahrenkopf, who organized the 1988 Republican presidential nominating convention in the city.
"At the end of the day it's not about giving community a boost, but letting every American voter see the debate," McCurry said. "Fundamental things have to come together and they weren't coming together in New Orleans."
He added, "Everyone (on the commission) said we will actively solicit New Orleans four years from now."
Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7817.
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Posted by Ana Maria at 7:33 AM
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
VIA EMAIL AND FACSIMILE
The Wall Street Journal
200 Liberty Street
New York, NY 10281
Re: Your Editorial of November 15,2007, "Mississippi Hoods"
To the Editor:
The Wall Street Journal should immediately retract a false statement regarding my client attorney Richard F. Scruggs contained in its November 15,2007 editorial entitled "Mississippi Hoods. "
The editorial purports to recount events leading up to a lawsuit brought by E.A. Renfroe & Co., Inc. against their former employees Cori Rigsby and Kerri Rigsby. Renfroe sued the Rigsbys after they went public with evidence they believe shows that State Far (one of Renfroe's largest clients) wrongfully denied insurance coverage to victims of Huricane Katrina.
The Journal asserts that "Mr. Scruggs convinced two Renfroe employees-sisters Cori Rigsby Moran and Kerri Rigsby-to steal documents to aid his civil litigation against State Far."
This statement is false. First, it is not true that Mr. Scruggs "convinced" the Rigsbys to copy State Farm's documents. Many months before they first met Mr. Scruggs, the Rigsbys independently concluded that State Farm was treating its policyholders unfairly, and they began collecting evidence of what they observed. Indeed, Cori Rigsby has testified that she and Kerri Rigsby decided "on our own" to copy a batch of documents in June 2006. Mr. Scruggs commends the Rigsbys for their courage and determination.
Second, neither of the Rigsbys ever "stole" any documents. As they have testified repeatedly, they copied documents evidencing what they saw as State Farm's unfair practices, but they did not take original State Farm documents. The Rigsbys had the right to make such copies to provide them to law enforcement and others with an interest in investigating and correcting the fraud they believe has occurred.
The Journal's November 15, 2007 editorial concludes with the line "You can't make this stuff up." Yet, with the respect to the above statement, it appears that the Journal did just that. Accordingly, I insist that the Journal issue an immediate retraction.
Very truly yours,
John W. Keker
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Posted by Ana Maria at 11:28 AM
The Army Corps of Engineers test canal pumps in New Orleans in August.
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- A system of floodgates and pumps built since Hurricane Katrina to help alleviate flooding in several New Orleans neighborhoods may not be as much help as authorities first said.
The Army Corps of Engineers released flood risk maps on a block-by-block basis on June 20, but didn't include some technical data, preventing independent assessments of the accuracy of the maps.
The maps showed that the improvements made to the city canals' drainage systems would reduce flooding during a major storm by about 5.5 feet in Lakeview and nearby neighborhoods. The maps were based on a storm that has the likelihood of occurring at least once in 100 years.
But in a report released November 7, Corps scientists estimated that the actual benefit the system would provide would be just 6 inches. [Emphasis added.]
The discrepancy was tucked into the voluminous report's appendices, and neither the Corps nor the scientists hired to conduct the study brought the changes to the public's attention when the report was released. It wasn't until New Orleans television station WWL-TV asked an engineer involved in the assessment about the discrepancy that it became known.
"We've made some corrections," the engineer, Ed Link, told The Associated Press on Friday night.
Link said the mistakes were apparently made in the calculations for two sub-basins that include Lakeview and nearby neighborhoods. In one, a minus sign was used instead of a plus sign.
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Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane and levee expert with Louisiana State University, said the mistakes are the latest example of sloppiness and a lack of scientific peer review in Corps work.
"It's people's lives we're playing with and all we're getting is fuzzy science," van Heerden said.
Walter Baumy, a chief Corps engineer in New Orleans, said he was unfamiliar with the mistakes, but said, "I wouldn't contest what Dr. Link says."
But he added that the floodgates installed on the canals have given New Orleans "far superior" protection.
Donald Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, said in a statement he was only informed of the errors in the maps on Friday night.
"Our team immediately contacted Dr. Link to express my strong concerns and my expectations on how the public will be better informed in the future. While the news is disappointing, it is an indication that the ongoing review process of the draft materials is working as intended."
Other Corps officials would not comment on the mistakes or did not return telephone calls.
Tami Do, 46, said she and her family rebuilt in Lakeview because they felt the Corps was doing a good job. Now, she said, her faith is shaken.
"I have confidence in what they're doing all along the levee, with the pumps. That's one of the reasons we're back here," she said. "But these kinds of things put doubt back in your mind. If they got this wrong, what else have they gotten wrong?"
Her husband, Tommy Do, wondered if the mistake would mean an increase in insurance rates, or perhaps a change in building requirements.
"Now all these people who have built these $300,000, $400,000 homes should be higher?" Tommy Do said. "That's not good. We're going to have to sue the Corps again!"
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Posted by Ana Maria at 6:07 AM