Feds still taking heat on Gulf Coast
Editor’s note: Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and reporter Scott Condon returned for a third time to Pearlington., Miss., last week. This is the last installment in a five-day series looking at the ongoing recovery of the community, which the Roaring Fork Valley “adopted” after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.
PEARLINGTON, Miss. ” Residents here are fond of saying that surviving the fierce wind and surging water of Hurricane Katrina was nothing compared to dealing with the government and insurance companies.
Betty Arnold’s home of 30 years was destroyed in the storm. She hasn’t started rebuilding because she is determined to fight her insurance company, State Farm, for what she believes she is owed.
“A good neighbor?” Arnold said, referring to the insurance giant’s motto. “Lord help me if I had a bad neighbor.”
Homeowners said they received modest payoffs on their homeowner’s insurance because the companies claim most damage came from the water that swamped the town. Most people weren’t covered for that type of loss.
Arnold remains in a small trailer supplied by the Federal Management Emergency Agency while she dukes it out with State Farm. She’s been in the trailer for about 18 months.
John and Evelyn Carver lost their longtime home and received $7,500 from their insurer for the contents. FEMA awarded them an additional $23,000. They used the money to buy construction materials to get started on a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house for their extended family, but it’s not nearly enough to cover expenses.
“We’re done spent out,” John Carver said. “If you waited on the government here, you’d be waiting from now on.”
Sam Danese said State Farm raised his rates so high six years ago that he decided to go without coverage. He figures he saved $25,000 in premiums that he is able to plow back into his heavily-damaged home in Oak Harbor subdivision.
It’s ironic to think that he would have received next to nothing from the company if he had continued to pay these last six years, he said.
While Danese didn’t hold insurers in high regard, his disdain was obvious for the state and federal governments. They have taken too long getting money into the hands of the needy, he said.
Not everyone interviewed shared that opinion. Many people were living in tents and desperately needed a FEMA trailer in the months after the storm.
But people seemed universally critical of the federal government red tape that prevents people from being compensated for part of their losses. Numerous people said they filled out reams of paper work to apply for a special grant from FEMA. No one in the community has collected yet through this latest program, but answers are expected soon. Most residents thought they were be eligible for around $100,000.
Ginny Flock, another resident of Oak Harbor, didn’t express the anger that Danese did, but she questioned how a federal government could spend so much money fighting a war in Iraq when its own residents need so much help.
She stressed that she wasn’t saying the U.S. shouldn’t have a presence overseas, but it had to set priorities.
“It’s time we look more at our own country for a change,” Flock said.
Kim Jones, the fire chief for the West Hancock Fire and Rescue in Pearlington, has experienced nightmares with both his personal insurer and FEMA, he said.
His homeowners insurance will soar from $1,900 to $6,000. That is too big of a chunk of change for many residents of the impoverished area, he said.
The lack of an insurance payoff combined with prospects for a costly premium have slowed his family’s progress in rebuilding. So he and several other firefighters lived on the fire department property ” until FENA repossessed seven trailers because they said the firefighters didn’t qualify.
The Army Corp. of Engineers provided a double-wide trailer that sits behind the fire house, and the volunteers scrounged up another for the site. Nine people are crammed into the two trailers.
It’s not only the soaring cost of insurance that makes it tough for some to rebuild. FEMA initially said people would have to build their first floors 25 feet above sea level. It eventually reduced the standard to 13 feet.
The county government wants Pearlington to form a special taxing district for sanitation rather than rely on old, sometimes failing septic systems. Many residents are wary of the additional expense at a time when so many of them struggle to come up with the funds to rebuild.
Just as the government is universally vilified, Pearlington residents share praise for volunteer groups that tackle the vast majority of the home building.
“It’s the volunteers, the different church groups and the illegal Mexicans that have brought Pearlington back. It’s not the government,” Danese said.