Frustration mounts as Katrina's survivors await insurance payouts

Associated Press
Published November 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Once a proud businessman, William Dwyer sits in a parking lot these days begging his insurer for money.

The 57-year-old retiree said he was quick to file claims after Hurricane Katrina severely damaged his home in suburban Slidell, La. An adjuster inspected the property about four weeks after the storm, but after four more weeks Dwyer said he has heard nothing about compensation aside from a cash advance for living expenses.

"I had to beg and beg and beg," he said. "Each time I call they refuse to say anything. They don't return our phone calls. It's been horrible. We lost everything we had."

After evacuating around the country, survivors of Katrina and Hurricane Rita are on a new journey to prove their losses so they can rebuild tattered lives. Until those claims are resolved, hundreds of thousands of lives and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast are on hold.

"You can stand in my living room, or my den, and count the stars," said Emmanuel Branch, 50, a teacher who lost his job when the school system collapsed. "What we do or won't do will be dictated by insurance."

Unable to get a response over the phone, Branch drove three hours to the state capital to get an interim payment.

Branch is dealing with Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., a state-run insurer of last resort for homeowners in high-risk areas unable to get policies from private companies.

Citizens is hiring more staff and selling bonds to help cover an expected $900-million in Katrina claims and costs.

Insured losses caused by Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are about $34-billion, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

The Louisiana Department of Insurance has received 1,367 complaints about insurance companies since the storm.

"What I keep telling everybody is you have to remind yourself you're dealing with the largest natural disaster in American history," said Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley. "It's not going to be pretty and it's not going to be fast."

State insurance departments around the country offered to send help to respond to the complaints, but Wooley said until recently it was hard to find hotel rooms for them. Adjusters had the same problem, he said.

Insurers say they're processing claims as fast as they can, but evaluating the damage to each home is time-consuming.

"We have people working 15 to 16 hours per day, seven days per week," said George Forbes, unit manager with St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc., who dealt with Dwyer's claim this week.

Dwyer's claim will be processed after a report from an adjuster is verified, Forbes said.

In the meantime, Dwyer and his wife live with friends and think of leaving the area.

"Just somewhere, where they don't have too many hurricanes," he said.