Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Testimony Against the Insurance Industry

Today I addressed the Louisiana Senate Insurance Committee. I heard the stories of dozens of people in similar and worse situations than us. In the end I think it was a huge victory for the people and a major slap in the face for the insurance industry. SB 620, which increased the penalty from 25% to 50% of the claim, and also added attorney's fees to the penalty, passed the House Committee and now looks likely to be passed by the Entire House. So that means I won't be hiring a lawyer to file our case until this becomes law. Also HB 510 passed the Senate. This meant that insurance companies had to pay what they covered even if something happened later that they didn't cover. For example, one guy's house was destroyed by a tornado, and a week later the ruins of the house flooded. His insurance company denied the wind claim because of this. Anyway, I'm so glad I testified, and I think it was a real victory for people like me who are being screwed by the insurance industry. I wrote the following speech yesterday, though I didn't look at it while I testified because I wanted to speak from my heart. But it was fairly close to the text, and here it is:

First, I would like to thank the Chair of this committee, Representative Carter, and the rest of you distinguished Representatives for your time today. I know you are busy, but what I have to say today I feel is important. And I would like to add that this is the first time in my life that I have addressed a legislative body. I'm pretty excited about that. But what brings me here today is the personal unfortunate odyssey that my family and I have suffered through because of the bad faith of Allstate Insurance over the past nine months.

My wife and I purchased our first house about five years ago. We moved from Jerusalem to New Orleans when I accepted a position to teach Theology at Xavier University. We were very attracted by what New Orleans and Louisiana had to offer. We were also committed to making New Orleans a better place to live. To reach this end, both my wife and I went in to education. She is a school teacher in the New Orleans Public Schools, where our children also attend. Our home is in Mid-City, a great neighborhood in the heart of the city. We also got involved in neighborhood organizations, and volunteered much of our time at worthwhile charities such as Habitat for Humanity. In short, we were doing great. We were doing jobs that we loved, working to make New Orleans a better place, and at the same time we were building up equity in our beautiful 100-year-old home. However, our dreams were literally blown and washed away on August 29th of last year.

The winds of hurricane Katrina racked our two-story house. I was inside the house during the storm and it was like being on a large boat rocking back and forth from the wind gusts. Then flood waters covered the first three feet of our house and they remained at least 10 days damaging the foundation and piers so now our house leans even more. Right now as I speak our home is in danger of falling onto our neighbor'’s house. We have been told by several experts not to gut the house, as if we did, it would likely fall over. Because our schools reopened in December, we moved back to New Orleans. Allstate kept delaying our claim and not returning our phone calls and letters. Because we weren'’t assured Additional Living Expenses, we moved back into our racked house and have spent the past five months living upstairs where it didn'’t flood. And we waited, and waited, and waited on Allstate.

We filed our claim for wind and flood two days after Katrina. We expected things to move along quickly, but we were wrong. It took us more than eight months to hear back from Allstate, and when we did it was horrible news. They are denying coverage for the structural damage of our house based on a fraudulent engineer's report submitted by Haag Engineering. This report actually claims that the winds of Hurricane Katrina were not strong enough to rack a house, and they even seem to question whether or not our house flooded, even though the flood line is still visible nearly 3 feet above our floors. At one point the report even refers to our house as "the Wilson house," which shows the same outfit is denying many similar claims. They claim that our house was racked before Katrina, ignoring the broken boards on the front of our house showing clear and recent separation. Thankfully, I have extensive photo and video documentation that thoroughly addresses every point made by these so-called engineers. Moreover, my wife and I have kept an extensive journal documenting every phone conversation, unreturned calls and letters, and interactions we have had with Allstate. I want you to know that a wind adjustor visited our house for the first time just two weeks ago. We recently filed a complaint with the LA Insurance Commissioner James Donelon. We are in the process of getting an attorney to take Allstate to court. We believe that our situation exemplifies the bad faith with which Allstate and other insurance companies are acting towards the citizens of Louisiana. In short, we are fighting back and have the truth and extensive documentation on our side, and I'm confident that in the end through the court system we'’ll prevail. But I think that Allstate is counting on many to not fight back. If my mother was in our situation, for example, I imagine she would just give up and not fight, because fighting Allstate has taken an incredible amount of time and energy. I have published several books in my career, and honestly dealing with Allstate after Katrina has taken much more time and effort. I wish I could get back to writing books.

When we purchased the house we entered a legal agreement with Allstate, and they insured our house for $160,000 against wind and flood damage. Now Allstate has violated that contract, and my family and I are in dire financial straits. We bought the house for $157,000. Before Katrina it was appraised at $215,000. Because of the current structural damage, it has been appraised at $30,000. In short, we owe $145,000 on our mortgage, and own a house now worth $30,000. We don'’t want to declare bankruptcy, though it might be the most sensible course of action. We have decided to rebuild, as we believe that the great city of New Orleans should be rebuilt. Even though we have accepted an SBA loan that likely has enough money to fix the house, in the end to get our house to where it was before Katrina, we would have two mortgages totaling $300,000, and our house redone isn'’t worth that even in the current inflated market.

In short I want you to know that there are many people like me, who were responsible, and careful, and civic minded, and we had insurance. But when the worst disaster in this country's history struck and severely damaged our insured home, Allstate purposefully waited eight months, and then told us that our insurance was basically worthless. They ought to be forced to live up to their end of our contract. I want you to know that my case is but one of many. Allstate, like the insurance industry after Katrina and Rita, is at times acting unethically, dishonestly, unjustly, and their actions are in violation of the laws of this great state. Thank you for your time as well as your attention, and I hope that you'’ll vote on bills such as SB 620 with people such as me, my wife, and our two children in mind. Thank you.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Katrina Insurance Victim Fights Back Against Allstate

Back in September 2005 we filed a claim with Allstate that Hurricane Katrina racked our house. Eight months later, they denied that part of the claim based on a fraudulent engineer's report by Haag Engineering Co. that both ignored the most obvious evidence and even claimed that the hurricane wasn't windy enough to cause structural damage. Now it's time to fight back.

First I filed a detailed complaint with James Donelan, the Commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Insurance. I carefully documented in writing and pictures how every part of the the engineer's report was either mistaken or fraudulent, and I also submitted a detailed timeline of our interactions with Allstate. I've been told that we are an incredible example of an insurance company acting in bad faith, though unfortunately, I am realizing that we are just one of thousands of examples.

Second, I've spoken to several attorneys and public adjustors about taking Allstate to court. Also I've contacted several people through this blog. Paige Rosato, an attorney in Mandeville, is one of the people leading the fight against the insurance industry. It seems that our state legislature has been in the pockets of the insurance lobby. So on May 31st I will be going to Baton Rouge to testify to the House on Bill 620. This legislation, put forward by Senator Murray, would increase the penalty if insurance companies don't pay claims in a timely manner. By law insurance companies are supposed to respond to claims within 30 days. As it now stands with Allstate, it would cost about $100,000 to fix the structural damage of my house. Since they denied my claim, I'll have to take them to court. If we won in court, which I'm confident we would, my attorney fees would be approximately 25-35 percent of the settlement. So I would still have to come up with the funds to finish the work. It doesn't sound fair to me, and of course the insurance agency is fighting this and other similar bills ferociously. They claim that it would drive insurers away from Louisiana. The insurance industry had record proffits last year, even with the hurricanes, so to me it seems this is purely greed driven. And the entire country had better be scared about what is happening down here, because if your city floods, burns, or is hit by a tornado or whatever, many of you will have to deal with this corrupt industry.

I would encourage anyone else in a similar situation to come to Baton Rouge that day as well. At the very least, let your state and federal elected leaders know about what is happening to their constituents.

I'm also going to make my case as public as possible to inform people about the fraud taking place down here. So Allstate, I'm down, but not broken, and I've got a score to settle with you.

Later note: I just recorded my story on the Allstate Insurance Sucks website. I also wrote detailed letters to each of the state senators and representatives who serve on Insurance Committees. I'll testify before the House for SB 620 on May 31st.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Katrina Tears & My Vote for Mayor

I cried daily when I was a baby due to colic. I didn't cry much growing up, and I probably didn't cry even once from the age of 18 on, at least until this whole Katrina thing ruined my tearless streak. I cried hard on the morning of September 2nd 2005 as I lay in my bed in flooded New Orleans and listened to Garland Robinette interview Mayor Nagin. It had been five days and no help had come to the city. The day before I swam to Xavier and witnessed several dead bodies, and thousands of people in need of help. It was incredibly frustrating. During the radio interview, both Robinette and Nagin cried to the point that they were speechless. It was very emotional for me, and out poured my tears. Since then I cry quite a bit. Usually I don't cry alone. For example, when Springsteen sang "When the Saints Go Marching In" at Jazzfest, everyone around me was blubbering too. But sometimes I cry for the strangest reasons. I got a few tears in my eyes last night as I was watching the Mayoral debate. It's come down to Nagin vs. Landrieu. In the end I think I am going to vote for Landrieu, but it is hard for me. I think Nagin is a good person, and his heart is in the right place. He wasn't corrupt, and I grew a bond with him as people attacked him for his tirade against the lack of response from the federal and state governments. I also don't hold anything against him for the infamous Chocolate City rant. People who aren't here can't begin to understand how difficult life is, and the stress can add up and manifest itself in strange ways. But I think a change in municipal leadership would send a message to congress that we need help and we are through with business as usual. For me it's as if Nagin is the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. So I'm sorry that I'm not voting for him. The race is predicted to be very close. I think either candidate would do a pretty good job, but I'm going to have to vote for Landrieu.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Allstate Calls Me A Liar

Today was a bad day, one of the worst in my life. We didn't receive any mail for two weeks, and then this afternoon we got about a month's worth. Included in the giant pile of overdue bills was the long awaited report from the engineers that Allstate hired. Hooray! I thought... The hurricane hit New Orleans August 29th, so that makes it 8 months and 6 days later. Our lives had been on hold waiting for this report. I opened the letter anxiously, thankful to finally have it in hand, thinking now that our drawn out problems with our insurance company would be over at last. Instead, it turns out that Allstate is denying our claim.

Let me be clear. Our home was insured for approximately $150,000 for wind (homeowners) and the same for flood. Allstate has already granted us 60,000 for the flood damage. The bigger problem is that the winds of Katrina racked our house. Moreover, the 3 weeks of saltwater did severe damage to our piers and that caused the house to lean even more. It will cost about $80,000 to straighten our house, and then on top of that, another $80,000 to redo the walls, electricity, floor, cabinets, and all the other damage from the flood. Of course these are estimates. Probably these estimates are low, because prices rise all the time here, and good luck finding a contractor. We thought for sure that Allstate would lie and claim that the flood caused our home to lean. That's because flood is backed with federal money, and so even though the wind was the major force that racked our house, Allstate would claim, we thought, that flood caused our home to lean, and we were fine with that. Pay us to fix the place, and if they could save some money by saying it was flood and not wind, and so be it.

But now Allstate is claiming that our house was structurally damaged before Katrina. I was here during Katrina, and being in the house was like being on a large boat. It moved considerably. So Allstate is claiming that I am a liar.

The Allstate engineer's report begins with a long segment explaining that the winds from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were not powerful enough to cause a house to lean. Interestingly, this engineering firm hired by Allstate must be denying many similar claims, because in the lengthy section in which they explain the moderate nature of this storm, they refer to our residence as the "Wilson house." Oops! If anyone thinks I am a liar, as does Allstate, I would invite you to come to my neighborhood to witness many homes that are leaning the same direction as ours. For Christ's sake, take a look at the Superdome or any damaged building here and tell me, as these Allstate engineers are doing, that our home was not damaged by wind. Thanfully I shot some video footage that shows the incredible winds from Hurricane (sic!) Katrina.

Then they go on to say that our house was "out-of-plumb" prior to Katrina. They say the evidence from this comes primarily from the front door. To be able to open and shut our front door, back in October, I had to saw off a large portion of its corners. To get inside our house initially I had to kick the heck out of it just so it would open. So now our door is not a perfect rectangle. The door was obviously cut recently, so it as if they had their minds made up that they would deny our claim before entering our house and they were searching for evidence, weak as it is. They also say that upstairs they noticed windows that were not plumb and had been painted since being out of plumb. I invite anyone to find a 100-year-old house with perfectly symetrical 100-year-old windows.

It's hard not to get emotional with this. I am so tempted to write the engineers working for Allstate and tell them my honest opinion about the merit of their work. Similarly, I would love to write the engineers responsible for inspecting the levees. Allstate's engineers wanted nothing to do with me from the moment they were invited inside of my home. If they would have asked me about the door I could have explained it to them. But I don't think they were after the truth. I wonder if they sleep well at night thinking they are stopping fraudulent people like me from collecting on unjust insurance claims? I'll bet they are paid well. I'm sure Allstate will make a fortune by denying claims like ours, thinking people will just give up. God knows that life in general in New Orleans is difficult enought to make people give up. And you know, I would gladly have left the house in the same condition it was after Katrina, with mold and garbage all over the place without cutting the doors. But because we had insurance, FEMA would not pay our rent to live elsewhere. So we were forced financially to move back to this moldy and racked property. To make it livable for us and our kids Therese and I cleaned it extensively and made it so we could open and shut our front door. These engineers also had the nerve to claim that our original cypress floors didn't look extensively ruined; therefore, how could the structure be damaged from the flood? They also included a picture of a pier supporting our house that was in good shape. But they could have easily taken a picture of the many piers next to the solid one that had crumbled as the salt water sitting there for three weeks destroyed the mortar.

So now our complicated lives get more complicated. Tomorrow I try to find a public adjustor to take our case, and we have to hire an engineer and go to court to fight this mess. There is plenty of evidence, of course, that I am not a liar, and that our house was racked due to the winds of Hurricane (sic!) Katrina. We have pictures just months before the storm of a straight house. I miss that home. We have hundreds of pictures after Katrina of a racked house, with fresh cracks in the wood from separation. These Allstate engineers actually claim that the many recent cracks inside our house were caused by electricity being out for "at least three weeks following the hurricane. It is common for expansion and contraction of framing and finish materials to result in cracks like these due to temperature and humidity variations." That must be have been what happened to the Superdome roof as well. Forget all the video documenting that Hurricane Katrina was actually pretty damn windy. Go figure.

We have extensively documented that Allstate has been acting in bad faith. We have recorded in writing every phone call, or more accurately, every unreturned phone call we have made with Allstate. We have had to date six different claims adjusters assigned to our case. Some seem like nice enough people. In fact, I think our Allstate agent, Toni, is one of the finest people I have ever met. But they are representing a corporation that is treating us like crap on purpose to make more money. It all makes me wonder why we even had insurance. If we didn't, the government would be paying for us to live somewhere else right now. Allstate was one of the insurance companies that used Katrina as an excuse not to insure people in the Gulf Coast, even though they made record profits in 2005. According to Allstate VP Fred Cripe: "If last year's hurricane season had occurred 10 years ago, it would have been devastating for the company. Last year, it was merely disappointing." I'll tell you what is disappointing: it is having Allstate Insurance. It sucks!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Stoking the Fire

My schedule is out of wack. Courses for the Fall 2005 semester just ended last week. And tomorrow I begin teaching for the Spring 2006 semester. Teaching is a difficult job, and I don't feel like I was able to muster the energy and enthusiasm I'll need to be an effective instructor for this upcoming semester. The few days I had off were spent trying to get a handle on Katrina related issues such as insurance and lining up engineers to see if they can straiten our house. Other teachers at Xavier look more run down than usual, and the students looked burned out as well. We're facing a semester where we'll probably have to evacuate at least once due to storms in the gulf, and we're trying to fit in 15 weeks of material in just 13, and besides, summers in New Orleans are damn humid, too humid to do hard work. It's the Big Easy after all. So hopefully in the next few hours I'll find a muse.

Qatar's Gift

My university, Xavier, is getting 17.5 million dollars from Qatar. Thanks, or perhaps I should say shukran aktir Qatar. Five million will be spent on new scholarships, and the rest will be for a 60,000 square foot expansion of the College of Pharmacy. Qatar is donating a total of 60 million to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. Several other Gulf Nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also come through financially. More information is in this NY Times article, and the local paper covers it here. Thankfully, they are donating the funds directly, without using an intermediate agency such as the Red Cross. As I understand it, Xavier has not received even one dollar from the U.S. government. This country needs to do some serious reflection and soul searching in my opinion.