Thursday, August 31, 2006

Our Crooked House on CNN

Ali Velshi reports on our battle with Allstate in this CNN Video. Thus far Therese and I have done quite a bit of media about our struggles with the insurance industry after Hurricane Katrina. It's a lot of work on our part, and up to this point I would imagine, the bad press has cost Allstate about $0.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One Difficult Year

I am feeling better today than I did yesterday. Life in New Orleans these days is certainly an emotional roller coaster. Thanks for all the nice things people have said to me directly, and the comments. At 7:30 AM today Bart and I did a radio interview for Boozocracy. Then at 9 AM Kalypso and I were off to hear W. Bush's speech at Warren Easton High School, but on the way out the door we met with two representatives from Allclaims, who are working with our attorney Greg DiLeo on our wind claim/lawsuit. It turns out they were meeting with a representative from Allstate to show her that clearly our house is leaning because of the winds of Katrina, and that the Haag engineers were corrupt idiots, and Allstate certainly did not want this to go to court. I probably should have stayed home for that important meeting, but the Allclaims guys were more than qualified to represent me, and I wanted to make sure my daughter got to see the spectacle of W's "historic" speech. We saw it, and the speech was OK, at least by the standards for this president. But talk is cheap, and we are lacking leadership from the city, state, and federal levels. It was very hard for me to watch all the politicians make small talk before the speech, as it seems despite even the best intentions, the nature of the job at some point makes a narcissistic turn. Thank God for term limits. Then Kalypso and I spent the rest of the day working on her Katrina + 1 year movie. It still needs quite a bit of work. I will be so glad when midnight gets here and the anniversary stuff is finished. It's exhausting to dig up those horrible memories. Speaking of memories, a year ago at this moment, the flood waters were about six inches below our porch. I slept briefly and woke at 3 AM. By then the waters were 3 feet inside our house. Nothing in Bush's speech today will change that.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Blowing Statefarm's Whistle

ABC and CBS report that two supervisors handing Katrina claims for Statefarm in Mississippi repeatedly changed and replaced damage reports to save the company money. They also confirm the story that Statefarm brought in a truck to shred documents. In a related story this Statefarm policy holder received by mistake 3 engineer's reports in the mail. The first two claimed the house was destroyed by wind, for which she was covered, the third said flood caused the damage. Of course Statefarm was happy with that one in the end.

Up or Down From New Orleans?

At 7 AM a man from FEMA knocked on our door and said that our lot wasn't big enough for a FEMA trailer. I told him we didn't need a trailer large enough for 4 people and 2 dogs. Just something small and simple so we could live in front of our damaged house while we rebuilt. Some of us could even sleep in a tent in the back, we just needed a place with electricity, and a hot shower and functioning toilet. He said that FEMA had new regulations and they recently "simplified the bureaucracy." Now they don't measure for individual trailers, just for the largest, which is 34 feet. He said our trailer would likely be 25 feet, but we wouldn't know that until we got it, and we can't get it because our lot is only 30 feet wide. I asked if he could put it diagonal, and he said no, because there are powerlines we would be under if we did that. He said he might think about giving us a trailer, but two things need to happen. We have to cut down the palm tree in front of our house, and he needed to talk to our neighbor to see if he would be OK with the trailer's tongue hanging over onto his property. And then maybe we could qualify. He said if we had gotten our trailer a month ago, it would have been easy, but the new regulations didn't work too well for our situation. I asked him what I could have done to get the trailer a month earlier, and he said "nothing." And so I sit here in front of my computer thinking about how maybe I'm crazy to stay here in New Orleans. There are places where I could live in which my family's well being would not rest so directly in the hands of government officials, where levees are strong, streets are paved and not patrolled by the National Guard, where schools are great, and where neighbors don't go to planning meetings and prioritize whether functioning gas lines or firefighters are more important. These negative and overwhelming thoughts on this Monday morning, on the eve of Katrina's anniversary, are crashing through my mind's levees. Not overtopped, but breached. It has me thinking about New Orleans, Jerusalem, and even Hebrew grammar.

New Orleans is on my mind because I have called it home for 5 years, and I love the city. It's old, storied, and original. One of the ways that New Orleans is unique has to do with direction. The traditional North, South, East, West don't work in the Big Easy, and never did. The city is too old to have well planned perpendicular streets orientated to compass points. Down here, for example, the sun rises from the West Bank. Instead, you travel towards the river or the lake, and then turn uptown, downtown, or even "turn right by the old A & P" which hasn't been there for 30 years. Most New Orleanians can't imagine anyone could have been born elsewhere. It's hard for newcomers to navigate, but that's part of the charm.

I'm also thinking about Hebrew grammar and Jerusalem, the city in which I lived before moving to New Orleans. There are two separate verbs used in the Hebrew language to describe coming and going from Jerusalem. One "goes up" to this holy city, and when one leaves, one "goes down" from Jerusalem. This is literally true, because Jerusalem is located on a series of hills. But it also has a great deal of symbolic truth. The gist of this idea is that your heart and spirit are lifted when you're in Jerusalem, and if you have to leave, your heart and spirit sink.

To leave New Orleans, you would no doubt literally ascend, unless you had scuba gear or a giant earth drilling machine like this one.
But why do I stay? It's not like my entire family is here. In fact, we don't have any family here, and most of our friends have left. Sunday we drove to Houston to see a family who we considered among our closest friends. Therese worked with the mom, their oldest daughter babysat our kids, and their youngest was a good friend of Kalypso's. The parents both grew up here, and had nearly all of their family here. They're staying in Houston for now because their children are benefiting from a superior school system. So why do I stay and fight so hard for a city in which I have shallow roots?

I will be glad to see the one year anniversary of Katrina come and go. It's a bit overwhelming right now.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Another Legal Victory Against Allstate

Texas has a four-year period in which people can file suit against their insurance company after damages, and our neighbors in the other direction, Mississippi and Florida have three-year periods. We in Louisiana have only one year. But there is a legal case trying to extend that period another year. It went to Federal court, got sent back down to the state, and Friday the Louisiana Supreme Court has upheld the 1-year extension as "constitutional." It now goes to a lower court in which the judge will hear arguments from both sides, and this case will likely be heard and decided Wednesday, the day after the 1-year anniversary of Katrina. We didn't want to wait for this legal decision, and already filed suit against Allstate. But what I really find interesting is the argument used by the attorney for Allstate. Philip Franco claims the decision will hinder the rebuilding of Louisiana because it sends a message to the business community that the state might change existing contracts. Hey Philip, do you think that maybe Allstate not living up to their side of contracts might be hindering the state's rebuilding? Just a thought.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Rising Tide Conference

Kalypso and I will be attending the Rising Tide Conference this weekend. In their words: "The Rising Tide Conference will be a gathering for all who wish to learn more and do more to assist New Orleans' recovery from the aftermath of the natural disasters of both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, the manmade disaster of the levee and floodwall collapses, and the incompetence of government on all levels. We will come together to dispel myths, promote facts, share personal testimonies, highlight progress and regress, discuss recovery ideas, and promote sound policies at all levels. We aim to be a "real life" demonstration of internet activism as the nation prepares to mark the one year anniversary of a massive natural disaster followed by governmental failures on a similar scale."

Allstate Is On Notice


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Allstate Agent 007: Gene Harper

Gene Harper from Allstate just left our house. He came out to reassess our flood claim, and he's the 7th Allstate adjustor we've had in this mess. Allstate back in November 2005 paid us $70,000 for flood damage, and we feel that they owe us an additional $80K just for the flood damage. But none of this really matters until the structural damage is addressed, and we're handling that part of our claim in court. Gene and I went over the earlier flood estimate, and he agreed that there were some major mistakes. For example, our kitchen is not two feet wide as originally calculated by Allstate, but 12. He went around the house taking pictures and measuring rooms. He said that with flood they would only cover painting the part of the house that was under water, which didn't seem fair. We'll have to repaint our entire house, and that will come out of our pocket. And if you had cabinets that didn't flood, they're not covered, only the ones that did. But to match the cabinets you'd have to replace all of them. Like the other Allstate adjustors, Mr. Harper was a nice enough guy. He empathized with me about the house leaning, and how he sadly realized that we can't move a single step forward towards fixing out house until that is addressed. He kept repeating in his Georgian accent "Your house is seriously leaning" and I said, "I know it is." He had read the Haag Engineering report, and on our porch he said there were obvious signs of fresh separation in the front of the house, and he couldn't believe those were not addressed in the report. He also noticed the obvious fresh saw marks on the doors that I made to get them to open and shut after Katrina, and he just shook his head when I pointed out that these doors were used as evidence by Haag to claim that our house was leaning before Katrina. He said he'd write up his renewed estimate and get back to us in 10 days. I have no idea how this will play out, but in dealing with Allstate, I can even imagine a nightmarish scenario where they claim they paid us too much money with the $70,000. Oh how fair bankruptcy seems on many a day, where we could just walk away from this property and our mortgage. We'd have been so much better off if we were renters.

Boozocracy: 2 Educators, 2 Livers, & $1 Million for a New Orleans Library

In order to raise $1 million dollars for a New Orleans library in my Mid-City neighborhood, Bart and I just launched Boozocracy. The premise is simple enough for a drunk to figure out. People vote with their financial donation for one of two categories: Either Bart and I keep boozing it up for 2007, and they put us on the wagon (except of course for the Mardi Gras weekend, St. Patrick's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and our two birthdays). So please tell your friends about our brave enterprise in which we're willing to risk what we love most about living in New Orleans, namely--drinking alcohol, for a library in which people of all ages can learn.
*Later note: Bart's description of this project is much better than mine. Also, Howie Luvzus is asking all Baptists to stop us from sinning.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Our Very First Lawsuit

Yesterday in the mail we received a copy of our lawsuit against Allstate.
It's entitled in legalise a "petition for damages." Reading this was unexpectedly emotional for both Therese and I. We've never sued anyone before. The case is called "Michael M. Homan and Therese M. Fitzpatrick versus Toni Reboul and Allstate Insurance Company." Toni Reboul is our insurance agent. I like Toni, and think she is a good person. I remember sitting in her office and telling her about all the trouble we were having with getting Allstate to pay for damages from the hurricane and flood. Her facial expressions demonstrated that she felt sorry for us, and she kept apologizing for the way that her company was acting. She told us about how during the flood she laid awake at night worrying about her customers. Had she insured them for enough? Those sort of questions. In any case, our attorney, Greg DiLeo, and others I've spoken to have said that including agents in the suit is customary. And they say that she is insured against these sorts of things, and it won't cost her a thing. They also say that it was her job to make sure we were adequately insured. We were insured against flood for $172,000, and our homeowners was just $141,000. Anyway, after all that we've been through, it is strange that both Therese and I feel some guilt about suing Allstate and its representatives.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Shell Game of Allstate Adjusters

To give people some idea of the shell game that Allstate has been playing with us during the past year, here is a brief breakdown of our six wind adjusters and four flood adjusters since we filed our claim August 30th.

1. Steven Blethan (we're informed he is our agent Sept 8th, we call him daily 9-8 to 9-22 with no calls returned)
2. John Dye (we were informed he was our agent Sept 22nd, we were told he visited the house prior to 9-22, and we called him daily from 9-22 until 10-25, when he finally called. We agreed to meet at the house on Nov 11, but we had a new adjuster before that date)
3. Bob Mosher (earlier he was our flood adjuster, and visited the house Oct 6th. He noticed the house was racked, and he ordered an engineer to visit the property. Two representatives from Haag Engineering came on February 23rd, and we received their report May 4th saying the house was not racked because of the wind or flood waters of Katrina)
4-5. Mike Spano and Chuck Calvo (unannounced they visit house Jan 3rd and say they are now our wind adjusters, though we never heard from them again. They shot a lot of video inside and outside house)
6. Tommy Temple (we're informed he is wind adjuster Jan 24th, he visits house 5-12. Allstate denies our house is racked from wind, so we hire Attorney Greg DiLeo to file suit against Allstate for our wind damage)

1. Steven Blethan (we were informed he was our agent September 8th, we called him daily between 9-8 & 9-22 with none of our calls returned)
2. John Dye (we were informed he was our agent for both wind and flood September 22nd, we were told he visited the house prior to 9-22, and we called him daily from 9-22 until 10-25, when he finally called)
3. Bob Mosher (we were informed he was our flood adjuster October 1. We met Mosher at our house October 6th. His claim was way off, and we hired Allclaims to reassess flood damage. We filed a proof of loss for flood in early July).
4. Gene Harper (we're informed Aug 18th he is our new flood adjuster, and will be visiting the house Aug 22nd).

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

August 15th

Today Therese turns 40. She left before I woke up, but she left a nice note saying that she loved her family (her mom, dad, and brother are STILL here), and that she especially loved me because I "chose" her. That was very nice of her, though I should point out that the Therese I "chose" was 23-years-old, and not this older model. But I do love her even though she is flawed, unlike me. Today is her first day teaching the 2nd grade at Lusher Elementary. Today also is the date that SB 620 becomes law, which means that if our suit against Allstate is successful, then they would have to pay 50% damages on top of our settlement, plus attorney's fees. Look over your shoulder Allstate, cause we're coming. Finally, today I just got a call from Rick from FEMA, and he's coming to assess our property to see if a FEMA trailer would fit. Soon we too will be trailer trash, at least we're hoping.

A Game of Inches

We had hoped that we would qualify for a $30,000 ICC Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) grant to raise our house. Our base flood elevation (BFE) is 0, and if the elevation of our first floor was anything below that, we would have received the $30K, which is money that we could really use, especially because Allstate is screwing us. We hired a firm to check our elevation, and unfortunately, our door sill is at .64 feet above the BFE. That means that our house is 7.68 inches too high. Damn. There is hope that the BFE will change now that the new FEMA flood maps are out, but for now, we lose again.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Insurance Problems on Radio

Brian Denzer's radio show, Community Gumbo, this week focused on insurance problems faced by those of us impacted by Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. The installment is titled "Sue Your Insurance Company Now," and he has a link to an mp3 audio file to hear the show. He interviewed Therese and I, as well as Lisa Palumbo and two attorneys. It summarizes very well the difficulties we are facing, and how the insurance industry has hindered the rebuilding process. Take that Allstate! And thanks to Brian for doing an excellent job with his show, and for letting people know the horrible way in which the insurance companies are acting.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Commencement 2006

Today Xavier celebrated commencement. It was especially nice for me, as Therese graduated with a Masters.
We had a surprise graduation/40th birthday party for her, and her parents, brother, and sister-in-law flew into town. Instead of looking shocked or even surprised, instead she just cried. It's been a very tough year. Barack Obama was the speaker, and I'm a big fan of Senator Obama. I learned today that he is currently the only African American senator, and he is only the third in history. Amazing. My favorite student and friend Roy DuBose also graduated. He's off to graduate school in Theology at Notre Dame, and I wish him well.

Building Our New Jerusalem

I wrote an opinion piece about the planning process and rebuilding in New Orleans, and it can be seen in today's Editorial section of the Times-Picayune.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Allstate Denies a Claim We Never Made

My stress level went up yesterday when Therese gave me a letter from Allstate. It automatically meant that at least three hours of the next day would be spent making copies and reading legalize and writing letters and making calls. All the stuff that goes along with being part of the good hands network. In any event, this letter stated they are denying our claim that the flood waters damaged our foundation. Fine. We never made that claim to begin with. If Allstate would like to deny paying us for giant Santa Clause dolls made out of gold on our chimnees they are free to do that as well. Allstate is confused because they never even read our proof of loss letter. So here it is as simple as I can make it. The winds of Katrina racked our house, and Allstate owes us about $80,000 to fix it. Or the floods after the levees broke damaged our house and Allstate owes us another $80,000 on top of what they have paid us, even without addressing the structural damage. They can either pay limits with wind or flood. I'm hoping this goes to court. Our attorney Greg DiLeo files our suit between August 15th and August 29th.

Food Insurance & Fema Trailers

Yesterday I received a letter from FEMA saying that they were denying the request that we made back in October '05 for a FEMA trailer. The letter stated that we were ineligible because "App needed to have insurance for food since 3/01/84." Heck, back in March of 84, I was getting ready to graduate from highschool, and at that carefree time I didn't even have any food insurance. I suppose it was irresponsible of me not to have it, and FEMA is probably thinking that I'm too fat now from eating uninsured food to fit into one of their trailers. Anyway, I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon on the phone with FEMA, and Deborah from Texas was very nice, as the FEMA phone people always are, and Deborah and some of her colleagues laughed at the letter, and she apologized and said the letter was clearly a mistake. Deborah said she would email the "trailer supervisor" and get us back on the list. I'd recommend to everyone that if you haven't lived in a hurricane ravaged area, you are missing out on some great fun.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Unbalanced Report of UNOP by T-P

Overall I believe that the local newspaper the Times-Picayune has done an outstanding job following Katrina. However, their recent presentation of the Unified New Orleans Plan is absurd in my opinion. Or at least it is blatantly one sided in its presentation of a very contentious issue.

The Unified New Orleans Plan was set up to get the federal funds flowing to start rebuilding our city. The state run Louisiana Recovery Authority won't release the funds until we have a comprehensive and unified plan. The history of all this is summarized very well by Becky Houtman. The first UNOP meeting on July 30th was a total disaster. Many people, including me, blogged about the poorly planned event produced to give the veneer of democracy. It was put together by Concordia, a design team run by Steven Bingler. To make a long story short, we knew more about the planning process for New Orleans than the facilitator for our district (4) hired by Concordia, you can't vote unless you have email, and the voting system they have set up is a fraud. As stated by People Get Ready, Res Ipsa Loquitur!

The day after this first meeting, I was shocked when I opened the T-P and read a glowing review of the meeting. I was upset, and like many others, I wrote a letter to the Times-Picayune, but none of these letters criticizing the UNOP were printed. Then today in the editorial section of the T-P, the first letter to the editor about the UNOP appears. Cynthia Scott's letter basically says that you'd have to be an idiot not to support the UNOP. Then, on the front page there is a long story about the greatness of Steven Bingler, his company Concordia, and the entire UNOP. I've heard from several people that the head honcho of the Times-Picayune, Ashton Phelps, has strong ties with both Concordia and the GNOF, the group which gave the contract to Concordia. I can't emphasize enough what a fight this is to make sure that the people who live in New Orleans have a say in how we rebuild. I wish the local "paper of record" would listen a bit more to those of us who don't happen to make six figure salaries.

And then: 2 hours after posting this, Annete Sisco from the T-P wrote me and asked me to write a broader op-ed piece about the planning process and the recovery of Mid-City. Of course I enthusiastically accepted and I'll write it tomorrow

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Haag Engineering: An Insurer's Best Friend

Following Hurricane Katrina, the third of our many Allstate adjusters finally made it to our house in October. He immediately noted the obvious structural damage to our house, and he put in an order for an engineer. Allstate hired Haag Engineering to examine our residence, which meant nothing to me at the time. When the two representatives from Haag finally showed up at our house on February 23rd, we were overjoyed. Finally, six months after the storm, we could get their assessment of whether it was wind or flood waters that racked our house. We knew that the severe winds from Katrina caused the structural damage, but everyone from Allstate who we dealt with indicated they would total it out from flood, because that wouldn't cost Allstate any money as flood is backed with federal funds. We were in the unusual position of having both wind and flood policies. "Lucky us" we naively thought. The representatives from Haag only stayed at our house a short time, just 15 minutes, and wanted no interaction from us. They were rude we thought, but maybe we had been living in the south too long and our expectations for kind small talk weren't realistic. Anyway, two months go by, and we're still waiting on their report to be filed. Mind you, people have long since gutted their houses and begun the long and tedious process of making the many necessary repairs. For those of us who had flooded houses, we basically need to gut them, treat the studs, redo all the plumbing and electricity, and then put in new walls, floors, and ceilings. But we also have structural problems, and we can't do any of the other things until we address this with our insurance company. Finally, in the mail on May 4th I received a letter from Allstate stating that they are denying our claim for any structural damage based on the Haag report, which was attached. That was one of the worst days of my life, but fortunately for us, the report from Haag was full of mistakes. For example, they refered to our house as "The Wilson house" and had pictures that weren't from our house. Also they claim things like it wasn't windy enough during Katrina to cause a house to lean, and that the many new cracks in our interior were caused from a lack of air conditioning for 3 weeks. They also ignored the most obvious evidence that our house was recently racked.

So we were heartbroken and furious, and we decided to fight back against Allstate.

Since those dark days following the claim denial, I've come to learn that Haag is infamous for being in the pockets of the insurance industry. Their spokesperson lately has been Timothy Marshall, who is Haag's damage and failure consultant. He wrote the "Hurricane Katrina Damage Survey" that insurance companies have routinely purchased as "expert testimony" and used to deny claims. By the way, Haag's online store now advertises that the book is 1/2 price at $75 "While supplies last!" Marshall's survey concludes that sustained winds were below Category 3 and that there was no tornado damage along the coast. Mind you, there is a mountain of more qualified "experts" who say that sustained winds were in the Category 4-5 range, and that there were plenty of tornados. So this one man's biased work is the primary tool used by insurance companies to deny people's wind claims, as the insurers say all of the damage was done by flood.

I'm not sure about quite a bit in this whole process. I don't know why the representatives from Haag didn't total our house out from flood damage. However, in their report they actually question whether our house flooded, though the debris line marking 3 feet of water inside is obvious on every house in the neighborhood. I don't know how people like Timothy Marshall or the two representatives of Haag who came to our house justify what they do for a living, or how they are able to sleep at night knowing that they are seriously harming thousands of people. I'm also not sure why we even had insurance. In many ways we would be better off at this point without it. FEMA would have paid for us to live elsewhere during this whole process, and we could have still received money from the Louisiana Road Home to repair our house. Right now we owe about $150,000 on a mortgage for a house that as-is would go for approximately $40,000. But we're confident, still, that in the end we'll find justice and Allstate will pay us. However, I think with great sadness about all of the people who for many reasons would just take the initial denial based on "expert" engineers from Haag and give up.

Several articles in a series about Haag Engineering from South Mississippi's Sun Herald Newspaper:
"Engineer Chases Storms" about Timothy Marshall from Haag (August 1, 2006 by Anita Lee)
"Experts Disagree on Winds" about Marshall's "Hurricane Katrina Damage Survey" and those who disagree (August 1, 2006, by Anita Lee)
"Engineers Called Into Question After Another Historic Catastrophe" about how Haag and even Timothy Marshall did the same thing after Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina in 1989 (July 31, 2006 by Anita Lee)
Damaging Opinions about how an Oklahoma attorney successfully battled State Farm on behalf of tornado victims. State Farm had previously denied their claims based on a report by, you guessed it, Haag Engineering (July 30, 2006 by Anita Lee)
"Saffir: 'Wind Damage Considerable'" about how Herbert Saffir (from the famous Saffir-Simpson scale) said that "wind certainly caused a considerable amount of damage on the Gulf Coast before any wave action or storm surge." (August 1, 2006, by Anita Lee)

NPR story about the "Slingshot Group" from Diamondhead MS who like David vs Goliath, are fighting the insurance industry. The residents say homes were damaged by winds, the companies say the damage was flood.

"Allstate Accused of Cheating Claiments" about the infamous "McKinsey Documents" used by Allstate to cheat clients. (by Brandon Ortiz from Lexington Herald)

"Nearly 700 File Suite Over Denied Katrina Claim" about Dickie Scrugg's lawsuit which claims State Farm “extorted” engineering firms by refusing to pay them if their conclusions conflicted the HAAG report. In addition, the action accuses the insurer of hiding or shredding engineering reports that blamed damage on wind. The lawsuit also claims “State Farm intentionally suborned and encouraged the corruption of scientific investigation and accepted physical realities ... to achieve the desired result of blanket denials of coverage.” (by AP, May 9th, 2006)