Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Guess Who I'm Rooting For in Tomlinson v. Allstate?

The first legal case where a Louisiana homeowner is suing an insurer in federal courts because of Hurricane Katrina is set to begin February 12th. I'm especially pleased that it's Allstate. Go Tomlinsons!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

FEMA Trailer Schizophrenia

The family and I have spent just over a week in our FEMA trailer for a trial run. I'm wiser for having done so, but to quote Ecclesiastes, he who increases wisdom increases sorrow. Sadly, this next year is going to be a difficult one. I wonder if ever again I'll be able to feel the "normalcy" that permeated life before the Federal levees failed.

Abry Brothers, the company we hired to raise our house and to straighten the walls, has spent the past several months working on our neighbor Mike Prados' house. When they are finished with Mike's house, they'll start on ours. So we've been gradually putting stuff in boxes for storage, and thought we'd start gutting the house in mid-February. The plan was that all four of us and the dogs would live in the trailer for the year, with the goal of moving back into our fixed house by Christmas 2007. We put shelves in the FEMA trailer, and many self-adhesive hooks on the walls. But last night I had an epiphany: there is no way that we can do this for a whole year. Kalypso was trying to do her homework, and Gilgamesh was bored so he was bouncing around. Plus when all four of us are in the trailer, there is no space to put things like clothes and dishes. Therese and I started thinking that Therese and the children should get an apartment. It was strange, sort of like we'll be separating but not because of a fight, but so Kalypso can do homework, Gilgamesh can take a bath and do six-year-old-stuff in a space larger than a trailer. Most of the time I would live in the FEMA trailer with the dogs to keep an eye on the property. But that would be awful to miss out on parts of my kids' lives because of all of this.

But now the plan has changed. I called Abry Brothers and asked Jeff, the supervisor, for an approximate date to start working. He said it might be two months before they were ready. He also reminded me that I shouldn't gut the house until they had put in support, as removing the plaster and lathe might weaken it and it could fall over. So now I'm thinking the best course would be to move our primary base back from the FEMA trailer to the house, and stay there as long as we can. Even when Abry Brothers starts working on the structure of our house and the foundation, it will take them several months to finish their work. All that time we can live in the upstairs of the house, which is about 1000 times the size of the FEMA trailer. Then, as they get close to finishing our house, that would be the time for Therese and the kids to move into an apartment, store our stuff there, and I would then occupy the trailer while we gutted the house and rebuilt it.

Of course this plan will likely be revised many times on a daily basis for the next several months.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Victory Helps Chicago Recover

A bit of humor courtesy of The Onion.
Later Note: This photo of one Chicago "fan" isn't very funny, in fact, it makes me sick.

Op-Ed and Something Much Darker

I have an opinion piece today in the Times-Picayune that is based on a previous post about the negative experience Therese and I had at the "Welcome Home Center" in New Orleans. It caused a bit of a stir, and already I've heard from several employees of the Welcome Home Center, the mayor's office and some of the city council members. They all say things there will improve, which of course would be a good thing. Thanks to Annette Sisco of the T-P for publishing the piece. But tales of being treated like a criminal were nothing compared to the story on the front page where Paul Gailiunas recounts the tragedy of his wife Helen Hill's brutal murder on January 4th. Police Chief Riley has been critical of Gailiunas during the investigation, saying he has not been cooperative, and Riley reportedly told one of Paul's relatives that Paul is not a suspect in the murder. To have experienced what Paul went through, and then to be publically denounced by the police chief, and to use Paul's name in a sentence with the word "suspect," all of that makes me very angry with Chief Riley. I pray that Paul and his son will somehow, someday, find some sort of peace. We live in such a violent society. Since Katrina and the ineptitude shown by our government on all levels for the past 17 months, I'm turning into the Angry White Man. But I know that I will never, ever, purchase a gun.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Allstate's Record Profits Are At Risk

""We believe it would be bad business to continue to add to our risk."
Michael Trevino, a spokesman for Allstate, on why Allstate won't write any new policies in New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and why they won't renew 30,000 existing policies around New York City. I found this on Da Po' Blog.

Got Road Home, Should We Still Sue Allstate?

Therese and I are now about six months into our very first lawsuit. We're suing Allstate. We claim that our house suffered structural damage and was racked from the winds of Katrina, and they, based on a bogus report from Haag Engineering, claim that our house was racked before the storm. We just received "interrogatories and requests for production" from Steven Lozes who is listed as Allstate's attorney. He's from the firm Lozes & Ponder, and they seem to do quite a bit of business for the insurance industry. It boggles my mind when I think of all the people making money off of the tragedy of Katrina. But even with all the illegal and unethical things Allstate has done to us during the past 17 months, we're considering dropping the lawsuit. We received $120,000 from the Road Home to fix our house (plus $30K to raise it). We have to repay this Road Home grant if we get any more money from Allstate. If we go to court, a judge might determine that Allstate owes us an additional $60,000. The attorney fees of this award would be about $20,000, leaving us with $40,000. But the Road Home might then claim we owe them the full $60,000, and in the end this case would cost us $20,000. This leads me to conclude that the Road Home is a gift more to the insurance industry than to homeowners. But in the meantime, we need to decide. I testified on behalf of the Murray Bill back in May, 2006. The bill increases the penalty of insurers who act in bad faith from 25% to 50% in Louisiana, and adds on attorney fees to the settlement. But we would have to prove Allstate acted in bad faith. They have, and we've documented our interactions with them extensively, but I don't know much about how difficult this is to prove. Our attorney, Greg DiLeo, told me that he was assured by Walter Leger, attorney for the Road Home, that the LRA will not "penalize" people for hiring an attorney. He said they will calculate the Road Home grant based on net as opposed to gross, so attorney fees would come from Allstate, not us. But he also said he hadn't seen this in writing, and what happens if Leger quits tomorrow? Does anyone have more information on this issue?

Allstate Wins, New Orleans Keeps on Losing

Two things weigh heavily on my mind this morning. First, a student reminded me that Allstate is based in Northbrook/Chicago. So my corporate nemesis will root for their team in the Superbowl while we prepare to gut our house now 17 months after it flooded. Allstate employees were probably among the Bears fans who threw snowballs and beers at Saints fans last Sunday and shouted Katrina related insults. Second, not one mention was made of Katrina and the Gulf Coast in last night's State of the Union Address. Not one! That is hard for me to believe. Of the many words about Iraq, Bush said "The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East." And so we learn about priorities. Webb's Democratic Response had only a brief mention, saying the Democratic Party hoped this administration would address "such domestic priorities as restoring the vitality of the great city of New Orleans." Last year I was shocked at how little was said, but at least Bush said the words "New Orleans." Come to think of it, he said "In New Orleans and in other places, many of our fellow citizens have felt excluded from the promise of our country." I feel more excluded today than I felt last year. If Louisiana is not part of the union, please let us know, so we can formally secede.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Investigate the Federal Response to Katrina

There were two alarming stories (1, 2) in the Times-Picayune today about a speech given by the former head of FEMA Michael Brown last week to graduate students at Metropolitan College of New York. Brown stated:
"Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, 'We had to federalize Louisiana because she's a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it. We can't do it to Haley (Barbour) because Haley's a white male Republican governor. And we can't do a thing to him. So we're just gonna federalize Louisiana.'"

Brown claims he heard such conversations aboard Air Force One while parked at Louis Armstrong Airport on September 3rd. Certainly Brown is not the most credible source in the world. But other journalists in September and October of 05 painted a similar scenario. Joe Lieberman, who heads up the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has said there won't be an investigation, and he likened such an investigation to a "witch hunt." But now there is word that Mary Landrieu might be able change this, as she is expected to be appointed to a subcommittee to oversee disastor response. I want to know more about what happened in the aftermath of Katrina, and I don't care if it damages Democrats, Republicans, or both.


We went to toast at Buddy D's grave, we even had awesome Bears voodoo dolls made by Carol.
But despite some brief highs in the third quarter of the NFC Championship game, few things seemed to go in favor of the Saints. The loss has been pretty depressing to me, and I feel like the weather: cold, wet, and dreary. The FEMA trailer seems smaller now, and the upcoming year of gutting our house and rebuilding it seems like a much bigger task than it did a week ago.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

One Road Win Away

The Saints played every game on the road last year. Now we're just one road win away from going to the Superbowl. We're off for a good luck toast at the grave of Buddy D. Who freakin' Dat?!?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Welcome Home Center

Yesterday we closed on our Road Home grant. We received $120K for our house, and an additional $30K to raise it. We are a few inches above the BFE (Base Flood Elevation) now so we didn't qualify for ICC (Increased Cost of Compliance) money. So it was a welcome surprise to get the $30K, and we are going to raise our house 3 feet. That will put us more than 3 feet above the BFE, and about 10 inches above the high water mark of the 2005 flood. We'll be the highest house in the neighborhood, which has advantages and disadvantages. If this block floods again, Mid-City is finished anyway in my opinion. To my surprise, the Road Home is sending the checks to Standard Mortgage, the same company that holds the mortgage to our house. I'm hoping, though not too optimistic, that this will free up some cash so we can make some funds with interest. We owe Standard Mortgage about $145K on our house. By law Standard Mortgage can only hold in escrow what we owe them. Thus we're hoping the $150K from Road Home will be enough to cover our debt, and they will write us a check for the $80K that Allstate has paid us. Although we'll use the funds to rebuild our house, as the arrangement currently works, Standard Mortgage has been able to keep the $80K and make money off interest without having to pay us any interest. Incidentally, the Road Home mandates that Standard Mortgage pay us 1.5% interest while they hold the Road Home money. But in the end I'm fairly certain Standard Mortgage will deny this request, claiming the Road Home funds are a separate entity. It seems everyone is making money off Katrina except for the people who live and work here.

Today we closed on our SBA loan. Our loan started off being $126K at 2.5% interest, then was reduced to $108K about 9 months ago. Then last Tuesday it was cut to the $10K that they advanced us about 10 months ago as we were on record for receiving the Road Home money. They state we can't duplicate federal funds. We were really counting on being able to keep both the SBA and Road Home funds, but we've had a few days to get over the shock. Therese says that many of her friends are still rebuilding under the misconception that they'll have both the Road Home and SBA funds. That's a real shame. In any event, we were scheduled today to go to the Welcome Home Center, at 1250 Poydras, to close on the SBA. We were supposed to sign many pages of legal documents so that we essentially had two liens on our property. One to Standard Mortgage (for about $145K) and one to the SBA (now for $10K). Today we learned that we didn't need this second lien, as with the SBA, loans for $10K and under don't need the lien. That was good news. But we didn't feel very welcome in the Welcome Home Center. In fact, we felt the opposite of "welcome."

When we left the "Welcome Home Center," Therese was crying pretty hard. It all started when we arrived early at 8:30AM. There were several people outside in the cold and wet weather. Many of them were elderly. The doorman/security guard at 1250 Poydras wouldn't let anyone enter the lobby, which was heated and dry, until 9 AM exactly. That didn't make us feel very welcome. I would have complained more but after a year and a half of all of this crap I am pretty numb at times. Then, as the building security monitored us closely, we went with the crowd up the stairs next to the escalators (that they refused to turn on) to an upper floor. That didn't make us feel welcome. We took the elevator to the 14th floor, and when we got off, we were treated like cattle. We were spoken to like we were in prison, and told to line up. A security guard said we would be searched thoroughly before entering the federal government space, and if we had anything that we shouldn't have, we should take the elevator downstairs and get rid of it before we came back up. Then they made me take everything out of my hands and pockets, and went over my person thoroughly with a metal detecting wand. When I went to retrieve my "stuff" a security guard said I needed to turn off my cell phone. I asked "can't I just keep it on vibrate" and about got my ass kicked. That didn't make me feel very welcome. Some lady called my name and I went a few steps and asked if I could wait for my wife, who was next in the process behind me, and they said no. So I followed some lady for a few yards, and then Therese came, and the same lady asked if that was my wife, and I said yes. Anyway, Therese was very upset at that point, which is odd, because usually in these situations I'm the one who is about to start yelling and she is calming me down. So it was a role reversal, and it caught me off guard. The SBA officer said we didn't need to sign anything, and we left after completing several more bureaucratic hurdles. On the elevator down, I said "That went pretty well." That is when Therese started crying. She was very upset, and said what if her grandma came to the Welcome Home Center seeking help to rebuild her life. What if these same people had been so rude to her grandma. And who the hell is going to help people like that. Therese and I are very educated, and have family and friends to help us out emotionally and financially. What if you had to navigate through this process and you were illiterate, let alone didn't have email. I commented that this experience was nothing. I said "if you really wanted to experience the rude and inept way that our government works, you should have spent some time at the Causeway Concentration Camp after Katrina like I did." We both agreed that if anyone ever asked us for advice on how to handle rebuilding their life after something like this, it would be to move far far away, cut all ties with the place that flooded, and never look back.

Calling such a place the "Welcome Home Center" was ironic, and sort of funny to me in a way, but in the end it was thoroughly cruel. As a reminder, Katrina's destruction of New Orleans was not a natural disastor. It was caused by human error, and remains the biggest screw up in the history of the US government. The people who live, or lived here, certainly deserve better than this.

Generation Gap

I overheard the following conversation yesterday between my son Gilgamesh, age 6, and his Grandpa Fitzpatrick, age 64:

Gilgamesh: "Grandpa, have you seen my PHP?"
Grandpa: "Piece of Cheese?"


Friday, January 19, 2007

The Saints and Bush's Legacy

"If the Saints win the Superbowl, it's like Katrina never happened."
Stephen Colbert
Check out this very funny clip that includes Lynn Swann on Comedy Central.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

SBA Takes Back Our Grant

We had Waring Architects drawing up our plans, and had signed a contract with Abry Brothers to level and straighten our house. We were hunting for a general contractor. Things were looking great for a change, and we could see light at the end of the tunnel. Then I come in to my office after class today, and get a phone message from Dave with the SBA. He says they are reducing our SBA loan from $118,000 to $10,000. To make a long story short, because we are receiving $120,000 from the Road Home, the SBA is cancelling their loan to us because they say that the funds can't be duplicated. So now we have the following funds to rebuild:
$120,000 Road Home
$10,000 SBA
$70,000 Allstate

If our house didn't need to have the structural damage fixed, that would be just enough to fix it. I'm not looking forward to telling Therese about this latest development.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dixie Bears

At the grocery store this morning, people were buzzing as a result of two things: Dixie Beer is back on the shelves, and the Saints are going to be in the Super Bowl. God is good. The bears... not so good. Also, thanks to global warming, the weather won't be a factor when the Saints go marchin in to Chicago.

One Victory from Da' Super Bowl

Following a morning of business in an attempt to charter a Mid-City neighborhood school, Howie and I hopped on his scooter and went to the grave of Buddy D in the Metairie Cemetery's Mausoleum. Buddy D was an eccentric old announcer for the Saints who was fond of squirrels.
Next we went to hear the Rebirth Brass Band at the Dome.
Then Downtown.
Then we got bored and drove over to the quarter and to a bar where people kept hitting Howie on the head due to his cool helmet.
Then back to the Superdome and while it was such a close game, We Won! It could have gone either way, but in the end, we are one victory away from the SuperBowl. Go Seahawks! (If they win we will have a home NFC Championship game next week.
Hooray for Deuce.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The New Orleans Saints, the Playoffs, and a Blessed Distraction

When the New Orleans Saints take the field tomorrow night at the Superdome against the Philadelphia Eagles, it will be much more than a football game. I, like so many other people who live here, are very emotionally invested in this team, more than anyone who does not live here could possibly imagine. I don't mind saying that I'll shed a few tears tomorrow. I cried a little bit at each Saints game this season, especially when they show footage related to Katrina and rebuilding the city. The five days I spent in the flooded New Orleans after Katrina made a deep impact on my mind, much of it is terrifying and buried deep in my psyche. When they show footage of the blocked punt against Atlanta, or Reggie Bush's first touchdown on a punt return, I'll get all choked up. Why am I such a wussy? Because life here is so damned difficult and psychologically draining. The Saints' season has at times made us momentarily forget about our post-Katrina world, and that is a welcome drug. For a few hours tomorrow, I won't think about living in a FEMA trailer, fixing our house, suing Allstate, dealing with the Road Home, fighting violence, or making better public schools. Additionally, the Saints players understand the magnitude of their accomplishments on the field. They get what this season means to the city of New Orleans and Gulf Coast region. A month ago Reggie Bush said: "Everybody who lived in New Orleans or is from New Orleans that went through Hurricane Katrina last year, it's really at the end of the day about them. Because we know, obviously, if we win, that's going to give them something to be proud of." We are proud of our Saints. And while it is emotionally draining, look out Philadelphia, because the Saints Are Coming, and I have faith. I gotta...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Stop the Violence March

Today, after teaching my first two courses of the new semester, I bicycled down to City Hall to join thousands of other New Orleanians in a rally to show city officials that we're demanding changes. Too many people have been dying due to violence. Helen Hill, Dick Shavers, and thousands more. We're averaging one murder per day in New Orleans, which is unacceptible. Thankfully, I arrived just in time to hear Bart Everson give a speech. He did a great job.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Helen Hill

At 5:30 AM this morning in New Orleans, something outrageously tragic occurred. Our family is really struggling with this one. Inside their home, Helen Hill was shot in the neck, and her husband Dr. Paul Gailiunas was also shot while holding their infant child. While I'm very thankful that the child was not physically harmed, and that reports indicate that Dr. Paul will pull through, Helen did not survive. She was 36 years old, and one of the nicest people whom I've ever met. The last time I saw her she commented on my daughter's video about Mardi Gras, saying that she very much wanted her son to grow up and experience such things. The world is certainly a worse place without Helen Hill, and I pray that Dr. Paul and child will find the strength to pull through such an ubelievable tragedy.
Later note: This article in the T-P documents the incredible impact that Helen and her family had on New Orleans.

"I Got Cabbages... I Got Tomatoes... I Got Oranges"

I am overjoyed to announce that Da' Produce Man is back in action. Hooray!
I haven't seen him since Katrina, but this morning I heard him announcing his goods and ran to grab the camera and $5 for some tomatoes, scallions, and oranges. Welcome back Produce Man. We sure missed ya.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Allstate Pays Sugar Bowl Instead of Customers with Katrina Damage

Unlike Jeri Schneider-Kneale pictured above (photo by Matt Rose), I will be watching the Sugar Bowl. After all, I payed about $100,000 for the damned event. That is roughly how much money Allstate owes us for the structural damage to our house, and they decided to spend that money on marketing. I guess it makes good business sense, at least as long as they can get away with it.

As Rebecca Mowbray from the Times-Picuyune writes:
"Allstate's new four-year deal for an undisclosed sum to be title sponsor of one of New Orleans' signature events comes at a time when the company is one of the more controversial businesses operating in Louisiana. Allstate has clashed so much with state insurance regulators throughout the year over its rising insurance rates that the Louisiana Insurance Rating Commission held a special hearing earlier this month on Allstate's business practices. Meanwhile, Allstate is one of only three insurers along with Lousiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and the St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc. whose ratios of complaints to the amount of business it does in the state were high enough to trigger an investigation by the Louisiana Department of Insurance. Indeed, while Sugar Bowl organizers are thrilled to have a company as major as Allstate picking up sponsorship of the event after Nokia's contract expired, they acknowledge that those who suffered hurricane damage may not share their enthusiasm. 'I wouldn't say it was because of Hurricane Katrina that we sponsored the Sugar Bowl,' said Mike Trevino, national spokesman for Allstate. 'The opportunity presented itself, we were interested in expanding our relationship with college football, and it was in keeping with our marketing strategy to carry forward the brand.'"

Allstate has also put out a full page advertisement in many newspapers across the country. It starts off saying that "When it takes 288 years to build something as unique as The Big Easy, you don't let one hurricane tear it all down." The ad then brags that Allstate is helping return residents to their homes. No they are not. The advertisement ends with this fleur du lis bush that Allstate supposedly planted. I photoshopped it just a tiny bit.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

My resolution and goal is to be back in our finished home by Christmas 2007. Here's a video of some of what we did last night: