Insurers hand out first round of payments

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl and William Wan | Stephen Kiehl and William Wan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. - If David and Julie Bolyard were waiting for a sign, it came two Sundays ago. A StormTracker team from the Weather Channel showed up outside their house on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. They knew it was time to go. They loaded up their white Chevy pickup and headed for Baton Rouge.

"You have to keep a good attitude," David Bolyard, a 46- year-old sailmaker, remembers telling his neighbors, "because in three days everything else will be gone."

And so the Bolyards, clad in flip-flops and white T-shirts, stood under a tent in a Home Depot parking lot yesterday afternoon, waiting to speak with an Allstate Insurance adjuster. Fourteen adjusters were in the lot, cutting checks as fast as they could. Most people got $2,000 to cover their immediate living expenses.

Much more will come later, once adjusters can get to people's homes and evaluate the damage. The insurance claims from Gulf Coast states damaged by Hurricane Katrina could run as high as $25 billion. And Florida's insurance commissioner estimated yesterday that the total economic impact from the hurricane could hit $150 billion.

Insurance companies have been warned that their actions are being watched.

"You, as an industry at this point in time, will need to be a leader, and you will be judged by how you respond," Alabama Insurance Commissioner Walter Bell told insurers yesterday at a meeting at the Atlanta airport.

The Louisiana's insurance commissioner is expected to issue an order next week suspending premium payments. Insurers were also urged to relax their regulations on flood insurance.

Just as Katrina evacuees have filled Louisiana's capital city and other towns, creating extensive tie-ups and lines at thrift stores, insurance companies have followed them. State Farm Insurance sent 2,600 adjusters to the storm-damaged region. Allstate sent 2,000, Nationwide Insurance sent 250.

The immediate, large-scale response has impressed many of the insurers' customers, at least so far. Allstate has 24 mobile response units - RVs with satellite hookups, laptops and wireless Internet - in the region.

The Bolyards have already begun cleaning up their home, which flooded with 30 inches of water. They've ripped out the sheet rock on the lower 3 feet of their walls, torn out the insulation and carpet, and piled their wet furniture on the side of the road.

They've also lined up a contractor to fix their home in the town of Mandeville, and they just wanted to get a green light from Allstate to start work.

"We're here for more information than money," David Bolyard said, "but we'll take the money."

After about an hour's wait, they walked away with a check for $2,000 and the OK for their contractor to begin work last night.

"You want to cry," Julie Bolyard, 37, said, "but it could be much worse."

While there has been talk about the possibility that many of the 1 million displaced residents may not return to their homes in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, the long lines at insurance offices indicate many storm victims want to go home, as soon as possible.

Denise Jackson, 35, who evacuated from Slidell, La., with her mother and three children, said her home suffered "a lot of wind damage and a lot of water damage." She said there were 3 or 4 feet of water in her first floor.

"You don't know where to start," she said. "I lost all my furniture. I lost everything."

She estimates it will be at least three months before she and her family can return home. In the meantime, they are staying at a friend's Baton Rouge home. And Jackson is determined to make her house just as it was when she left it.

"I want to put my house back together the same way it was," she said. "I'm going to use the same paints, the same colors - olive and lavender. It was nice and peaceful."

For some, such dreams may be impossible. An estimated 60 percent of homes in the region devastated by Katrina are without federal flood insurance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the program.

Because most standard insurance policies exclude flood damage, the loss could push thousands into bankruptcy.

"Clearly, most if not all of the damage to their homes is from the floods," said William Bailey of the Hurricane Insurance Information Center, an industry clearinghouse for storm recovery information.

State Farm Insurance, the nation's largest insurer of homes and automobiles, had received more than 200,000 Katrina claims as of Sunday. Other insurers have yet to say how many claims they are receiving or will ultimately be filed. "We can't put any guestimate on how many we'll have in the end," said State Farm spokesman Fraser Engerman. "There are many areas we haven't even been able to reach physically."

Many homeowners have not been able to reach their homes, either. Mary Siebenthall, a 74-year-old who lives just west of New Orleans in Jefferson Parish, says her son has not allowed her to see her home after checking on it this week. But Siebenthall is tired of sharing a trailer in Satsuma, La., with four other adults, four dogs and her 4-year-old grandson.

"I'm anxious to get back to work. I don't like doing nothing," said Siebenthall, who works at the Jefferson Council on Aging.

Sitting under the Allstate tent, she said she was not worried about her claim. "I'm a valued customer of Allstate," she said.

She, too, went home with a check.

Stephen Kiehl reported from Louisiana and William Wan from Baltimore. Wire services also contributed to this article.

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