NEW ORLEANS – An Associated Press analysis showing white homeowners were three times as likely as minorities to appeal insurance settlements after Hurricane Katrina points to a deep racial imbalance and the need for greater outreach, officials said Wednesday.
Using public record laws, the AP analyzed more than 3,000 insurance complaints filed with the Louisiana Department of Insurance in the year after Hurricane Katrina. It found that 75 percent had been filed by homeowners living in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Even though the storm disproportionately affected poor blacks, many residents of minority neighborhoods said they were not aware that they could seek state help.
"You shouldn't have to be an insurance company lawyer to figure out the facts and the options," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose own family in New Orleans suffered extensive losses from the storm. "There is no excuse for anything but full disclosure, clear guidance and swift reimbursement of losses when coverage exists."
State insurance officials said they took extreme measures to alert as many homeowners as possible to their options. If homeowners were dissatisfied with their insurance company, they could ask the Louisiana Department of Insurance to attempt to get a better deal.
Since Katrina and another hurricane, Rita, roared ashore more than a year ago, more than 8,000 complaints have been filed; about 3,000 have been closed.
Outreach measures included television and radio ads broadcast locally, as well as newspaper advertisements. Many of the messages, however, never reached thousands of minority homeowners living in FEMA-funded hotel rooms in Houston, Atlanta and beyond.
"It's a matter of outreach and of the extreme displacement of our families," said Cynthia Willard-Lewis, a city council member whose district includes part of the predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward. "The No. 1 problem is the fact that homeowners were not here to hear the message."
Former Texas Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Hunter said government outreach programs need to be tailored to the disaster at hand.
"If I know that half my people are in Houston, I should do something over in Houston," he said.
Hunter, administrator of the National Flood Insurance Program from 1971-80, said the racial divide is a long-standing problem. Whites, he said, tend to be more plugged in to the system and less afraid of challenging an unfair settlement.
"It's quite usual for a white person to know the system — and to know how to take the next step," he said. "It's been my experience that when you have a situation where a lot of people are getting hurt and you go out there, you find it's the people who know the system that are mad and act out. The others are mad but don't know what to do and are scared not to accept what's offered to them. They're much more apt to just take 'No' for an answer."
A spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute said insurers did the best they could to let homeowners know about their options. Loretta Worters, a vice president for the New York-based trade group, said the word might not have gotten out to all homeowners.
"Unfortunately, there were situations sometimes where people didn't hear about it," Worters said. "It was a difficult, unprecedented situation."