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Tired of reading about Katrina? Try living through ‘new normal’

A friend told me last week that people are tired of reading about Hurricane Katrina. That’s probably true, but it won’t go away. I assured him that those of us who’ve been living this nightmare for eight months are tired of reading about it, too — and lying awake at night worrying about it, dealing with the never-ending details of it and waiting to be normal again.

People on the Coast refer to the “new normal” because we aren’t sure what normal is anymore or when we’ll enter that state of being.

It’s easy to get confused. When I’m asked where I live, I have to stop and think because I thought Gulfport was home but I spend a lot of time in Jackson. Sometimes I say my home address to myself so I won’t forget it because I have a Jackson post office box address, a street address for my FEMA trailer in Gulfport and my damaged-house address. I no longer have a home telephone number so there’s just the cell number to remember.

After more than eight months of this nomadic life, it’s difficult to remember what belongings I salvaged because they’re scattered in several places. Also, I must admit that, like thousands of others, I was in a daze as I sifted through the rubble. Other than the necessities of some clothes, it’s not even possible to slowly replace lost household furnishings because storage is at a premium. I try not to dwell on the things that I know are gone and can’t be replaced.

I continue to negotiate the maze of applications and red tape to become eligible for grants, loans and so forth to rebuild. I have purchased flood insurance and was bemused to learn that I am in a preferred zone, according to the new FEMA maps. But I bought the coverage anyway. Katrina did not know my house was not in a flood zone and the next storm might not know it either.

As one of a small group of Mississippians, I have paid into the state’s wind pool for the 11 years I’ve lived in my home. There are only about 16,000 of us in this pool created by the Legislature for residents living near the Gulf of Mexico. I often heard it referred to as “hurricane insurance” because some of us thought it would cover any losses incurred from a hurricane. We, however, learned otherwise. It’s frightfully expensive because of the risks and small number of people among whom to spread those risks.

The Mississippi Wind Pool was granted a sizeable rate increase a couple of years ago that made my premium $2,500 per year. Now, there’s a request from the insurance company that administers the wind pool for an increase of 400%. I’m lousy at math but I know I won’t like that figure added to what I’m already paying, and that’s in addition to homeowner’s insurance and flood insurance.

I heard Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale speak at a May 8 Stennis Institute Capitol Press Corps luncheon at Hal & Mal’s, where he gave no indication of what percentage of that increase will be granted but expects a decision to be made within 30 days.

He says he’s been the recipient of a large amount of hate mail and phone calls since the hurricane. Most of it comes from devastated homeowners who are not pleased with settlements from insurance companies.

Some of it comes from people far removed from the Coast who fear their rates will increase to reduce costs for coastal residents. “A man from Grenada left a message saying, ‘don’t you dare raise my rates to help those people on the Coast,’” Dale said. “If I had talked to him, I would have told him that maybe the people on the Coast will keep all their casino tax money and not spread it statewide to help his schools and state services in Grenada.”

The man in Grenada should not worry. There’s not a chance the Legislature will take the politically-incorrect step of spreading the Wind Pool insurance across Mississippi. Maybe help will come in a program similar to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Dale, who’s in his eighth term as insurance commissioner, says maybe it’s time to ask where people can live. “In different parts of the country we have mudslides, wild fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. Should we make insurance companies pay? Or the federal government?” he said. “I advocate an all-perils policy with water and earthquakes included.”

Reminding that insurance is a law of large numbers to spread the risks, he says we must look at federal tax laws and allow companies to put up more reserves in addition to the possibility of some type of government backstop for the insurance industry, similar to the flood program.

His closing advice was to stay out of the Wind Pool. That’s little comfort to those of us already in it, looking for a way to return to the homes we love. It would also be impossible to avoid for most anyone purchasing a home in certain coastal areas because lenders require wind insurance.

I feel like I’m in a catch-22; that is unless someone in Grenada would like to swap houses with me.

Meanwhile, we trudge on in our rebuilding efforts and prepare for the next hurricane season.

Freelance writer Lynn Lofton writes regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Her e-mail address is llofton656@aol.com.

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