Help in the form of a national multi-peril insurance program is expected to come to the Coast still recovering and rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina’s August 29, 2005, landfall. The legislation is set to go to a conference committee of the U.S. House and Senate.
That message was delivered by U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and a delegation of high-ranking Democratic members of Congress at a town hall meeting last week in Bay St. Louis.
The group of 20 included Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, as well as other congressman from across the country. It was Pelosi’s third trip to Mississippi and Louisiana to see the damage first hand and hear stories of residents’ struggles to rebuild their lives.
Driving home the need
for multi-peril legislation
“We brought this delegation here to drive home the need for multi-peril legislation,” Taylor said. “After the storm, insurance companies were quick to pay flood insurance policies. That’s because it’s federal coverage and the risks are spread out.”
He said flood coverage was paid even though officials at Stennis Space Center clocked winds in excess of 100 miles per hour hours before any water came ashore. “Insurance companies should have paid the $1.3 billion cost of housing survivors that the federal government paid,” he said.
The legislation stipulates that multi-peril policies will be available only where local governments adopt International Building Codes. The bill, introduced in February 2007, is endorsed by the national associations of home builders, Realtors and bankers. The bill has language to prohibit the concurrent causation provision used by insurance companies to deny homeowners’ claims, and will create one standard for these companies. At this time, insurance regulations vary from state to state. It will also make wind coverage affordable by spreading risks across the country.
“This is not just a Mississippi problem,” Taylor said. “It’s for all coastal states. Fifty-three percent of Americans now live in coastal areas.”
‘It’s an issue about the people,’
House Speaker Pelosi asserts
Pelosi said the need for multi-peril insurance strikes to the heart of what communities are and the obligation of the federal government. “That’s the importance of this bill,” she said. “It’s an issue about the people. It’s not Democrat or Republican. Nobody was a better messenger than Gene Taylor. He got a big, strong bi-partisan support, and we have the support to go forward with this bill. I can say with complete confidence that Mr. Taylor will not let us rest until we act on it.”
The meeting room was filled to capacity with residents and elected officials from all over the Coast. They came for information and to thank the congressional delegation for their help.
Real estate broker Steve Bullard of Ocean Springs worries that President Bush will veto the legislation, bowing to insurance lobbyists. “I’ve been following it,” he said. “The lobbyists are so strong and they’ve got him wrapped around their little finger. The cost of insurance is hurting us with home sales. Even people who have money to buy can’t afford the coverage.”
State Rep. Diane Peranich expressed gratitude to Taylor for bringing Pelosi to Mississippi three times. “She listened to our pleas,” she said. “An example is how she helped us get a permit for the water well at DeLisle Elementary School, the only school Katrina left standing in Pass Christian.”
Pass Christian Schools Superintendent Sue Matheson agreed. “I want to reiterate how much the restart grant helped us,” she said. “Without it, I don’t think we would have survived.”
“I’m here to beg because we still need help,” Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie said.
Father Louis Lohan, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Long Beach, attended because of his church’s connection with Pelosi. Her home church, St. Helena in St. Helena, Calif., adopted the Long Beach church soon after Katrina.
“They have sent money and volunteers and continue to do so,” he said. “When we didn’t have anywhere to store supplies, they bought and shipped a storage shed to us.”
Formal comments were made to the group by several Coast residents who showed before and after slides of their homes on a large screen. Each told a tale of thinking they had coverage only to be denied any money from their insurance carriers.
After legal action, Bay St. Louis resident Brian Feeney was paid $9,411 on a policy written with $506,900 worth of coverage. “We’re still fighting the battle and it’s taking a big toll on our lives,” he said. “We’ve been hit twice.”
Biloxi attorney Judy Guice said homeowners were derided for not reading and understanding their policies. She illustrated the complexity of her 25-page policy with a slide of page 10 of the contract.
Guice added that people should not have to go through the stressful process of litigation. “That’s what a contract is for,” she said. “I have faith in the legal system, but it takes too long. Insurance companies delay and force us to litigate because they know we can’t wait.”
Craig Smith, owner of Smart Homes in Gulfport, was instrumental in getting support for the bill from the National Association of Home Builders. “The inability of many people to rebuild is putting people out of work,” he said. “People can’t buy homes without a mortgage and without insurance they can’t get a mortgage and they can’t afford coverage.”
The last member of the panel to speak was Hancock Bank president George Schloegel, who pointed out that residents need wind coverage going forward. “When we bought our policies, we thought we had coverage,” he said. “We’re poised to rebuild and our people want to rebuild.”
He said 39 new insurance companies are licensed to do business in the state, yet the question of wind and water still prevails.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.