“Lawyer

We end the third year since Katrina with more lawyers shoveling smoke in Mississippi than in any other state – certainly on a per capita basis, if not by actual count. The question yet to be answered is “Where’s the fire?”

Katrina left over 60,000 Mississippi families homeless. One of those happened to be the family of a man the Wall Street Journal has called the King of Torts. To those on the Coast slabbed first by Katrina and then by their insurance provider, he was known as Dickie, King of Hope

Now, he has lawyers; his son has lawyers, his associate has lawyers and there is no longer a group of lawyers known as the Scruggs Katrina Group – and all are shoving smoke blown their way by a lawyer named Balducci – reportedly working for either Scruggs or SKG – who made what can only be called a significant error in judgment by either attempting to bribe a judge or confessing to such. There’s still too much smoke to tell exactly which it was; but, under all that smoke is a case filed against Scruggs by a group of lawyers that were associated with the Katrina Group. Now they have lawyers, too.

We’ve got such a booming lawyer business going here that our Insurance Commission picked up the tab for lawyers to represent State Farm when SKG deposed a member of the Department’s staff on matters related to claims filed by State Farm policy holders. The Commissioner had to get approval to pay State Farm’s lawyers from the Attorney General who has lawyers of his own because State Farm is suing him – remember Mississippi is the Hospitality State. Come to find out, that what we got for our money was a State Farm lawyer telling the man, “Don’t answer that”.

In light of that shovel full of smoke, it’s hard to believe that State Farm has now filed a suit to make Scruggs “answer that” – at least, they’re paying their own lawyers this time. If you’re confused, don’t be ashamed. The judge got so confused he couldn’t tell whose interest Scruggs was representing. It seems like he could have asked; but, at Ground Zero, points of law and common sense can be two entirely different matters.

We don’t shovel smoke here at the Mississippi Insurance Forum. Our purpose is to blow all the smoke away and see if there’s any fire under the hot tin roof that’s smoldering down here – and that would be Tennessee Williams and not John Gresham, by the way. Stay tuned for more and Happy New Year.

George Schloegel of Hancock Bank on the Insurance Crisis in Mississippi

“The status quo of doing nothing is absolutely not acceptable”, said George Schloegel, Chairman and CEO of Hancock Bank, to the assembled members of Congress on our insurance crisis. Banks will not lend on projects that aren’t insured and the lack of insurance options on the coast has killed many otherwise economically viable projects.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fa_XJAVtnA]

Dave Dennis on Insurance

“For the average person it is fundamentally not working…” said Dave Dennis, owner of Specialty Contractors and current board member on the New Orleans Federal Reserve on the insurance market in Mississippi, specifically the Gulf Coast. This issue is not about liberal or conservative, republican or democrat as all of us here on the coast are suffering the proverbial boot to our throats applied by big insurance and their Mississippi based scallywag enablers.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CKZ-M5T66k]

Update: Today the Sun Herald ran this story on Dave Dennis and his retirement from the New Orleans Fed:

“For many people, the Federal Reserve might be a mysterious board that deals mainly with interest rates. Following Hurricane Katrina, the Fed helped South Mississippians and New Orleanians in a very concrete way. And a Coast businessman can be credited with helping make that possible.

Dave Dennis, president and CEO of Specialty Contractors & Associates Inc., in Gulfport, has served on the New Orleans branch of the Federal Reserve Board of Directors since 2001 and was appointed by the governors. He is retiring from the board when his term expires this month.

“He has been an outstanding director,” said Bob Musso, senior vice president and branch manager of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, New Orleans branch. “And he’s been an outstanding ambassador for the Federal Reserve.”

Another Great Editorial in Today’s Clarion Ledger

Here is another very well reasoned editorial from our friends at the Clarion Ledger in Jackson:

Insurance: Katrina demonstrates need for bill

Fourth District U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor says he will fight again in 2008 for a bill to add wind coverage to federal flood insurance for protection from another hurricane like Katrina.

But, if so, he’s going to have to find an ally in the Senate.

The House bill, which Taylor co-sponsored, with the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., added wind coverage to the National Flood Insurance Program. But the wind coverage provision was not included in a bill the Senate Banking Committee approved, The Associated Press reported. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has blocked a vote by the full Senate because optional wind coverage and higher coverage limits were not included.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Taylor said he can understand Dodd’s objections because of the insurance interests headquartered in his state. “Shelby is the one I keep scratching my head over,” he said, because of his constituents in coastal Alabama.

Republican Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran supports the multiple-perils bill. He should lobby his colleagues for it. Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

Taylor’s bill had already been massaged by the House to meet potential objections. Pelosi led a 13-member congressional fact-finding mission to the Coast in August. Listening to victims at a town hall meeting in Bay St. Louis, she pledged to help, but even she acknowledged: “We’re up against a mighty force (lobbying efforts of the insurance industry).”

Pelosi helped push Taylor’s “multi-peril” Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007 through the Financial Services Committee in July, and it went to the Senate with full House backing as HR3121. It would allow flood insurance policyholders to purchase wind insurance or as a stand-alone policy, and increases limits.

Catastrophic insurance for hurricanes remains a need for U.S. coastal areas nationwide, so it could – and should – be resurrected. Mississippi is not alone in facing higher insurance premiums, if it’s available.

As has been noted in www.clarionledger.com/forums under “Katrina-related issues,” home insurance rates are skyrocketing in all the nation’s coastal areas. The experience with Katrina on the Coast, still waiting for insurance and government promised relief, is evidence for HR3121.

As one reader wrote: “My husband and I chose to stay here, even though we lost everything we owned, because of his business. It cost everything we had and then some to build a new home, miles away from the water and insurance was still astronomical. But … if we waited for progress to be made down here, we would be dead.”

HR3121 should not be allowed to die. The very life of the Coast could be at stake.

HR3121 News Out Today

Folks, when Gene Taylor isn’t fighting us here on the Coast he is looking after our Mississippi boys serving in Iraq, this time bringing them 50 gallons of Tony Trapani’s best seafood gumbo for a special Christmas Eve dinner in Iraq. Now Gene is not some tin horn chicken hawk content to send other people sons and daughters to fight George Bush’s war as his own flesh and blood is on the wall for us in Middle East. God bless Gene Taylor and his service to all of us here in the Mississippi 4th congressional district.

There are two stories out today about the status of HR3121. Some local background is in order as it was clear to me back in August at Gene’s town hall meeting that the assembled democratic leadership (which included Jim Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi) saw our nation’s coastal insurance problems as a potent campaign issue. Gene may have taken the first shot today at a now locally famous GOP corporate water boy, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama.

“The Senate bill was sponsored by banking committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Taylor said he can understand Dodd’s objections because of the insurance interests headquartered in his state. “Shelby is the one I keep scratching my head over,” said Taylor, who thought the senator would support the measure because of his constituents in coastal Alabama.”

Now it appears the AP story picked up by the Clarion Ledger derives from Anita Lee’s story at the Sun Herald but contains a few paragraphs (the last two in this excerpt) not found in the Sun Herald piece:

“Taylor, D-Miss., who represents south Mississippi in Congress, said Wednesday that people won’t build back on the Gulf Coast until they are able to buy insurance they can depend on.

Critics of multiple-peril insurance say such a program would be financially unsound, leading to more debt on top of the $20 billion NFIP incurred from Hurricane Katrina.

Taylor said it would be better to spread hurricane risk among coastal states rather than have individual states assume those risks. Mississippi, for example, offers wind insurance for six coastal counties. Florida and other states also have wind pools.”

To date this Cowboy is not aware of one shred of evidence these “critics” have presented to support their assertion that HR 3121 would be financially unsound. Also the critics the story quotes leave out the unpleasant fact that it has been alleged that as much as $9 BILLION dollars of wind claims may have been dumped on the taxpayers via the flood program.

Down here folks when someone intentionally spreads a half truth it’s called, “pissing on your leg and saying it’s raining.” When it comes to the debate on HR3121 and it’s unnamed critics, it’s best to come to the hoe down equipped with an umbrella.

Mr. Rogers Couldn’t “Make Believe” this Neighborhood

Before Katrina, the mix of neighborhoods in the three coastal counties of Mississippi was typical small town America and the place called home to those living there.


Home after home looked like this in neighborhoods from Ground Zero to the Alabama state line after Katrina. Because the wind had earlier blown the roof off this house, when the water came, the lucky owner and his family were able to roof raft their way to safety in what he later called the ultimate water ride.

Over two years after Katrina, this home and countless others look like this – each in some way a casualty of the insurance war. Many, like this homeowner, are victims of the uncertainty. As Mr. Rogers sang, he “wants to have a neighbor just like you…to live in a neighborhood with you.”

Rebuilding is more than construction. Neighborhoods are the infrastructure of both the built and social community. Unless a home owner can self insure, he is limited to the current $250,000 limit of flood insurance since windstorm policy recovery has proven problematic. At the current cost of construction, that equates to a home of approximately 1800 square feet – larger than the largest Katrina Cottage but considerably smaller than many of the homes lost to the storm.

The longer the uncertainty lingers, the more difficult it becomes to rebuild the social community. Social networks provide relationships that connect people to essential social supports in much the same way that roads connect the built community. Many consider these social networks “the ‘scaffolding’ or framework upon which successful community-building efforts are created.”

The wind came first, then the water – washing away all but the truth. “Somewhere deep inside each one of us human beings is a longing to know that all will be well.”

Purchasing Insurance: Market Transparency and Other Important Concepts

At the Mississippi Insurance Forum we have identified two main problems with Property and Casualty insurance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

1. Unfair and predatory claims handling as demonstrated by the unrefuted fact patterns in cases like McIntosh v. State Farm where State Farm threatened to fire their own engineers who found wind damage as the primary cause of the loss rather than flooding. State Farm actually ordered additional engineering reports until they received the “answer” they requested in such cases.

2. A lack of transparency in insurance product pricing, especially in the area of reinsurance.

While we will tackle both issues its worth noting the first has already received a fair amount of press attention while the second has not been addressed in detail except at a few web sites like this one. I suspect the reason the economic concept of market transparency has received such little attention is because it is complicated to explain and understand. I endeavor with this entry to start our readership along the path to understanding these important yet basic economic principles.

First we need to start with the decision to purchase a multi-peril homeowner’s policy and examine the criteria consumers use when selecting an insurer. Think about it, how did you choose your insurance agent and insurer? Did you let your fingers do the walking or perhaps you received a referral from a friend of the agent? Or maybe we thought the ad we saw during the football game was good and we feel safe knowing the local agent in the spot showed up when the house burned down. Maybe as a first time homebuyer you got a good tip from your mortgage broker on who to use. Another good question is why did you buy the policy? Because it was it required by the bank or mortgage company? What about the policy limits, were they set to only cover paying off the mortgage because it was cheaper than insuring the total value? How many times since you first purchased the policy have you evaluated the risks you are paying to insure?

These are all very important questions. My professional experience preparing post Katrina income tax returns with casualty loss is that most people literally are asleep at the wheel when it comes to assessing the risks that may impact them in the future. In fact I submit it is basic human nature to avoid thinking about such unpleasant possible future events. The end result of burying ones head in the sand is invariably bad for the consumer once disaster strikes.

Post disaster hindsight reveals the complete inadequacy of the original criteria we used to select an insurer. For instance, the fact your local State Farm agent is a good guy (mine is for certain) is meaningless when the “good neighbor” refuses to pay for an insured risk. And all the accumulated advertising we’ve seen never prepared us for the very real possibility the good neighbor will force many of it’s customers to use the court system to collect on the policy as a matter of internal claims handling policy.

Had we used good criteria originally to purchase insurance, we would have considered variables such as recent claims handing histories of these companies in our purchase decision. I’ve had people I know off the coast tell me they are not worried about State Farm covering windstorm risks because they are “too high to flood”. Human nature then takes over for a time, refusing to believe that State Farm refused to cover obvious wind damage in Oklahoma City after an F5 tornado struck there in May 1999 or that a jury there found, “that State Farm “recklessly disregarded” its duty to deal fairly with policyholders, doing so “intentionally and with malice” through the use of biased expert opinions after the 1999 tornado.” Perhaps we decide to switch to another insurer such as Allstate only to find out their internal documents describe treating a claimant/customer with “Boxing Gloves” instead of “good hands” and their record in customer treatment in automobile insurance claims appears abysmal. In fact we find out that according to the AM Best, “In the decade after Allstate instituted the McKinsey program in 1995, the amount of money it paid out per premium dollar in car accident cases declined from about 63 cents to 47 cents”. Most importantly we find out the lack of good information the consumer has to evaluate insurers is stunning.

Insurers on the other hand know a good bit about their customers. They know your credit score for instance and will rely on a computer model to determine how your claim is handled. In a previous post on this forum I detailed how insurers spend big money on weather modeling to assess the risk they face. In short most consumers use subjective, sometimes emotional criteria to purchase insurance while insurance companies use objective criteria in how they conduct business. The gap in market knowledge between insurers and consumers is referred to in economics as Information Asymmetry, and is defined as “A situation in which one party in a transaction has more or superior information compared to another. This often happens in transactions where the seller knows more than the buyer, although the reverse can happen as well. Potentially, this could be a harmful situation because one party can take advantage of the other party’s lack of knowledge.”

In future posts we will further examine the concepts of Asymmetric information and how it translates into premium pricing, especially in reinsurance.

sop

Home for Christmas…only in dreams

Since Christmas 2004, many of the people of Katrina Ground Zero have been home for Christmasonly in their dreams.

All do dream. Whatever they called “home” – humble or grand, rented or owned, is gone. Some 14,000 are celebrating yet another Christmas in a travel trailer. Others are sharing space in another family’s home. Many of those able to find temporary housing found little more than a roof over their head.

The emotional and financial toll is staggering and there is no Santa Clause delivering a Gulf Coast version of Miracle on 34 Street for those caught in the crossfire of the “insurance war” or the logjam in Congress over HB3121.

As they have done since Katrina, the people of Ground Zero continue to give to others at Christmas – even when all they have to give is themselves.

Although most had been “slabbed” by Katrina, the remaining members of the Coast Choral – about one-third the number before the storm – gathered to sing their annual concert that first Christmas. Yet unable to replace the music and other items lost to Katrina by Christmas 2007, they continue to bring “Joy to the World of Ground Zero.

In the spirit of Christmas, please remember the people of Ground Zero who will be home for Christmas…only in dreams.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gun3DDatWjs]

Good Editorial in Todays Clarion Ledger

Here is a well reasoned opinion on the impact of the current legal mess and it’s impact on coast residents seeking justice.

“Katrina lawsuits: Coast residents want justice

The Clarion-Ledger

For Mississippi Hurricane Katrina victims, hope for recovery from the storm took a sickening turn with the charges lodged against attorney Dickie Scruggs.

State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. is seeking to have attorneys with Scruggs’ “Katrina Litigation Group” representing policyholders thrown off a key case because the insurer claims the lawyers have behaved unethically.

Scruggs withdrew from most of his firm’s Katrina cases after his indictment on charges he tried to bribe a judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over legal fees.

The newly formed group, which includes members of Scruggs’ legal team, is now handling hundreds of cases on behalf of Coast policyholders in “wind vs. water” disputes, alleging the insurer failed to honor claims.

State Farm claims that Scruggs and members of his team have committed “highly unethical acts,” such as illicitly obtaining internal claims records, and have “irreparably perverted the litigation process.”

Scruggs’ indictment has muddied the water for policyholders. The more cases are delayed, the longer the recovery can take – if homeowners don’t just give up or move away. About 14,902 families still are in temporary housing units in Mississippi.

In clarionledger.com’s Forums, under Katrina-related issues, Mississippi Insurance Forum, readers commiserate. Says one: “‘Ain’t life grand?’ For some people, maybe, but nothing’s grand for the people on the Coast that were ‘slabbed’ by Katrina, ‘stabbed’ by their ‘good neighbor,’ and forced to live out a horror story that even Hitchcock would find frightening.

“Life’s not going to be grand for anyone in our state until we get to the bottom of this mess … Unfortunately it’s going to take a long time – longer, I fear, that folks with valid claims can hold on.”

Mississippians have the “want to” for rebuilding. The legal disputes need to be resolved.”

Wind: “Breaking News”

If you missed Sop’s post last Friday, scroll down and take a look and look at the pictures he took after Katrina. Pay particular attention to picture number three. Note his question – How is it that the majority of the houses on this street stood while three houses in close proximity of one another were reduced to rubble?- and his answer – a tornado or mini-tornado – evidenced by the damage to nearby trees.

Some claim there were no tornadoes documented in Katrina as the storm hit and passed over the coastal counties.

Could this be a case where there are two sides of the story and both are true? Let’s visit the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, take a look at a hurricane, and see what we can find out.

Hurricanes initiate from an area of thunderstorms. Once these thunderstorms become a hurricane, an “eye” is located near the center and surrounded by an “eye wall” containing the most damaging wind and intense rain. Tornadoes [are] found within the eye wall and in the spiral bands outside.

 

However, a tornado’s circulation is present on the ground either as a funnel–shaped cloud or a swirling cloud of dust and debris. In other words, evidence of a tornado will be a damaged area somewhat circular in shape.

The damage Sop pointed out was linear. Nonetheless, it was very real and distinctly different from other wind damage – exactly the type of damage caused by what is called a plough wind.

Plough winds belong to a family of strong, straight-line downburst winds found in thunderstorms. When they strike the ground the air spreads horizontally in a burst of wind, much like water pouring from a tap and striking the sink below.

Plough winds can blow continuously but the damage is usually confined to an area less than 3 km [or approximately 2 miles] across. They are more common than tornadoes and have the power of a twister but the damage pattern looks different – a starburst or more commonly a straight line.

How could the linear pattern of damage in Sop’s picture be the result of anything other than plough winds from the thunderstorms that formed hurricane Katrina?

Ask Sop who paid. “I personally know of at least one such resident who was only paid on their flood policy instead of their private wind policy. That’s right ladies and gents, the bill was on you, the taxpayers.”