Distribution center set up in AlexandriaThursday, 7:33 p.m.
By Joan Treadway
ALEXANDRIA - Abriyelle, an 18-month-old evacuee from Westwego, sat in a shopping cart, clutching a play clock from a pile of toys and other items that were donated to Katrina survivors.
She was too young to say thanks to the people running the Alexandria center, but her mother, April Benjamin, 22, told them, “I appreciate this to the fullest,” as she and her husband, Keith, 21, exited the brick building, carrying piles of diapers and paper towels.
The young couple, who both work in a West Bank pizza shop, are now living in public housing in central Louisiana, and had no idea when they will be able to return to their water-damaged home.
Their gratitude is typical for the thousands of evacuees who have flooded the center to get free food, clothing and other necessities, said David Marsh, who, as the incoming chairman of the board of United Way of Central Louisiana, is in charge of the project. The operation is being run with the help of hundreds of volunteers and the items being given away are coming from Alexandria residents as well as out-of-state donors.
Marsh, 61, is the vice president of the Red River Bank, which had given him time off to head the charitable operation. As a businessman, it would probably take him one year to open a distribution center, he said, “but we did this overnight.”
While evacuee shoppers are coming in the front doors of the building, a defunct supermarket, workers from area churches and other nonprofit groups that are aiding evacuees are lining up for boxes of supplies at the center’s rear entrance, he said.
Annelle Tanner, 59, a local registered nurse, is cutting back her regular work schedule to volunteer at the center, she said: “I used to live in New Orleans and I felt like I just had to do something.”
Shoppers are being asked only for some form of identification that shows they are residents of the hurricane-ravaged area. Tanner said some of them are even showing pictures they have taken of their damaged or destroyed homes.
Louise Franklin, 93, who fled her Lower 9th Ward home Sunday, before the area was flooded, got a few blouses and a pair of shoes from the center recently. She walked out, leaning on her cane, assisted by her brother, Freddie Johnson, 71, a retired boiler plant operator. Both of them are living in his RV, which is parked in an area campground.
Katrina has been the worst experience of her life, Franklin said. The worst part is not knowing whether her home is still standing, she said.
“I’m glad to get any help,” she said. “I don’t want to talk too much because I’ll get full of tears, and I don’t want to cry.”
Another shopper, Billy Lindner, 36, of Gretna, was filling his basket with clothing for his two young children and was especially glad to have found two small pairs of rubber boots for them. The family is staying at a relative’s nearby home.
He is an employee at an oil refinery in Jesuit Bend, but has not yet been called back to his job. Meanwhile, he said, “I still have to pay the mortgage and bills.”
He called the center and other forms of assistance for evacuees “a great help.”
Residents in four parishes given more time to apply for food stampsThursday, 6:55 p.m.
By Ed Anderson
BATON ROUGE – Residents in the four parishes hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina – Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines -- will have additional time to apply for disaster-related food stamps, state officials said Thursday.
The deadline was changed from 4:30 p.m. Thursday to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 22, said Department of Social Services Secretary Ann Williamson.
So far, 281,351 individuals have received more than $103 million in disaster food stamps, said department spokeswoman Nanette White. Applications for the emergency program began Sept. 2.
Because of the volume of people who have not been able to gain access a branch of the state Office of Family Support and Family Assistance because they have been displaced, the deadline to apply for the emergency benefits was extended, White said.
Delays in getting offices open in some parishes in other south Louisiana parishes less-severly hit by Katrina has also caused a slight extension of deadlines in applying for emergency food stamps, Williamson said
Instead of facing Thursday’s cut-off, residents in St. Tammany Parish have until 4:30 p.m. Friday to apply at mobile offices in Slidell and Covington; residents of Washington Parish have until 4:30 p.m. Saturday; and residents of West Feliciana have until 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
If the applicants cannot get to their parish offices to apply, White said, they can file an application at any Office of Family Support and Family Assistance in the state between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
White said that means if a displaced person from St. Bernard is being housed in a shelter in Shreveport, the evacuee can go to the office in Caddo Parish an apply.
“Verification of identity and residency, if possible, will be required in order to be eligible,’’ White said.
Eligibility factors include income level, available resources, expenses, number of people in a household and having Social Security numbers.
A single-person household could be eligible for up to $149 a month, a two-family household could get up to $274 a month, and a household of three could get up to $393 a month.
This is the maximum monthly schedule for larger families:
-- A household of four, up to $499.
-- A household of five, up to $592.
-- A household of six, up to $711.
-- A household of seven, up to $786.
-- A household of eight, up to $898.
-- A household of nine, up to $1,010.
-- A household of 10, up to $1,122.
More information about the program may be obtained by calling a toll-free number, 1-888-LAHELPU (1-888-524-3578) or at www.dss.state.la.us.
Returns set for rest of Jefferson6:34 p.m.
By Michelle Hunter
East Jefferson bureau
Almost all of Jefferson Parish will be open to residents by Wednesday at 5 a.m., Parish President Aaron Broussard said.
“This is the news that all my Jefferson Parish residents in exile have been waiting for,” he said Thursday evening as he announced a plan for staggered re-entry.
Residents of Kenner, Harahan, Westwego, Jean Lafitte and Gretna have already been invited to return homes. Because of the devastation in Grand Isle, Broussard said he is letting Mayor David Camardelle determine a re-entry schedule there.
The latest re-entry schedule is:
Friday -- All West Jefferson residents living west of the Harvey Canal, and all east bank residents living south of Airline Drive except those living in the Rio Vista neighborhood in Old Jefferson.
Saturday -- All West Jefferson residents living east of the Harvey Canal, and all Metairie residents living between the Kenner and Transcontinental Drive.
Sunday -- All Metairie residents north of Interstate 10 between Transcontinental and New Orleans.
Monday -- Rio Vista residents.
Wednesday -- All remaining Metairie residents living in the area bounded by I-10, Airline, Transcontinental and New Orleans.
Residents may return beginning at 5 a.m. on their scheduled day, Broussard said.
Interstate 10 eastbound on the east bank is off limits to the public, but the West
Bank Expressway is open, Broussard said.
Authorities will enforce a strict curfew of 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Rio Vista and the central portion of Metairie are on the tail end of the re-entry schedule because those areas were hit by power outages and flooding from the 17th Street Canal, Entergy representative Gary Silbert said. Availability of power and sewerage services also decided the schedule, Broussard said.
As of Thursday, only 10 percent of West Jefferson was without power, 20 percent on the east bank.
As residents return, Broussard said, they will still find scattered utility failures. If the power outages are due to damage to the meter box or the weather head, residents must contact a private electrician.
To report power outages, call Entergy at (800) 368-3749. For sewerage problem, call (504) 736-6006 through -6009, For natural gas leaks, call Atmos at
N.O. couple finds their way to N.Y.C.6:30 p.m.
By Eva Jacob Barkoff
East Jefferson bureau
NEW YORK – Today was Lorna Murphy’s first day working at Faces and
Names, a cozy lounge on 54th Street, just off 7th Avenue in midtown
Murphy was a bartender for Jimani’s Bar, near the corner of Chartres and Iberville in the historic French
Quarter. Her husband, Derek, worked as a carpenter.
The couple rode out Hurricane Katrina in their Warehouse District apartment. But afterward, they knew they had to leave. But with a truck with a quarter tank of gas, they knew they couldn’t get very far.
Fortunately they found a friend with a car and gas he was willing to lend, so the couple headed west, first to Lake Charles, then to Arkansas. Finally, on Sept. 6 then ended up in Plainfield, N.J., where they are now staying with friends.
Along their journey, Murphy said people were sympathetic about their plight.
“The kindness and warmth of people around the country has been unbelievable.”
Murphy admits that she had “no idea of the magnitude of the storm”
until after it hit.
“I had never been through a hurricane before,” Murphy said. “I just
didn’t realize what could happen before, during and after a storm like
this after it hits an area.”
Returning to live in New Orleans is something Murphy and her husband,
who has also found work in the New York area, would one day like to do.
“Right now, my husband’s heart is broken,” Murphy said. “He wants to go
back as soon as possible because he wants to help in re-building New
Orleans. But right now, I don’t want to go back. We both have to get on
with our lives and see what happens in the future. We miss our New
Orleans homes but for now, we are in a good place.
“But I can tell you this. If and when we go back to New Orleans again
to live, the first smell of a hurricane and I will be out of there.”
Eva Jacob Barkoff may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Families file suit over insurance policies6:21 p.m., Thursday
By Jeffrey Meitrodt
BATON ROUGE – In an attempt to force insurance companies to cover billions of dollars in hurricane damage instead of foisting it on the federal government, a group of 15 families from the New Orleans area filed suit Thursday asking a state court judge to rule that any flooding from Katrina is covered by a resident’s homeowner policy.
The class-action lawsuit, which does not seek any monetary damages, comes amid a chorus of complaints from state lawmakers about the insurance industry’s response to Katrina. At a joint legislative hearing Thursday, representatives of the state’s three largest insurers were accused of shirking their responsibility to residents whose property was destroyed by the storm.
State Rep. Emile “Peppi” Bruneau, R-New Orleans said the insurers had taken an “adversarial position” to their policyholders by declaring that flood damage caused by Katrina is not covered under a homeowner’s insurance policy. Instead, insurers have told residents that such claims must be submitted through the federal government’s flood insurance program. Lawmakers said less than half of the residents in metropolitan New Orleans have flood insurance.
Bruneau warned that “World War III” would break out if the companies don’t change their position.
“I would hope you all would take a very strong message back to your companies that you are going to have some extremely angry people who are not just going to sit there,’’ said Bruneau, who later added, “I think we can do with a little less of the wringing of the hands and a little more creativity.”
While insurance company representatives promised to do whatever they can to pay claims as quickly as possible in Louisiana, they balked at the lawmakers’ request that they pay claims not covered by homeowner’s insurance.
“No doubt there are lawsuits that will come out of this,’’ said E.L. “Bubba” Henry, a lobbyist for State Farm Insurance. “But the insurance policies cover what they say they cover. To tell insurance companies that they must pay for damages that aren’t covered – and that we didn’t collect a premium on – is to bankrupt the industry.’’
Bruneau wasn’t swayed. “I don’t want to see the industry go bankrupt, but I don’t want to see 50,000 to 100,000 people go bankrupt, either.’’
Though homeowners policies provide compensation for damage resulting for high wind, they don’t cover flood damage. Instead, such claims are covered by federal flood insurance, which limits reimbursement to $250,000 – not matter how high the actual damages are.
Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Wooley said it’s possible some insurance companies will broaden the types of claims they’re covering from Katrina, given the exceptional ferocity of the storm. Damages from Katrina are expected to reach $200 billion, a record for a natural disaster in the U.S.
Wooley likened the situation to 9/11, when insurance companies opted to pay about $20 billion to cover losses caused by the terrorist attacks, even though acts of war are specifically exempted from most policies.
“I think you will see that coming into play in some instances’’ for Katrina victims, Wooley told lawmakers on Thursday, though he said he isn’t certain how far the companies could afford to go.
Wooley acknowledged there are “huge gaps” in the losses covered by flood insurance and those covered by homeowners policies, but he said he is confident FEMA will ultimately deliver for the state. He said the agency did an “admirable job” in delivering aid to previous disaster victims.
But lawmakers were upset that FEMA was not at the hearing. The agency’s representative left shortly after it started. Lawmakers said the crisis won’t be resolved until state officials can hold a hearing at which all of the major players are present: the insurance industry, state government and FEMA.
“Someone has to take some leadership in this state,’’ said Sen. James David Cain, R-Dry Creek, chairman of the Senate insurance committee. “We can’t keep dancing around. It’s either going to be the insurance commissioner or the governor or this committee…. And if nobody else is going to do it, we’re going to do it. Somebody’s got to bring this bunch together.’’
Cain threatened to issue subpoenas to FEMA representatives in Louisiana if the agency misses another committee hearing.
FEMA officials declined to comment.
Cain asked Wooley who he thinks should pay for the flood damage, the insurers or the federal government.
“I’m not God,’’ Wooley said. “I’m not able to answer that question.”
Wooley cautioned the lawmakers not to squeeze the insurance industry too hard. “We have an obligation not to bankrupt an entire industry,’’ he said.
Former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown, who is acting as an unpaid consultant for the 15 families who filed the class-action suit on Thursday, said fears of bankruptcy are overblown.
He said the companies involved in Katrina have reserves of $500 billion, which are more than enough to offset the estimated $50 billion in losses they face over the hurricane. What’s more, he said, about 80 percent of those losses will ultimately be covered by huge reinsurance companies in Europe and elsewhere around the world, who took on that risk as an investment.
Brown predicted insurers won’t have trouble taking on an additional $20 billion or so in losses to cover the flood damage they are now trying to shift to the federal government.
“I’m sure it’s going to hurt, but it’s not going to be a bankruptcy situation,’’ Brown said.
The lawsuit estimates that up to 160,000 homes were rendered uninhabitable by the hurricane, mostly because of flood damage caused by levee breaks in the 17th Street Canal and the London Street Canal.
The suit, which was filed in East Baton Rouge Parish, asks that a judge declare that any flooding caused by those levee breaks does not fall within the industry’s standard “rising water” exception and is thus covered by a homeowners policy.
Though the lawsuit does not address flooding caused by storm surge, which inundated homes in St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes, attorney Joseph Bruno said that issue will be addressed soon, either in another lawsuit or within the existing case.
Bruno said his firm does not expect to make any money on the litigation, which is being financed by three big firms that have won billions of dollars in class-action lawsuits in recent years. The firms are Bruno & Bruno, Fayard & Honeycutt, McKernan Law Firm, and Vernon P. Thomas, Esq. He predicted expenses will top $100,000.
“Frankly, getting paid is the last thing I’m worried about right now,’’ Bruno said. “If someone in the future can get us paid, I’ll take it, but that is not my motivation.’’
Bruno has asked that hearings on the case be expedited, but he said residents should not expect a quick resolution. Even if the dispute moves quickly, he said it will be at least six months before the matter reaches the Louisiana Supreme Court, which he expects will make the final ruling on the suit.
The case is one of two that was filed against the nation’s big insurers on Thursday. Mississippi’s Attorney General also sued the industry in an attempt to force them to pay for flood damage, saying standard insurance policies led homeowners to believe they are covered for all hurricane damage, whether from wind or flooding.
“The residents and/or property owners of Mississippi Gulf Coast purchased these policies from defendants for the primary purpose of insuring against any damage that could possibly result from hurricanes originating from the Gulf of Mexico,’’ Attorney General Jim Hood said in his lawsuit.
In Louisiana, lawmakers chafed at the slow process of the nation’s insurance giants, asking why they can’t simply write checks for the limits of policies in areas which are likely to be declared a total loss by FEMA, such as the lower 9th Ward in Orleans Parish and most of St. Bernard Parish.
As it stands, adjusters won’t be able to visit some of those areas for weeks, if not months, because they can’t inspect a property until the homeowner returns.
Sen. Ann Duplessis, whose eastern New Orleans home was flooded by the storm, said insurers don’t even have to send an adjuster in some areas because it’s obvious whole swaths of the city were under eight feet of water or more for two weeks.
“I’d like to know why you can’t just pay the face value of the policy so people can get on with their lives,’’ Duplessis said.
Henry said the company can’t pay that kind of money without actually visiting the property, but he noted that State Farm has handed out $2,500 checks to about 90,000 homeowners who were hurt by Katrina. Those payments were considered an advance on their covered losses, and cost the company about $225 million.
Though it may take a long time to rebuild the region, Henry said, “I don’t think it’s going to take two to three years to pay those claims.’’
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jeffrey Meitrodt can be reached at Meitrodt@cox.net.
Lt. Gov. to ask how New York restarted its tourism industry after 9/11Thursday, 6:14 p.m.
By Rebecca Mowbray
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu will travel to New York today to meet with officials in New York to see how that city’s experience managing million of dollars of aid after the 2001 terrorist attacks -- and its experience restarting its tourism industry -- can help Louisiana, Landrieu said Thursday.
In New York, Landrieu will participate in disaster fundraising efforts and meet with New York state and city officials about how to make the best use of offers of assistance. He also will meet with officials from the Travel Industry Association of America and the Travel Business Roundtable, an industry group headed by Jonathan Tisch, chief executive of Loews Hotels, which has a property in New Orleans.
Landrieu, de facto head of the state’s tourism industry in his role as lieutenant governor, said the tourism industry faces a long and difficult road, but can be re-built because the city’s cultural assets survived. The French Quarter and other historic areas survived the storm. So did the city’s unique musical and culinary heritage.
“It’s becoming painfully obvious that our cultural assets are critically important to what the city looks like,” said Landrieu, who heads an effort to build Louisiana’s ‘cultural economy.’ “One of the things we learned from this storm is that the things that we took for granted are the most valuable to us.”
Landrieu will hold a meeting of tourism leaders on Tuesday in Baton Rouge to announce the state’s tourism recovery plan. Landrieu thinks it is possible to get federal money to help promote Louisiana tourism the way New York did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He said that it will be a challenge to hang onto the city’s musicians, artists and chefs while the city is shut down. But by using the opportunity to re-build New Orleans while solving its problems, the city can lure back its intellectual assets.
While New Orleanians are away, they will pick up new ideas from other places that they can bring back to New Orleans, but they’ll also realize that New Orleans has things that other cities don’t. “They’re going to bring those ideas back,” Landrieu said. “This is a competition. At the end of the day, we’re competing for citizens.”
JPAS cancels seasonBy Joe Darby
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s 2005-06 season has been canceled because both of its theaters suffered major damage in Hurricane Katrina.
JPAS had scheduled more than a dozen productions to be held at East Jefferson High School’s auditorium and at the 1-year-old Westwego Performing Arts Theatre.
The aging auditorium and the new Westwego theater suffered roof damage, and water poured into the buildings, said Dennis Assaf, executive and artistic director of JPAS. Both theaters have standing water in their orchestra pits, he said.
“It looks like it’s going to take a year to make these repairs, and I know other things may take priority,” said Assaf, who lost his home to Katrina.
He said he had to lay off all of the JPAS paid staff. “Right now I am the JPAS,” he said.
Assaf said he is devising a system to provide refunds to people who purchased 2005-06 season tickets.
Temporary housing moved to industrial plantsThursday, 6:09 p.m.
By Ed Anderson
and Allen Powell II
BATON ROUGE – The Shell Oil Terminal in St. James Parish on Thursday moved 161 trailers onto its site to put its Hurricane Katrina-displaced employees back to work, state officals said.
Don Pierson, assistant secretary of the Department of Economic Development, said that by the end of business Thursday about 525 trailer housing units supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in place for employees of “critical, strategic industries’’in south Louisiana. That includes oil refineries and chemical plants. Another 545 units are on order and are expected to be in place “in a week to 10 days’’ Pierson said.
The number of plant workers currently without homes was not available, officials said. The industries put in requests to the state for the housing.
“This is hard-hat housing,’’ Pierson said.
He said as soon as the trailers are in place, workers can return to their jobs, start drawing paychecks and get the local economy “up and running.’’
“We have to get those (industries) strategically important to America back on line,’’ he said. “The effort to get the refineries back on line is important.’’
Pierson said the housing will not be for contract workers, but the plants’ employees who will first be put to work cleaning up the sites then return to their regular jobs when the facilities are back in operation. Other plants in line for the temporary housing in the coming days include Dow in Plaquemine and Exxon in Baton Rouge.
Some of the trailers will be connected to municipal water and electrical hookups, while others are being located at industries that have their own self-contained electrical and water sources.
Department officials said another 20 trailers were en route late Thursday to the Shell complex plant in Norco.
Pierson said despite Katrina’s damages, Louisiana remains “open for business.’’
St. Charles Parish refineries up and runningThursday, 6:08 p.m.
By Jenny Hurwitz
River Parishes bureau
Two major St. Charles Parish refineries are up and
running at full and near-to-full capacities after
about two weeks of stalled and limited operations
brought on by facility damages and power outages
resulting from Hurricane Katrina.
While Norco, where both refineries are
located, escaped the catastrophic damage felt in some areas, both plants shut down entirely, due in part to flooding and other
damages inflicted by the storm. They have only
recently resumed normal operations, according to
spokespeople from both plants.
At its height, Hurricane Katrina knocked out 10
refineries representing 25 percent of the nation’s
refining capacity, said Sharon
Dey, director of communications for the National
Petrochemical and Refiners Association, based in
As of Thursday, four refineries, representing 5
percent of the total U.S. refining capacity, remain
shut indefinitely, Dey said.
“We took a very strong blow to that region,” she
said. “I can’t speculate on how long it would be—it
could be a couple months before they’re back up,” she
In St. Charles Parish, the Valero Norco Refinery, which has a 260,000
barrel-per-day capacity, was operating at maximum
capacity as of Thursday, Valero spokesman
Ron Guillory said. And the Motiva St. Charles Refining
plant, with a 240,000 barrel-per-day capacity was
nearing capacity Thursday, said
Darci Sinclair, senior media relations specialist with
A third, smaller refinery, Shell Chemical in St. Rose,
also sustained damages but should be back up soon,
although Sinclair was not able to specify a start-up
date. That plant produces 55,000 barrels per day.
The Valero plant sustained
flooding in certain portions of the facility and minor
structural damages to a holding tank, Guillory said.
But the main reasons for stalled operations were a
lack of electricity and staffing, he said.
At Motiva St. Charles, frequent flaring – often seen as large flames from smokestacks - has been
occurring as part of the start-up
procedure, Sinclair said. That flaring, which enables
the plant to burn excess fuel, will continue for
the duration of the start-up sequence. Sinclair could
not say how long it would last.
While the refineries in St. Charles Parish appear to
be regrouping, industry analysts maintain that the
effects of the storm are continuing to hamper
consumers at the pump.
“Prices have started to come down, but the U.S.
gasoline situation remains far from normal, and prices
remain well above pre-Katrina levels,” Dey said.
State treasurer worried about government financesThursday, 6:05 p.m.
By Jan Moller
BATON ROUGE – State Treasurer John Kennedy said Thursday that while he is confident that the state can remain fiscally solvent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he is not as confident that local governments can weather the loss of tax revenue
“The real challenge in the state of Louisiana is going to be local government,” Kennedy said as the state Bond Commission convened for the first time since the storm hit Aug. 29.
Local governments in the areas affected by Katrina owe a combined $8.1 billion in bond debt, Kennedy said, only $4 billion of which is covered by insurance. “I cannot guarantee you that there will not be defaults at the local government level,” he said.
Any city or parish that wants to file for bankruptcy must first get permission from the Bond Commission, Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he has proposed to the National Bond Lawyers Association and the state’s congressional delegation that a pool of federal money be established for local governments that are in danger of defaulting on debt payments. That proposal could be included as part of a broad relief package the delegation is crafting.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier this week that the city is essentially broke, even though it’s expected to receive $102 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money this week for overtime and equipment costs associated with the storm.
Kennedy is also working with Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s office on a proposal that would let Louisiana banks certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration to be designated as “preferred” lenders, which would speed the flow of government-guaranteed loans to businesses affected by the storm.
Although the state budget is preparing for a big storm-related hit as much of its New Orleans-area tax base vanished with the floodwaters, Kennedy said the $387 million in the state’s rainy-day fund, along with two lines of credit worth $200 million each, will be enough to avert bankruptcy.
Credit-rating agencies on Wall Street are paying close attention to see if the state can pay its bond obligations, and put Louisiana on a “watch list” shortly after the storm.
State officials are still weeks away from determining how much tax revenue will be lost due to Katrina. Undersecretary Charles Castille of the Department of Health and Hospitals said the agency won’t have a rough estimate until Oct. 1 on how the $5.3 billion Medicaid budget will be affected, and it will likely be several weeks after that before the agency has more definitive projections.
Castille said he expects the state will see higher-than-projected health care costs for the month of September due to storm-related illness and injuries, and a rush of new applicants for public assistance. After that, however, “I think you’ll see a decline (in costs) because of the mass migration of Medicaid recipients to other states.”
But it’s too soon to tell whether that will be enough to offset the loss of tax revenue from the New Orleans area.
“We just don’t know,” he said.
Jan Moller can be reached at email@example.com
Westwego officials turned pump on as Katrina approached coast6:10 p.m.
By Joe Darby
West Bank bureau
With Hurricane Katrina taking aim at South Louisiana and winds already climbing to 60 mph, Westwego Police Chief Dwayne “Poncho” Munch and City Councilmen Ted J. Munch and Larry Warino made a final tour of the city on the evening of Aug. 28.
They noticed the water levels in city canals were already rising. “I knew it hadn’t rained that much at the time, and the canals shouldn’t have been that high,” the chief said.
He soon learned that Jefferson Parish had pulled its pump operators out, and the pumps that drained Westwego were not operating. So the chief and the councilmen broke into Westwego Pumping Station No. 1 and turned it on in the hopes of saving the city from flooding.
Parish officials confirmed that pump operators were among a contingent of essential personnel evacuated just hours ahead of the storm. They said pump stations are not designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and storm surges, and operators would not be safe.
Ted Munch said that immediately after the storm passed, he along with a city worker and two National Guard members went to a second pumping station, cut the lock on the door and flipped it on as well. The councilman said the storm caused some flooding in parts of the city, but he believed that having the two stations working likely saved the city from more severe flooding.
With the pumping station operating, the police department rode out the storm on the third floor of Worley Middle School, stocked with a good supply of food and water. Anticipating possibly catastrophic flooding on the West Bank, the police tethered boats to the school building. Some of the newer patrol cars were parked on upper floors of the West Jefferson Medical Center parking garage.
“I was hearing that we could get winds of 175 mph, and I told my officers I couldn’t be responsible for their safety, and I wasn’t going to force them to stay,” the police chief said. “But no one left.”
The days following the storm, Westwego police worked long hours with little sleep, performing duties ranging from feeding and protecting about 500 evacuees at Worley to transporting critically ill people to Terrebonne General Hospital in Houma. Poncho Munch estimates that about 10 percent of Westwego’s 10,500 residents remained in the city during the storm.
With his home damaged by the storm, the chief has been living out of his Avenue A office, outfitted with a single bed mattress and a refrigerator next to his desk.
Officers would take turns catching a nap in their patrol cars, while another officer parked adjacent kept watch. Some police cars suffered “blown engines” because they were used so much, the chief said.
The evacuees were in the school for four days. “We had food and water for them, but they were hot and aggravated,” Poncho Munch said.
All telephones in the city were out, and officers had to rely on radios from the department’s new mobile command center for communication. Officers put the city on a “lockdown,” and only two known looting incidents occurred.
“They had it together and they functioned really well. We all cooperated and worked together with the city,” Ted Munch said.
This week, life slowly started returning to normal in Westwego. On Thursday, the city welcomed residents back to cleared streets and opening businesses.
“When the people come home and they want to thank somebody, they shouldn’t thank the politicians who have been on TV,” Munch said. “They should thank the police, the firefighters and the city workers out on the streets for what they did.”
Two big federal contracting firms plan to return to New OrleansThursday, 5:48 p.m
By Keith Darcé
A pair of federal contracting facilities that employ
about 2,400 in New Orleans plans to move back
to the city once their buildings are repaired,
spokespeople with the facilities said Thursday.
Neither of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
National Finance Center in eastern New Orleans nor the
Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center on the
lakefront campus of the University of New Orleans
appeared to have suffered significant damage from
hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed the
storm, the spokespeople said.
Plans to return the centers to New Orleans are a
boost to the fast-growing effort to restore major
portions of the region’s storm-crippled economy.
But at least one state official wants the
assurances in writing.
State Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, said Congress
should insert language into legislation requiring the
agriculture department and the Navy to restore their
centers fully in New Orleans.
“These large federal employers have created a lot of
high-paying jobs for the region, and they are a hub to
help small businesses grow. There should not be any
question about whether they will come back,” Scalise
“We need to make sure that other states don’t
cannibalize our businesses. We don’t mind if they give
help in our time of need, but we want the (centers) to
come back,” he said.
For the time being, many of the workers at the two
centers have relocated temporarily to offices in other
cities in Louisiana and other states.
About 400 of the finance center’s 1,400 workers have
set up shop near Dallas and in Philadelphia,
agriculture department spokesman Ed Loyd said.
On Monday, the workers processed paychecks for 564,000
federal employees, he said. “That’s a major testament
to the employees. Some of them literally only have a
suitcase with them, and they still have been working
to get this done.”
The finance center, located at NASA’s Michoud
Assembly Facility, performs administrative support
work under contract to numerous federal agencies, such
as the Department of Labor and the Coast Guard.
Many of the 1,000 workers at the Navy center, which
operates personnel and pay systems for the military,
now are working in Pensacola, Fla., Ft. Worth, Texas,
Millington, Tenn., and Washington, said Navy spokesman
Lt. Ohene Gyapong.
Others workers have remained closer to home.
Apogen Technologies, one of the main contractors at
the Navy center, has relocated a portion of its 172
New Orleans workers to temporary offices in Baton
Rouge, company spokeswoman Piper Conrad said.
Workers from both centers eventually will return to
New Orleans, possibly as soon as the end of the year.
“It’s going to be a long process to get (the finance
center) back up and running again. We are prepared to
operate elsewhere for the first couple of months,”
At UNO, a team of contractors already is working on
the Navy center’s building, Gyapong said. The center’s
commanding officer, Capt. Fred Mingo, is hoping to be
back in the facility before Jan. 1, the spokesman
Keith Darcé can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff pump operators gone 24 hours5:46 p.m.
By Sheila Grissett
East Jefferson bureau
Jefferson Parish officials want to start the 2006 hurricane season with “safe houses” to shelter drainage station crews from deadly winds and storm surges, so they can keep the pumps operating during tropical storms and other heavy rains.
Design of the safe houses began this summer. But that was no help during Hurricane Katrina when the crews at Jefferson’s 18 major pump stations were evacuated to the north shore for more than 24 hours, as part of the administration’s new “doomsday plan” to safeguard critical equipment and essential personnel in event of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.
“I think those safe houses, as well as improved communications, will be very high on our agenda,” said Parish Councilman Louis
Congemi, who estimated that 50 percent of the homes flooded in his district, which includes much of Kenner and parts of Metairie.
Parish officials said they don’t know how long the drainage pumps were off during and after Katrina. A loss of power knocked out computer telemetry.
But a timeline pieced together during discussions with evacuees and representatives of several government agencies indicates that the pumps might have been down from Aug. 28 at about 7 p.m., when the crews were evacuated, until they returned and began restarting the pumps late on Aug. 29 and early the next morning. The eye of Katrina, a strong Category 4 hurricane, passed over the Gulf Coast the morning of Aug. 29.
Congemi and East Jefferson Levee District personnel, who didn’t
Evacuate, agree that street flooding began Aug. 29 after sunrise and gradually increased. Residents in some Metairie and Kenner neighborhoods began reporting home flooding late that afternoon.
“It’s sad to say, but maybe this disaster is what it takes to get the federal government to realize that they can’t keep turning a cold shoulder when we tell them we have to have more flood control projects and coastal restoration and our pump-to-the-river project that will put some of this water into the Mississippi River, so that it doesn’t have to all flow north to these pump stations on Lake Pontchartrain,” Congemi said.
Congemi thinks that flooding might have been aggravated by the pumps being off while operators were evacuated. But he thinks some
flooding was inevitable.
“It’s just a shame that things were difficult to get our operators back to the pump stations,” he said.
“But I understand the need to protect them. The pump houses we have now aren’t made to stand up to these storms … which brings us back to why we need to get these safe houses built.”
Pump operators staff and run the giant drainage machinery that moves water out of interior canals over levees into larger waterways and water bodies such as Lake Pontchartrain. They were among a caravan of some 1,500 people – key parish personnel and their families – who were evacuated to several shelters in Washington Parish, including a school in Mount Vernon.
Parish President Aaron Broussard, Chief Administrative Assistant Tim Whitmer, Emergency Operations Director Walter Maestri and an assortment of other high-level administration staffers were among the 20 or so who stayed behind in the bunker-like Emergency Operations Center in Marrero. Parish Council members hunkered down in a variety of locations on both sides of the Mississippi River, including East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie and West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero.
Sheltering some in Washington Parish may have saved their lives, Broussard said, but it also ensured there were officials available to pick up the reins of government had Katrina shifted westward and obliterated Jefferson Parish instead of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.
“A government deliberately placed in exile can come back,” Broussard said.
Administration officials said it’s too soon to start second-guessing how the lack of pumps might have aggravated flooding north of Interstate 10 between the St. Charles Parish line and Causeway Boulevard area.
“The parish president made the decision that he wouldn’t risk the lives of the pump station operators, and we evacuated those people to the shelter closest to us,” Maestri said. “You want to know who’s
responsible for the flooding? Katrina’s responsible.”
But everyone agrees that the pump operators were unable to return quickly to their stations, because Katrina did widespread damage where they were sheltered in Washington Parish.
“This was such a devastating storm that the north shore was damaged,” Broussard said. “Giant trees were down everywhere. Live electrical wires were dangling about the building. Communications went out. I couldn’t even get a helicopter to get them back because the winds were too high.”
Ultimately, it was East and West Jefferson Levee District personnel who helped bulldoze, chop and hack out a path along rural
Washington Parish roads blocked by huge trees, fallen utility lines and storm debris.
“We had no communication, and it looked like a tornado had been
through where we were,” said parish Drainage Director Kazem
Alikhani, who accompanied his pump station workers back to Jefferson.
“We had a bulldozer in front of us. We had a chainsaw, and we had a parish electrician who was dealing with the fallen lines,” he said. “And when we finally got to the Causeway bridge, we had to wait until it was inspected … and then we had to be convoy all these operators across because of damage.”
On Aug. 29 at around 9:15 p.m., the east bank pump operators were picked up at the Causeway bridge’s south toll plaza by East Jefferson Levee District President Pat Bossetta and the district’s police chief, Rocky Daigle, driving a 2½-ton truck.
“Rocky and I delivered them to their pump stations, but we were
driving though two to seven feet of water to do it,” Bossetta said. “The only way we could differentiate between water and road was the telephone poles. The people in the back of the truck were using flashlights to spot for us. It was truly wild.”
By Aug. 30 at 3:30 A.M., Bossetta said, they had delivered personnel to four pump stations. He said soldiers carried workers to the last two east bank stations. Alikhani said National Guard personnel weren’t able to collect West Jefferson pump operators from the bridge until about midnight.
Despite serious damage to several pump stations, Alikhani said, all east bank pumps are now working. In West Jefferson, he said, 95 percent of the pumps are up and running.
(Mary Swerczek contributed to this report. Sheila Grissett may be reached at email@example.com)
73 percent of Cleco customers restoredThursday, 4:49 p.m.
Cleco announced Thursday afternoon that 73 percent of its customers in St. Tammany and Washington parishes had power restored. As of 4 p.m. Thursday 58,900 customers in Washington and St. Tammany had power.
Foster children still being soughtThursday, 4:26 p.m.
By Allen Powell
Although most of the roughly 2,000 Louisiana foster children displaced by Hurricane Katrina have been located by the state Department of Social Services, about 500 children are still missing. The state is still trying to determine how it will provide services to those children that were evacuated out of the state.
Many foster children in Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Tammany Parishes have not been accounted for either as a result of communication problems, or because their caretakers have not thought to report to the state, said Nanette White, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of a foster child can call 1-800-259-2456 or 1-888-LAHELPU.
White added that state officials do not foresee a large influx of children into the foster children because of the many deaths in the New Orleans area, or because of relocating foster families. She also expects that the number of children unaccounted for should be reduced relatively quickly.
The state has located most of the children from its residential homes in the New Orleans area, and no fatalities have been reported among any children, White said. Evacuation was only mandatory for the residential centers, and not foster families in the New Orleans area, officials said.
White said the state must verify the conditions of the children and then set up a schedule for regular updates. In addition, new addresses must be logged so that monthly payments to foster families can continue and any medications can be delivered, she said. Even those individuals that evacuated out of Louisiana must report back to the state because the foster children are still under the state’s jurisdiction, White said.
In addition to locating those children still unaccounted for, officials are discussing how the state will handle those cases where foster families decide to permanently relocate outside of Louisiana because of the lose of their homes or jobs, White said. Typically, a child would be brought back to Louisiana for care, especially if the possible of them re-uniting with their parents or other relatives exists. However, White said that the state would evaluate each situation individually.
“Wherever they’re the safest (that’s) the best place for them,” White said. “It’s something we haven’t really had to deal with.”
State searching for families of some youth detention center residentsThursday, 2:32 p.m.
By Allen Powell II
River Parishes Bureau
More than two dozen youths from detention centers in New Orleans are still searching for family members displaced by Hurricane Katrina, while state officials aggressively work to determine whether another four dozen youths currently in custody should be immediately released.
Nearly 250 male and female detainees were evacuated from detention centers in Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Tammany parishes to the Jetson Youth Center in Baker in the days before and after Katrina hit, said Simon Gonsoulin, the deputy secretary of the Office of Youth Development. After their families were notified, most of the youth — who are between 12 and 20 years old -- were sent to various secure and non-secure facilities throughout the state, or released to their families, he said.
But contacting the relatives of 25 of the youths has proven more difficult, Gonsoulin said. Officials have released telephone numbers and website addresses, and have even begun to go from shelter to shelter attempting to locate family members.
But efforts have been partially stymied by privacy laws that prevent the release of the names and photos of juvenile offenders. In addition, the state must ensure that the shelters that youth are released into are adequate. Gonsoulin said officials are considering releasing the youth’s names in a way that does not identify them as offenders. Anyone seeking information on a juvenile offender can call the state at (225) 287-7974, 287-7988 or 287-7955.
In addition to the problems associated with locating detainees’ families, the criminal records of the New Orleans’ youths were also left behind in the city, and officials are still determining which ones should remain in custody and which ones can be released to family, Gonsoulin said. While the state has duplicate records on those individuals who were long-term residents of the New Orleans juvenile detention centers, about 50 were admitted to detention centers right before Katrina hit and still have not had their initial court hearings, he said.
Gonsoulin said some of those youths could have been in custody for minor parole or probation violations, or they could be repeat felony offenders.
Officials have interviewed the youths, their families and New Orleans area probation officers about the youth’s criminal backgrounds, and that information is being turned over to six New Orleans juvenile judges who will decide their fates starting Friday, he said.
“These kids could have not gone to school or missed class, or they could have committed armed robbery,” Gonsoulin said.
Gonsoulin noted that there have not been any problems with any of the evacuated detainees, despite the fact that their arrival temporarily doubled the amount of offenders housed at the Jetson facility. Dr. Ronald Feinstein, the medical director for the Jetson Center, said that the New Orleans youths only suffered some sunburn and dehydration during the time they awaited evacuation from the city on an interstate overpass.
But the youth were without food for about 36 hours, and Feinstein noted that many of them ate two or three 2,000-calorie meals upon arriving at Jetson. Feinstein added that because roughly 40 percent all youth incarcerated by the state have serious mental problems, counselors are on-call to deal with pre-existing conditions and any that may have arisen because of the storm. Evacuated staff members are also being offered the same services.
St. Bernard announces re-entry schedule2:30 p.m.
St. Bernard Parish officials on Thursday announced they will begin reopening the parish on Saturday, launching a plan that will divide the parish in sections and give residents of each area a two-day window to come in and retrieve belongings.
A section of southern Arabi and Chalmette that runs along the Mississippi River will be the first area to reopen, officials said, with other areas to the north and east opening in the following days.
But officials warned that conditions in the parish remain harsh. Streets will be cleared by the time residents stream in, but debris on curbs and lawns will still be there. The parish has no electricity, no telephone, and no trash pick up. The water treatment plant is working, but water pressure is low, so many areas may not have water. Everything is covered by a thick layer of muck.
To re-enter, residents must present proof of residence, and must come prepared with enough food for their subsistence, and enough gas to leave.
The schedule for re-entry will be as follows:
Saturday and Sunday: Areas from Jackson Barracks to Paris Road and from St. Bernard Highway to the Mississippi River.
Sept. 19 and 20: Areas from Jackson Barracks to Paris Road and from Judge Perez Drive to St. Bernard Highway.
Sept. 21 and 22: Areas from Parish Road to the Violet Canal and from Judge Perez Drive to the Mississippi River.
Sept. 23 and 24: All areas north of Judge Perez Drive from Jackson Barracks to Paris Road.
Sept. 25 and 26: All areas north of Judge Perez Drive from Paris Road to Palmisano Boulevard.
Sept. 27 to 28: All areas north of Judge Perez Drive from Palmisano Boulevard to the Violet Canal.
Sept. 29 and 30: All areas below the Violet Canal.
Residents who miss the two-day window assigned to their area will not be allowed to enter until Sept. 30.
Officials are asking residents to bring rubber boots, gloves, and protective masks. They also urged returnees not to bring children.
110,000 La. residents still in sheltersThursday, 1:47 p.m.
By Ed Anderson
BATON ROUGE – More than 110,000 Louisiana residents, forced from their homes by Hurricane Katrina, were still in evacuation centers, more in out-of-state centers than in Louisiana, state officials said Thursday.
Department of Social Services spokeswoman Nanette White said 58,466 evacuees were being housed in out-of-state shelters and 52,140 were in shelters in 53 parishes across the state. White said that number included 325 individuals in special needs centers.
White said the numbers include just those who are registered and are being cared for at public shelters and do not take into account displaced individuals living with friends or at some private church-run shelters.
Officials estimate at least 500,000 people were displaced by Katrina.
White said at least 25 states have opened shelters for Louisiana residents, some as far away as Utah, West Virginia, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
White said Texas has absorbed the largest number of Louisiana of the 58,466 out-of-state evacuees, 26,840 housed in 136 shelters.
Mississippi housed the second largest number, 13,395 in 124 centers; and Missouri was third with 13 shelters housing 3,888 evacuees.
In the state, East Baton Rouge Parish continues to house the most refugees of any of the parishes – 9,940. Calcasieu Parish is now housing the second-highest number of evacuees, 5,543, White said, while Terrebonne Parish is the temporary home to 4,230 displaced persons.
Even north Louisiana parishes like Caddo and Caldwell have opened shelters for evacuees. Caddo Parish is housing 1,344, White said, while Caldwell is housing the fewest in the state, 20.
Meanwhile, White said, the department’s Office of Family Support has certified 279,596 households for disaster food stamp relief. White said the average household consists of three members.
The benefits for the emergency disaster food stamp program total $100.4 million, she said.
Teachers union offers grants to displaced teachers, studentsWASHINGTON-In a pledge to support those impacted by the hurricane, the
National Education Association (NEA) has established a toll-free hotline number for schools, teachers and school employees to apply for grants that total $1 million.
Public school employees who want to apply for assistance should call NEA's toll-free hotline at: 1-866-247-2239. Public school employees personally impacted by Hurricane Katrina are eligible to apply for grants to meet various needs, including: housing, food, clothing and other personal needs.
NEA will also provide grants to public schools that have enrolled the estimated 300,000 students affected by the storm. The NEA funds can be used to help purchase school supplies, textbooks and other materials needed to accommodate increased enrollment. The NEA grants will also be made available to public schools and their employees to assist displaced children with personal needs such as clothing.
"Our goal," said NEA President Reg Weaver, "is to do everything within our power to help public school employees and their students recover as quickly and completely as possible from the ravages of Katrina."
NEA urges public schools, teachers and education support professionals to apply for the grants via the toll-free hotline: 1-866-247-2239.
Please also visit http://www.nea.org/katrina/index.html for additional
SLU enrollment might pass 16,00010 a.m.
Enrollment at Southeastern Louisiana University is expected to surpass 16,000 students, with the addition of more than 1,000 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
The unofficial enrollment figure reached 16,311 Tuesday, officials said. Southeastern had processed 1,360 applications for visiting students, with more than 1,000 of the applicants having registered for classes.
That includes more than 520 from the University of New Orleans, 450 from Delgado Community College, and the remainder from other universities and colleges.
Southeastern's pre-Katrina unofficial enrollment was 15,526, which exceeded the university’s enrollment goals for fall 2005, the first semester of full implementation of the Board of Regents’ master plan. To date, 240 of those students have resigned from the university due to the hurricane.
Registration will continue through Friday.
President Randy Moffett welcomed the visiting students to Southeastern at sessions on Saturday and Monday. He said university officials are trying to accommodate course needs as much as possible. In addition, Southeastern will offer a compressed, eight-week semester beginning Oct. 20.
“This is a very difficult process for these students, many of whom were just starting their college careers, others who are close to graduating,” Moffett said. “We’re glad to be able to provide them with a home – even if only on a temporary basis – and enable them to continue toward their educational goals.”
To accommodate the additional students, Southeastern opened a previously closed dormitory. Dubbed “Old Taylor” to distinguish it from the new Taylor Hall, the dormitory will be able to house more than 400 students. With this influx of visiting students, Southeastern is currently housing more than 2,300 students on campus.
Cardinal Newman dormitory, which had been closed for renovation, is serving as home for Southeastern faculty and staff and their families who are temporarily displaced due to the hurricane.
Recovery fund established in St. CharlesThe United Way of St. Charles (UWSC) has announced the creation of the Katrina Recovery Fund to help victims of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The fund will help finance needed relief and recovery services provided by area organizations.
To demonstrate its own commitment to the Fund, UWSC has made an initial allocation of $100,000 from its contingency fund, and welcomes area businesses and individuals to join in the effort.
Said UWSC President Larry Palme, "In these extraordinary circumstances, expenses well beyond the expected annual needs of area relief organizations are inevitable. Contributions to The Katrina Recovery Fund will help address storm-related needs of United Way and other organizations as well."
Denise Brodsky, UWSC Executive Director, added "The Katrina Relief Fund will yield immediate and tangible results. The public will see the results of their contributions at work here in our community. We are committed to helping our St. Charles Parish residents in need, as well as those in need from neighboring parishes."
To contribute to the Katrina Recovery Fund, call the United Way of St. Charles Parish at 985-331-9063, or mail contributions to United Way of St. Charles, P.O. Box 157, 13207 River Road, Luling, LA 70070. Checks should be payable to UWSC Katrina Recovery Fund.
Jeff restaurants must schedule inspections to reopenThursday, 9:25 a.m.
Jefferson Parish restaurateurs wishing to reopen must schedule
inspections once they can meet basic sanitary conditions for preparing and
storing food and removing waste, the state heath department announced
To meet basic requirements, businesses must have a safe way of getting food,
a pure water supply, sewage and garbage removal and the ability to hold
food at proper temperatures, State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said.
Once a restaurant passes inspection, it will receive a placard that it
must display prominently. Without that card, a restaurant will not be
allowed to operate.
Inspections may be scheduled by callin (504) 838-5140.
Audubon Zoo in 'pretty good shape'Thursday, 9:05 a.m.
Both the animals and the facilities at Audubon Zoo are in good shape, but the Aquarium of the Americas and its animals did not fare as well, Audubon Institute spokesman Debbie Pearson said Thursday.
The problem at the aquarium was that the life support systems for many of the animals failed a few days after the storm, she said.
However, Pearson said some animals, such as the penguins, were saved and sent off to temporary homes as far away as California.
"It was not a total loss of life," she said.
At Audubon Zoo, there was no flooding, just wind damage and the loss of power, Pearson said.
"The zoo is in pretty good shape," she said. "You could walk through the zoo right now."
There's more work to be done at the aquarium and Pearson said there's no timetable on when either facility will open. She said the Nature Center remains under water in New Orleans East, but the animals were evacuated.
Pearson said the Institute plans to restore and rebuild, but has no price tag yet beause assessments have not been finished.
For more information on any of the facilities operated by the institute, check online at www.auduboninstitute.org.
Entergy power updateThursday, 8:30 a.m.
As of Thursday morning, there were about 233,000 Entergy customers without power in southeast Louisiana, continuing to fall from a high of more than 800,000, spokesman Chanel Lagarde said.
Most of those customers were in Orleans in St. Bernard parishes, where many areas remain under water and inaccessible to work crews, he said.
Lagarde estimated that power is on in about 80 percent of Jefferson Parish and 95 percent of Algiers. Taking out Orleans and St. Bernard, he said about 95 percent of Entergy customers throughout southeastern Louisiana have power.
La. Insurance Commissioner: Order will block cancellation of policiesThursday, 8:10 a.m.
Most insurance companies in Louisiana have the resources to handle the hundreds of thousands of claims from Hurricane Katrina, state Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley said Thursday morning.
Asked if insurers in the state would remain solvent despite the large number of claims, Wooley said: "I think so. What you saw before (Hurricane) Andrew was companies (competing) with each other so violently, they disregarded proper underwriting techniques."
That led to a number of bankruptcies of insurance companies. But Wooley said companies learned from the experience, and the 1993 flooding in the Midwest, the 9/11 disaster and last year's hurricanes in Florida did not see similar rashes of companies folding.
Wooley also said that residents need not worry if they have been notified their insurance policies were canceled because they did not pay the most recent bills.
He said Gov. Kathleen Blanco will sign an emergency order Friday that dates back to Sept. 26 and forbids insurance companies from canceling any policy in the seven-parish area affected by the hurricane for failure to receive a premium.
Wooley also urged homeowners to read through their various policies and not assume that because their homes had water that flood, and not homeowner's coverage, automatically applies. For example, he said some homeowner's policies could have storm surge coverage.
However, he acknowledged that because of the $250,000 cap on flood coverage: "There is going to be gaps in insurance."
But Wooley said FEMA has done a good job in the past to help restore people's lives and he expects more of the same.
"The federal government is going to come in and fill the gaps," he said. Some programs available to homeowners who do not receive enough from insurance to cover their losses include low-interest loans and grants. "And we are going to be eligible for all of those," Wooley said.
Wooley also said his office will be taking a hard look at how insurance companies treat customers. If there is a pattern or practice of not living up to the terms of policies, Wooley said he has the authority to fine or even take away the license of companies.
Wooley said there has been some good news, with some insurers like State Farm and Allstate, who together have 50 percent of the market in Louisiana, giving out some benefits they were not required to distribute.
He said those companies and others have given customers checks for living expenses, after realizing the need some money as soon as possible.
"They probably in most instances didn't owe that under the policy," he said. "But they know the whole world is watching."
Anyone who suspects their insurer may not be properly handling claims can contact the Insurance Commissioner's office at 1-800-259-5300 or 1-225-342-5900.
CLECO power updateThursday, 7:05 a.m.
A total of 69 percent of CLECO customers in St. Tammany and Washington parishes had power as of 6 a.m. Thursday, officials reported.
The overall breakdown was 69 percent of customers with power in St. Tammany out of 80,000 total customers and 71 percent with power in Washington out of 800 total customers.
An additional breakdown by town shows most had between 68 to 83 percent of CLECO customers with power, with the exception of Abita Springs and Lacombe.
Abita Springs, with 1,176 customers, had 32 percent of power restored by Thursday morning while Lacombe, with 2,978 customers, had 43 percent of power restored, CLECO officials said.
Officials remind residents not to pile debris under power lines. Also, if there is any damage to your home or to the electrical service entrance that may pose a danger if power is restored, Cleco may not restore power until repairs are made by a licensed electrician. Crews will leave a door hanger indicating repairs need to be made.