New Orleans — The Littles and the Kitchens watched helplessly as Hurricane Katrina battered their homes. Both families waited patiently for an insurance adjuster to settle their losses. And both were sorely disappointed with the outcome.
Then, their paths diverged.
Richard and Cindy Little, a white couple living in a predominantly white neighborhood, filed a complaint with the Louisiana Department of Insurance. Eventually, they won full reimbursement for their repairs.
Doretha and Roy Kitchens, a black couple living in New Orleans' overwhelmingly black Lower Ninth Ward, simply gave up and took what their insurer gave them. They didn't know they could appeal to the state.
Though poor and minority neighborhoods suffered the brunt of Katrina's fury, residents living in white neighborhoods have been three times as likely as homeowners in black neighborhoods to seek state help in resolving insurance disputes, according to an Associated Press computer analysis.
The analysis of Louisiana's insurance complaints settled in the first year after Katrina highlights a cold, hard truth exposed by Katrina's winds and waters: People of color and modest means, who often need the most help after a major disaster, are disconnected from the government institutions that can provide it, or distrustful of those in power.
"The blacks didn't complain 'cause they got tired," said Doretha Kitchens, 58, who recalls numerous phone calls to her insurer that often ended with her being put on hold. Ultimately, she accepted her insurer's offer of about $34,000 for damages that actually total more than $120,000.
The insurance industry and state regulators say they made special efforts - even in the midst of Katrina's chaos - to reach out to poor and minority neighborhoods to inform them of options.
But their ad appeals on local radio did little to inform the thousands of mostly black residents who were displaced to Houston. And giving a toll free number for help didn't help poor minorities who stayed behind with no telephone or cell service. Officials acknowledge victims slipped through the cracks.
"The message doesn't get to everyone," Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said.
Location and income
More than a year after the epic hurricane laid waste to much of the Gulf Coast, frustration and anger still simmer.
More than 700,000 insurance claims were filed for damage resulting from Katrina in Gulf Coast states and to date, only $14.9 billion out of $25.3 billion in insured losses have been paid, the national risk modeling firm ISO estimates.
In Louisiana, more than 8,000 residents have filed Katrina-related complaints with the state insurance office. Using open records law, AP obtained the files of more than 3,000 complaints that have already been settled and analyzed the outcomes by the demographics of the victims' current ZIP code neighborhood.
Nearly 75 percent of the settled cases were filed by residents currently living in predominantly white neighborhoods. Just 25 percent were filed by households in predominantly minority ZIP codes, the analysis found.
The analysis also suggests income was a factor. The average resident who sought state help lives in a neighborhood with a median household income of $39,709, compared with the statewide median of $32,566 in the 2000 Census.
Ability to start over
Donelon, the insurance commissioner, said his department made an extra effort to reach as many people as possible and let them know the agency was willing to press their case with insurers.
State workers crisscrossed the state, using mobile complaint centers, user-friendly Web sites and advertisements on television and radio. When complaints were received, state insurance officials determined whether they had merit, and lobbied insurance companies for more money for homeowners when warranted.
That message, however, never reached the water-stained stoop of Doretha Kitchens' house, which was enveloped in a 9-foot wave of muddy water when the Lower Ninth Ward's aging levees broke. For months, she had no access to computer, radio or TV and couldn't hear the state agency's messages.
Alan Jenkins, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration who lobbies for minority opportunities, said AP's analysis reinforces a little-discussed reality exposed by Katrina.
"The promise of opportunity isn't equally available," he said. "Race and income has made a big difference in people's ability to start over."