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Whites Sought More Katrina Aid Than Blacks

Aloyd Edinburgh , 75, walks out of his FEMA trailer in the Lower Ninth Ward, 75, while taking a break from working on his home to talk to The Associated Press about his experience with his insurance company in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La., Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006. Edinburgh recovered $35,000 from his insurer, out of a policy of $85,000.
AP
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.

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 majority-black 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.

The AP analyzed 3,118 complaints filed by homeowners still living in Louisiana. The state's data did not identify whether the addresses on complaints were the same locations as the damaged homes. The state also refused to release any information on approximately 5,000 complaints still under review.

The findings surprise few on the front lines of a disaster that has reawakened issues of racial equality.

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.