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Missed message, chance along Gulf

Data: Whites, rich filed more appeals against insurers

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. 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's predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward, simply gave up and took what their insurer gave them. They didn't know they could appeal to the state.

Poor and minority neighborhoods suffered the brunt of Katrina's fury, but 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 the fact that p eople 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 damage that totals 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 cellular service. Officials acknowledge victims slipped through the cracks.

"The message doesn't get to everyone," Louisiana's 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 has 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 had already been settled and analyzed the outcomes by the demographics of the victims' current ZIP code .

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.

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, officials said.

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.

That message, however, never reached the water-stained stoop of Doretha Kitchens's house, which was enveloped in a 9-foot wave of muddy water when the Lower Ninth Ward's levees broke. For months, she had no access to computer, radio, or TV, and couldn't hear the state agency's messages.

Kitchens also didn't know she could appeal Allstate Corp.'s settlement offer to the state, but doubts it would have changed anything. Her husband, she said, simply lost faith that anyone would help.

"My husband didn't want to be bothered. I asked him, 'Why don't we sue the insurance company?' He said, 'They ain't going to do nothing .' White just decided they was going to go file. Black, we just gave up easier."

The Kitchens didn't have flood insurance, but their dispute with the insurer was about the roof, which the winds ripped off.

At first, Richard and Cindy Little didn't fare much better.

Four towering pine trees crashed into their ranch-style home in Slidell, a predominantly white bedroom community north of New Orleans.

The crashing limbs unleashed a cascade of water that spoiled the walls, soaked the hardwood floors, and brought puffs of pink insulation tumbling from the ceiling.

When their insurer offered to pay only two-thirds of the cost of the repairs, the Littles used their savings to cover the cost of the construction -- then began battling Allstate, the state's number two insurer, over the final settlement.

They wrote letters to Congress , secured copies of an adjuster's report, spent hours compiling receipts, made countless phone calls, and filed a complaint with insurance regulators.

Eventually, their efforts paid off, but they acknowledge that the fight wasn't easy and that the family's finances played a large role in their perseverance.

"We had money in the bank, so we could wait them out," said Cindy Little, 50.

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