Monday, March 26, 2007

More Spring Break: One Family's Saga

Sorry for the delay in posting. I’m back in New Hampshire now and classes start tomorrow, but I will make a couple more posts about Spring Break. I’ll pictures up this week, too, I promise. I need to show them to the folks who were on the trip first to find out which I can share, but then they’re all yours.

We spent our last day over Spring Break gutting a two-story house in St. Bernard Parish. (Remember, in Louisiana, parishes are like counties.) St. Bernard Parish is just to the east of Orleans Parish, and was completely inundated – all but two or three houses were underwater for several weeks. I’d like to tell you about the family we were helping. The “Bordreauxs” have had a rough year, battling the government while living in a cramped trailer outside their rotting home. To this day, 18 months after the storm, they have not received a dime from FEMA, the Road Home Program, State Farm Insurance, or any other official entity.

Before the storm, “Larry” and “Reba” lived with their three sons. A daughter lived nearby, and gave birth to a little girl shortly after Katrina. The youngest son still lives with Larry and Reba. They evacuated to Baton Rouge when the hurricane came.

A FEMA inspector initially told the Bordreauxs that their house was structurally unsound and needed to be demolished. As a result, the couple spent nine months trying to get FEMA to come destroy their house, but it was like pulling teeth from a wooly mammoth. Things changed a month ago, when as part of a lawsuit with State Farm Insurance, a structural engineer came out, took a look at the place, and asked them why they wanted to tear it down – he said there was nothing structurally wrong with the place. It turns out that the FEMA inspector who made the mistake was not a professional structural engineer, but a retired postal worker. This was typical: the neighbor’s FEMA inspector was a dentist. So after nine months of trying to destroy their house, Larry and Reba are now in the process of gutting it so that they may rebuild.

The Bordreaux’s battle with their insurance company has been no better: long and drawn out. They had homeowner’s insurance, but not flood insurance. When they originally bought insurance, the salesman told them they didn’t need flood insurance – because of the levee system, the government did not consider St. Bernard Parish a flood zone. It’s easy to criticize people for not purchasing flood insurance when they live below sea level, but can you really criticize them for taking the advice of the federal government and their insurance company, the so-called “experts”? The family is now suing State Farm, because for all intents and purposes, in not paying them anything, the insurance company is penalizing the family for taking their advice.

The Bordreauxs do what they can to make life tolerable - they've put their trailer next to their son's and their neighbor's, built a porch and series of ramps between them all, and decorated the area with Easter signs, welcome home messages, and flowers. It's about as homey as you can make such living conditions, even with the two-story mess behind them.

Another crew gutted a house for a woman who is struggling to get money from Road Home, suing her insurance company (All State), facing a gut-or-demolish deadline, caring for a sick relative, and trying to hold down a job. The intern who led that crew said her story, like the Bordreauxs, is typical: “Throw a rock in this town and you’ll hit six more homeowners who’ll tell you the exact same story.”

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