Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Katrina Aftermath, Still a Struggle Against Incompetence and Corruption

Dead bodies are still being recovered in New Orleans, seven months later:

NYTimes: In Attics and Rubble, More Bodies and Questions

The bodies of storm victims are still being discovered in New Orleans — in March alone there were nine, along with one skull. Skeletonized or half-eaten by animals, with leathery, hardened skin or missing limbs, the bodies are lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters or lying face down, arms outstretched on parlor floors. Many of them, like Ms. Blanchard, were overlooked in initial searches.

A landlord in the Lakeview section put a "for sale" sign outside a house, unaware that his tenant's body was in the attic. Two weeks ago, searchers in the Lower Ninth Ward found a girl, believed to be about 6, wearing a blue backpack. Nearby, they found part of a man who the authorities believe might have been trying to save her.

[On Friday, contractors found a body in the attic of a home in the Gentilly neighborhood that had been searched twice before, officials said.]

In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, there were grotesque images of bodies left in plain sight. Officials in Louisiana recovered more than 1,200 bodies, but the process, hamstrung by money shortages and red tape, never really ended.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, where unstable houses make searching dangerous, a plan to use cadaver dogs alongside demolition crews was delayed by lawsuits and community protests against the bulldozing. In the rest of the city, the absence of neighbors and social networks meant that some residents languished and died unnoticed. Many of the families of the missing were far from home, rendered helpless by distance and preoccupied with their own survival.


In October and November, the special operations team of the New Orleans Fire Department searched the Lower Ninth Ward for remains until they ran out of overtime money.

Half a dozen officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuffed requests to pay the bill, said Chief Steve Glynn, the team commander. When reporters inquired, FEMA officials said the required paperwork had not been filed.

While FEMA couldn't find the money to find and bury the dead, they made sure to pad the coffers of rich contractors:

Times-Picayune: Senators grill corps, FEMA
Hearing details waste in relief spending

Testimony at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing Monday in New Orleans showed that in the matter of the Katrina cleanup, taxpayers got taken to the cleaners.


[T]he hearing also revealed in stark terms how the poor level of federal preparation and response carried more than an economic punch. As the questions from the elected officials gained momentum, it became clear that two themes especially bothered the Louisiana contingent. One was that, for all of the state's storied corruption and the defense its officials had to mount that relief money would not be squandered in Louisiana, the lion's share of waste occurred under the federal watch.

The second theme is that tens of millions of dollars were frittered away in layers of subcontractors. What Washington and the nation need to realize, the Louisiana contingent argued, is the totals bandied about as earmarked for relief are, in fact, grotesquely inflated by misspending.

Insurance companies are also preying on the weak and defenseless. Tort reform advocate Trent Lott is using the tort system he so hates to prove insurance companies are cheating homeowners in the hurricane zone:

AP: Lott Lawyer: State Farm Destroying Papers

Zach Scruggs, one of Lott's attorneys, says his client has a "good faith belief" that several State Farm employees in Biloxi are destroying engineering reports that gave conflicting conclusions about whether wind or water was responsible for storm damage.

Like thousands of Gulf Coast homeowners, Lott's claim was denied because State Farm concluded that Katrina's flood water demolished his beach-front Pascagoula home. State Farm says its policies do not cover damage from rising water, including wind-driven water.

But lawyers for the Mississippi Republican claim Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm has routinely pressured its engineers to alter "favorable" reports that initially blamed damage on hurricane's wind, which the company's policies cover.

A State Farm spokesman said Monday he couldn't immediately comment on Scruggs' allegations.

Lott's allegations come on the heels of a lawsuit filed by Kiln, Miss., couple who claimed they had obtained copies of conflicting reports prepared by State Farm's engineers on what damaged their home. They said one report traced the destruction to Katrina's winds while a later report said flooding was the culprit.

In response, State Farm spokesman Phil Supple had said the second report was the only one the engineering firm sent to State Farm's claims office.

In an interview Monday, Scruggs said corporate "whistleblowers" who are cooperating with Lott's attorneys have provided evidence that State Farm employees are destroying or moving those "initial favorable" engineering reports.

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