Friday, December 31, 2004

Cumulative Flood Law Surfaces

The weekly Gulf Breeze News has a cautionary tale in this week's issue for Gulf Breeze residents whose insured homes were flooded by Hurricane Ivan. Indeed, the Gulf Breeze News made the news itself.

Chris Chatelain has discovered that City of Gulf Breeze ordinances still impose "what is called a five-year cumulative rule" for flood insurance. The city didn't even realize it, the News reporter says, until the paper made inquiries.

Chatelain writes in part --
Under this “rule,” total flood damages under each policy roll over to accumulate in increments of five years at a time. For example, a policyholder’s damages from this year will be totaled with any other flood claims on that policy within the last four years. Once a policy is “maxed out” (usually $250,000), then the home is placed into the 50 percent rule and must be brought up to the latest city and county flood codes before it can be repaired or rebuilt, according to Gulf Breeze Director of Community Services Shane Carmichael. Carmichael said he and the city did not realize that the city still had the rule on the books while the county and State had repealed the ordinance ... .
Bringing a house into conformity with the latest building code involves demolition and complete rebuilding if the house is in a designated flood plain and not on stilts.

Under the city ordinance, for example, a house on a slab which is damaged to what was considered 45% of its pre-storm value would have to be totally replaced by one raised on stilts if a later storm's surge damage amounted to as little as 6% loss of value.

It is a rule choked with complications. Consider just three:
  • What if the house had been sold between storms to a new, unsuspecting owner? Is the new owner stuck with what happened under the previous seller's ownership or could he reopen and contest the earlier percentage?

  • If the previous owner didn't disclose details about what percentage was claimed in a Year One Storm, is he liable to the new owner when because of the ordinance the house is 'totalled' in Year Five after comparatively minor damage?

  • If the structure's "value" appreciated between storms occurring, say, five years apart, does the ordinance apply the same "perentage" calculus to two different values from two different years, or use a constant "value" benchmark established after the first storm and apply that to the second storm damage to yield a damage percentage?

The Gulf Breeze News has done a public service by alerting city officials to what their own law says. The city should return the favor by repealing this anachronism and conforming the local ordinance to state law and that of other area communities.

Local Connections

"How devastating is it? It’s more devastating than Hurricane Ivan 10 times over." -- Pensacola relative of a tsunami survivor
Downthread, I promised more information on yesterday's news that Gulf Breeze Mayor Buzz Eddy is soliciting donations for Asian tsunami victims. Here it is:
* * *

In an interview broadcast Friday morning, Eddy told local NPR affiliate WUWF-FM that the city hopes to raise $6,000, or an average of one dollar per Gulf Breeze resident, for Tsunami relief. After collecting donations, the mayor said the city will assess the situation and send the money to "one or more care organizations."

For those who prefer making direct donations, the New York Times provides a list of respected world relief charities.

* * *

The Pilot, a North Carolina newspaper, has an on-line interview with Pensacola native Malina Gabriel, whose aunt barely survived the Asian tsunami. Here's a snippet:
Malina lives in Pensacola, Fla., and was home visiting for Christmas when she heard the news Sunday. She witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Ivan earlier this year, but said it pales in comparison to the disaster that’s befallen her father’s homeland.

"It was devastating to see what happened to our beaches and the families around us," she said. "We didn’t find out until the day after Christmas what had happened over there."
* * *
"We’re so fortunate to have the things we do and they’re not as fortunate as we are. To have this happen. How devastating is it? It’s more devastating than Hurricane Ivan 10 times over. You just can’t imagine what it’s like to watch it on TV and see my father’s country be swept away. The entire side of the country where he’s from is gone."
* * *

Can anyone doubt that sending Jeb Bush to Asia "as co-chairman of a U.S. delegation with Secretary of State Colin Powell" is the opening shot in the 2008 presidential campaign? Why else would the Florida Governor travel half way around the world to glance at what he could see right here at home, up close and personal?
The governor was chosen by his brother, President Bush, because of his experience with the four hurricanes that caused extensive damage to Florida in 2004. He will serve as co-chairman of a U.S. delegation with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The White House issued a statement Thursday citing Gov. Bush's "extensive experience in the state of Florida with relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts following natural disasters."
"Extensive experience," eh? Well, let's hope for the sake of the tsunami victims that Jeb doesn't plan on starting an Asian version of Citizens Property Insurance.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami Perspectives

"For millenniums, the sea's waves have battered the coastlines of the world, here cutting back a cliff, there stripping away tons of sand from a beach, and somewhere else, in a reversal of their destructiveness, building up a bar or a small island. Unlike the geologic changes that take millions of years to bring about the flooding of half a continent, the work of the waves is perceptible during the brief span of human life; the sculpturing of a continent's edge is something we can all see for ourselves." -- Rachel Carson, 1951

Many Pensacola area people I know, victims themselves of the recent hurricane season, are eager to contribute to relief for the victims of the Christmas tsunami. A helpful list of respected world relief charities is provided in the New York Times.

To that, John Gunn adds in his email letter that Gulf Breeze mayor Buzz Eddy has made arrangements to receive donations at Gulf Breeze City Hall. Details will follow soon, I am sure.

No sooner had the Red Cross predicted the death toll will rise above 100,000 and half a million more injured in the horrible tsunami tragedy, than the BBC reports, "New figures reveal at least 112,000 people died in Sunday's ocean disaster."

Still, the melancholy numbers continue to rise.
Across the region thousands remain unaccounted for since the 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake off Sumatra that forced a wall of water smashing into coastlines as far away as east Africa.
One of the biggest-populated areas still cut off from outside help is Sumatra itself:
In Sumatra, the Florida-sized Indonesian island close to the epicentre of the quake, the view from the air was of whole villages ripped apart, covered in mud and seawater. In one of the few signs of life, a handful of desperate people scavenged a beach for food. On the streets of Banda Aceh, the main town of Sumatra's Aceh province, the military managed to drop supplies from vehicles and fights broke out over packs of instant noodles.

Major-General Endang Suwarya, military commander of Aceh province, said after flying over the stricken region that 75 per cent of the west coast of Sumatra was destroyed.
A Canadian newspaper also reports that "the U.S. State Department said 12 Americans died in the disaster — seven in Sri Lanka and five in Thailand. About 2,000 to 3,000 Americans were unaccounted for."

A vivid account in the UK Guardian says --
Aid workers arriving in the region are being confronted with devastation - entire towns and villages razed, and countless people - some of them with cuts and broken bones - searching desperately for clean water and food on streets covered in debris and dead bodies.

With at least 5 million people in need, it is already one of the biggest humanitarian exercises in history, with 60 nations having pledged over $220m (£114.5m) in cash and hundreds of millions more in emergency supplies.
[Update: The Springfield, Mo., News-Leader is carrying a helpful comparison of the challenge confronting international aid organizations. "'The army of relief workers probably will need to be 10 times the initial federal help to Florida in last summer's spate of hurricanes,' said Joe Myers, a former Florida disaster-response chief. 'That means starting with 50,000 relief workers, then building to even more.'"]

The disaster seems likely to worsen as bacteria and viruses spread among the panicked, thirty, and starving survivors. From the Seattle Times:
For reasons not entirely understood, natural disasters are rarely followed by epidemics of communicable disease and very high mortality frequently seen in man-made catastrophes such as civil wars, genocide and involuntary displacement of whole populations.
* * *
Large numbers of corpses themselves pose little, if any, health threat. Putrefying flesh does not create disease-causing pathogens or spread them.

The real danger is from infections already present in the population at low rates that can be spread rapidly in the absence of proper sanitation.

Among the waterborne ailments linked to floods, the WHO cites bacterial and viral diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and leptospirosis, the latter of which can be spread through the urine of rodents attracted to flood debris.

How well people fare will depend in large part on decisions being made in the next few days or weeks as local health authorities and outside agencies work frantically to provide water and rudimentary sanitation to the homeless and destitute.
The New Yorker is sharing a unique historical perspective on tsunamis and closely related sea wave hazards by reprinting a 1951 article written by Rachel Carson for the magazine. For me, it was oddly comforting to read Ms. Carson's lyrical prose describing how such tragedies have been with mankind almost as long as time itself, even as muted images of the horrible Christmas tsunami were re-playing over and over on my television screen. Here is a snippet:
For millenniums, the sea's waves have battered the coastlines of the world, here cutting back a cliff, there stripping away tons of sand from a beach, and somewhere else, in a reversal of their destructiveness, building up a bar or a small island. Unlike the geologic changes that take millions of years to bring about the flooding of half a continent, the work of the waves is perceptible during the brief span of human life; the sculpturing of a continent's edge is something we can all see for ourselves.
* * *
The sea waves that have fixed themselves most firmly in the human imagination are the so-called tidal waves. The term is popularly applied to two very different kinds of wave, neither of which has any relation to the tide. One is the seismic sea wave, produced by an undersea earthquake; the other is an exceptionally vast wind wave—an immense mass of water driven far above the normal high-water line by winds of hurricane force.
* * *
The writings of man contain frequent mention of the devastation of coastal settlements by sudden great waves. One of the earliest on record rose along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in 358 A.D., passed completely over islands, and flooded low-lying shores, depositing boats on the housetops of Alexandria, and drowning thousands of people. An hour after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Cádiz was visited by a wave that is said to have been fifty feet higher than the highest tide. Waves from this same disturbance travelled across the Atlantic, reaching the West Indies in nine and a half hours. In 1868, a stretch of nearly three thousand miles of the western coast of South America was shaken by earthquakes. Shortly after the most violent shocks, the sea receded, leaving ships that had been anchored in forty feet of water stranded in mud; then the water returned in a great wave and the ships were carried a quarter of a mile inland.

This withdrawal of the sea from its normal stand is often the first warning of the approach of seismic sea waves. Natives on the beaches of Hawaii on the first of April, 1946, were alarmed when the accustomed voice of the breakers was suddenly stilled. They could not know that this recession of the waves from the reefs and the shallow coastal waters was the sea's response to an earthquake on the steep slopes of the Aleutian trench, twenty-three hundred miles away, or that in a matter of moments the water would rise rapidly but without surf, as though the tide were coming in much too fast. The rise carried the ocean waters twenty-five feet or more above normal high tide. In the open ocean, as is characteristic of seismic sea waves, the waves produced by the Aleutian quake were only about a foot or two high and would not be noticed from a vessel. Their length, however, was enormous, the distance between crests being about ninety miles. It took the waves less than five hours to reach the Hawaiian chain, so they must have moved at a speed of about four hundred and seventy miles an hour. Along the shores of the eastern Pacific, they were recorded as far into the Southern Hemisphere as Valparaíso, Chile; the distance, eight thousand and sixty-six miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, was covered by the waves in eighteen hours.

The storm waves that sometimes rise over low-lying coastlands in hurricane zones are accompanied by a rise of the general water level, forming the so-called "storm tide." The rise of water is often so sudden that people have no chance to escape. These waves claim about three-fourths of the lives lost in tropical hurricanes. The most notable disasters caused by storm waves in the United States were at Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900; on the lower Florida Keys, on September 2 and 3, 1935; and in the Atlantic Coast hurricane of September 21, 1938. The most fearful destruction by storm waves within historic time occurred in the Bay of Bengal on October 7, 1737, when twenty thousand boats were destroyed and three hundred thousand people drowned.
For an even broader perspective, we're now told that scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have calculated that the tsunami affects everyone on the planet. Quake's Power Speeds Up Earth's Rotation and Shortens Our Days is the headline in The Scotsman. The effect is unlikely to be noticed for a few thousand years, however.
Richard Gross, a geophysicist with NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in California, said that a shift of mass towards the Earth’s centre had caused the planet to spin one millionth of a second faster and to tilt about an inch on its axis.

He added that when one huge tectonic plate beneath the Indian Ocean was forced below the edge of another, "it had the effect of making the Earth more compact and spin faster". Days will get shorter by a fraction of a second, Mr Gross said, although the effects are probably too small to be detected by hi-tech global positioning satellites that monitor changes in the Earth’s spin.

The poles travel a circular path that normally varies by about 33ft, so an added wobble of an inch is unlikely to cause long-term effects. "That continual motion is just used to changing," Mr Gross said. "The rotation is not actually that precise. The Earth does slow down and change its rate of rotation."

When those tiny variations accumulate, planetary scientists must add a "leap second" to the end of a year, something that has not been done in many years, he added.
Not all agree on the exact measure of spin and tilt caused by the tsunami. "We won't know for weeks," geophysicist Thomas Herring of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told New York's Newsday. "The most accurate measurements will take about three weeks to get all of the data processed. So it's a guess, as of now."

But, as Rachel Carson's fascinating essay reminds us, the sea also exerts a countervailing force --
The very movement of the water over the bed of the ocean, over the shallow edges of the continents, and over the inland seas carries within it the power that is slowly destroying the tides, for tidal friction is gradually slowing down the rotation of the earth. In the earliest days, it took the earth a much shorter time—perhaps only four hours—to make a complete rotation on its axis. Since then, the spinning of the globe has been so greatly slowed that now, of course, a rotation requires about twenty-four hours. Mathematicians say that this retarding will continue until the day is about fifty times as long as it is now. And all the while the tidal friction will be exerting a second effect; it will be pushing the moon farther away, just as it has already pushed it out more than two hundred thousand miles.
The tsunami tragedy has awed the world. It demonstrates the fragility of our planet and the power of nature. Most of all, I think, it reminds us of the interdependence of all mankind, and life itself, on earth.

Just as with the lowly worm Convoluta roscoffensis, whose mysterious ways Rachel Carson describes at the end of her New Yorker essay, we are all destined to "live out... life in this alien place, remembering in every fibre... the tidal rhythm of the distant sea."

Beach Opens to Public Sunday Night

Escambia County officials announced Wednesday that Pensacola Beach will be thrown open to the general public at 6 p.m. Sunday evening, January 2. According to the Pensacola News Journal, Chief Sheriff's Deputy Larry Smith says beach residents "have had enough time to secure their belongings."

The 3/4-mile commercial core from the west end of Casino Beach to Avenida 10 has been open to the public for some time. Starting Sunday night, free access to the rest of the 8-mile long island community will begin when the sheriff's office takes down make-shift security checkpoints on Via DeLuna and Fort Pickens Road.

Access to Perdido Key similarly will be unfettered starting Sunday. The sheriff's office told the News Journal that the checkpoints there and on Pensacola Beach have cost about $5 million in overtime pay. All of it is being covered by FEMA, although the "federal reimbursements won't be paid until mid-2005."

So, it seems money wasn't the driving force behind the decision to re-open the entire beach community so much as grumbling from mainlanders who like to rubber-neck. An echo of some crank's letter-to-the-editor published in the News Journal on December 16 can be heard in the explanation offered by Deputy Smith, as quoted by the newspaper:
"Either the beach is open, or it's closed," Smith said. "By letting a select group in, you'd be establishing a gated community." Smith said.
And what a gated community it is! Most neighborhood street lights do not function. Mountains of trash still line the streets. No sooner is the garbage picked up than more takes its place. Sand mountains piled four stories high by bulldozers block beach views in much of the residential area. Broken glass and debris make access paths to the beach treacherous.

Traveling the full length of Via De Luna at night last week, one could count across the whole length and width of the east end of the island less than fifty lighted homes or temporary trailers. Before the storm, there would have been 1200-1500 inhabited houses, condo, and townhouse units.

With no restaurants, goods for sale, public restrooms, safe beach access, or life guards, it's difficult to imagine any lawful reason tourists or mainlanders would want to venture past the point where temporary security checkpoints were established. Morbid curiosity? Free 'yard sales' of hurricane-damaged junk? House hunters hoping for a "handyman special"? Or, was it pressure from media sources, staunchly defending their First Amendment right to sensationalize human misery for profit?

We are assured by the News Journal that the sheriff promises, "Deputies will continue to operate additional security patrols throughout the hardest-hit areas." That might be. But the risks of a premature re-opening go beyond the threat of thievery.

How soon they forget. Less than two years ago, Pensacola Beach was dubbed "Death Beach" by Chris Brewster of the National Lifesaving Association because of all the drownings that occurred in unguarded beach areas beyond the commercial core. Do county officials seriously think letting the public wander freely through still-devasted, largely dark and empty neigborhoods is going to enhance public safety -- or the reputation of Pensacola Beach as a safe and enjoyable place to visit?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

FEMA Extends Deadline

FEMA late Wednesday granted a 60-day extension for hurricane victims in Florida and Alabama who still need to apply for disaster assistance, according to a number of Southeast Florida news sources, including the Tuscaloosa News and Pensacola TV station WEAR-TV.

The initial deadline was this Friday, December 31. The deadline for SBA loan and grant assistance is January 3, 2005. At this writing, it is unknown if SBA will extend its deadline as well.

Earlier today, Patrick Whittle of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that "FEMA officials said they were working with the state [of Florida] to determine if the Friday deadline should be extended." According to Whittle's article, FEMA has received 1.1 million applications, statewide, since Hurricane Charley struck.

Oddly, WEAR-TV's early evening report says the new deadline for Florida residents will be slightly shorter than for Alabamians. "In Florida," the station reports, "the deadline has been extended to February 28th. The new registration deadline is March 3 for Alabama residents."

Could this be because someone thinks Alabama residents read slower?


The web site for FEMA now confirms the early reports. According to FEMA:
At the request of the State of Florida, the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has extended the application deadline for hurricane victims disaster assistance registration to February 28, 2005, for the four 2004 hurricanes that made landfall in Florida—Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne.

“With registrations still averaging more than 1,500 a day, it is important to keep the process open until everyone who suffered damage has a chance to call and get registered for assistance,” said Craig Fugate, state coordinating officer.

To register, Floridians should call the FEMA toll-free number, 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or TTY 1-800-462-7585 for those who are speech- or hearing-impaired. Teleregistration hours will be 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST, seven days a week until further notice. Applicants may also register online at the FEMA website by clicking on the red “hot-link” button in the upper right-hand portion of the page marked “Register for Disaster Assistance Online.”

“Even with the extended deadline for registering we encourage everyone to go ahead and complete the process as soon as possible,” stated Bill Carwile, federal coordinating officer.

Evidently, it is true that Alabama residents will have an extra three days to file their applications for FEMA assistance.

Never let it be said that the federal government in far away Washington isn't sensitive to the differing needs of each state.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Update on the Tsunami

Bumped from down thread:

Update on the Tsunami
Monday, December 27

The Washington Post reports this morning that more than 20,000 are now believed dead from the Christmas Tsunami. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports the toll has topped 22,000. Australia's The Age reports the total has topped 24,000.
Millions of survivors have lost everything, and now urgently need medicine, shelter, food and clean water. "This is a massive humanitarian disaster and the communications are so bad we still don't know the full scale of it. Unless we get aid quickly to the people many more could die," said Phil Esmond, head of Oxfam in Sri Lanka.

The worst affected countries are Sri Lanka, where the reported toll last night passed 11,500, India (6600 dead), Indonesia (4991) and Thailand (839).

A Gulf Breeze friend, Don Rolle, is presently living on the island of Borneo, well north of quake. He cautions in an email message received today that "other places like Burma and Malaysia have not really reported in" as yet. The death toll is sure to continue rising.

New DEP Web Site

Just before Christmas, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced it is launching a new web site with 'before and after' "video clips and photographs of Florida’s shoreline from spring 2004 and in the aftermath of Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne... ." The videos are intended to help "disaster relief personnel, property owners, realtors, insurance agents and coastal planners... assess coastal damage to assist in the recovery process."

Also available is a 64-page damage assessment of Hurricane Ivan. The report is in Adobe Acrobat (pdf) format. You can directly access it by clicking here.

The web site was made possible by DEP engineers and managers who --
assessed erosion along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts following the summer storms. Engineers completed close to 1,000 hours of aerial and ground assessments across 25 coastal counties, shooting 76 hours of video and more than 5,200 still photographs to document hurricane damage to the state’s famed beaches, sandy dunes and coastal communities. Collected data was used to develop the State’s Hurricane Recovery Plan for Florida’s Beach and Dune System.
As of today, however, it's premature for those interested in a video of the Pensacola area to pay a visit. Only a coastal control map of Northwest Florida is available on the web site. No videos or post-storm photographs can be accessed as yet.

But it is possible to see pre-storm aerial photos of Pensacola Beach neighborhoods by repeatedly zooming in on the map page for Northwest Florida. The resolution gets fuzzier the closer you get, of course, but pixilated individual homes, trees, and large plants can be made out -- with the state's coastal control line superimposed over all. What that shows, as beach residents know all too well, is that a great many structures on Pensacola Beach were built seaward of the coastal control line well before Hurricane Ivan.

Either state and county officials have made a mockery of coastal construction control laws by handing out far too many 'variances' over the years, or someone should arrest Mother Nature for violating state law.

When the web site is completed, DEP advises that Internet visitors will need an up-to-date browser and may have to download the latest Windows Media plug-in or DIVX software to see the videos. This is because, as DEP boasts, the web site uses "state of the art e-tools." Links for the necessary software, which is freeware, are provided on the new DEP web site.

For more information, visit the DEP's description about Regional Coastal Monitoring Data Files.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Holiday Empathies

It's easy for victims of the four Florida hurricanes to feel sorry for ourselves this holiday season. But our misfortune should make it easier for us to empathize with others who, alas, are enduring similar misfortunes -- greatly magnified.

Dreary Christmas Day

Pig-gray skies. Sleet. Cold rain. A biting wind. Dreary. Depressing.

Christmas Day in Pensacola? Yes, true. But elsewhere, too. Consider the holiday experienced by our soldiers in Iraq.
Under gray skies and a cold, steady rain, Anderson, 28, and his convoy of three armored Humvees from the Army's First Cavalry Division pulled out of Camp Falcon cheerily, with the guitar-heavy sounds of Metallica blaring from Sergeant Brandon Shaw's CD player. Specialist Steve Bobb, 24, of Meigs County, Ohio, gripped an M-16 and a mounted M-240 machine gun at the rooftop portal of the Humvee.

* * *
A few minutes into the patrol, their hopes for an easy afternoon were dashed. Headquarters radioed in with a new order: head to Route Irish, the deadly stretch of road leading to Baghdad International Airport, and secure it for an hour.

The mood soured quickly; conversations ended. Two of the battalion's men had already been killed and nearly two dozen injured on the road. Shaw, a 23-year-old State College, Pa., native sitting behind the wheel sullenly headed toward the airport. He turned off the Metallica.

Across Iraq, US soldiers tried their hardest to make the best of a tough, dreary Christmas.
In Pensacola, many wished at Christmas time for a new roof or a little help from FEMA. In Iraq:
"To be honest, we're all about trying to get out of here," said Staff Sergeant Miguel Molina, 34, a scout from Hammonton, N.J., based in Baghdad. "You sit in the Forward Operating Base and you got rockets and attacks every day. You don't focus on all the holiday stuff. I just don't want to send none of my guys home in a body bag."

Still shell-shocked over the 8 to 12 foot water surge that washed over Pensacola area beaches and cities? Today, a massive tsunami triggered by the largest earthquake in 40 years, swamped the entire coastline of Southeast Asia.

Early reports are that more than three five six seven no, eight no, ten thousand have died from Indonesia to India, and the death toll is mounting by the hour. The New York Times reports waves "up to 30 feet high" crashed into beaches in Thailand, "where thousands of tourists were lazing on the country's renowned white sand beaches when the earthquake struck."

We've seen what 12 feet of water can do to a moderately sized city. Imagine the destruction and heartache a 30-foot tsunami can cause as it powers over heavily populated communities stretching from Sumatra to the Indian subcontinent.

On Evacuation

About four thousand Pensacola Beach residents were kept away from their homes for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Ivan. Many grew frustrated, angry, and fearful of losing what little they might have left. When we were finally allowed to return, most of us found our homes unlivable. We moved in with relatives, into FEMA trailers, pitched tents, or area rentals. And then the task of making repairs and wrestling with insurance companies began.

But let's pause for a moment to consider how the 250,000 residents of Falluja must be feeling after evacuating their homes for more than six weeks. Yesterday, a small fraction, only 2,000, were "allowed back into the city for the first time since the American-led assault in the city in November."
Many civilians who fled Falluja have said they are desperate to return. Many have been camping out in winter temperatures in tents, or staying in schools and other public buildings.
Instead of showing a deputy sheriff a driver's license and beach pass, Falluja residents have to submit to fingerprinting and eyeball scans. And what do they find when they arrive home? According to Dr. Saleh Hussein Isawi, the acting director of the Falluja general hospital:
I was there, inside the city -- about 60% to 70% of the homes and buildings are completely crushed and damaged, and not ready to inhabit... . Of the 30% still left standing, I don't think there is a single one that has not been exposed to some damage.

One of my colleagues... went to see his home, and saw that it is almost completely collapsed and everything is burnt inside.

When he went to his neighbours' home, he found a relative of his was dead and a dog had eaten the meat off him.

I think we will see many things like this, because the US forces have cleared the dead people from the streets, but not from inside the homes.

* * *
There is no water, no electricity, no sewage system - there is nothing inside the city, except a very small amount of medical supplies that have come from Falluja hospital by two ambulances.
Christmas Rations

Remember those MRE's we were glad to have after Ivan cut Pensacola off from the rest of the world for nearly a week? Consider the plight of Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao, whirling 127 miles above the Earth inside the International Space Station. Last month, they were 'asked' according to Rueters and 'ordered' according to the Los Angeles Times to cut their daily rations because they were about to run out of food -- including MREs.
Russian officials accused the previous crew of overeating during their 6-month mission, leaving a deficit of meat and milk and a surplus of juice and confectionery.
Christmas Day, a resupply ship arrived with "2 1/2 tons of equipment, supplies and more than enough food to ease a serious shortage." If you happen to find yourself in space, "more than enough food" means you can eat until March, when the Space Station has to be re-supplied again.

Rating Disasters

Sick of all the talk about the Saffir-Simpson Scale for hurricanes? Try the Torino Scale "used to categorize the threat of asteroids."
The Torino Scale is named after the city in Italy in which it was adopted during a workshop in June, 1999. The scale uses numbers and colors to indicate risk of collision, all based on complicated analysis of an asteroid's path and calculations of how that path might change as it's affected by gravity from Earth and other bodies.
And what's the forecast for the coming Asteroid Season? According to USA Today NASA issued a Dec. 24 update stating Asteroid 2004 MN4
is now being tracked very carefully by many astronomers around the world, and we continue to update our risk analysis for this object. Today's impact monitoring results indicate that the impact probability for April 13, 2029 has risen to about 1.6%, which for an object of this size corresponds to a rating of 4 on the ten-point Torino Scale.
Still, we're told, the odds against a life-destroying impact with Earth are about 60 to 1.

Anybody remember the odds of four hurricanes hitting Florida within a two month period?

Update on the Tsunami
Monday, December 27

The Washington Post reports this morning that more than 20,000 are now believed dead from the Christmas Tsunami. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports the toll has topped 22,000. Australia's The Age reports the total has topped 24,000.
Millions of survivors have lost everything, and now urgently need medicine, shelter, food and clean water. "This is a massive humanitarian disaster and the communications are so bad we still don't know the full scale of it. Unless we get aid quickly to the people many more could die," said Phil Esmond, head of Oxfam in Sri Lanka.

The worst affected countries are Sri Lanka, where the reported toll last night passed 11,500, India (6600 dead), Indonesia (4991) and Thailand (839).

A Gulf Breeze friend, Don Rolle, is presently living on the island of Borneo, well north of quake. He cautions in an email message received today that "other places like Burma and Malaysia have not really reported in" as yet. The death toll is sure to continue rising.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Beach Christmas Canceled

It just goes on, doesn't it?

The 5 pm Christmas Eve services planned for Pensacola Beach by the Gulf Breeze Methodist Church has been canceled after 30 mph winds this week toppled the tent sponsors planned to use. The tent had been erected in the Casino Beach parking lot.

Alternative services will be held at in Seville Quarter's Heritage Room in Pensacola (5:30 pm); at the main church grounds at 75 Fairpoint Drive, Gulf Breeze 3 pm - children's service), 4:30, 6, 7:30 and 11 p.m.); and at the Community Life Center at U.S. 98 and Soundside Drive (3:30 - children's service, 5 and 6:30 p.m.)

A community open house, sponsored by Gulf Breeze Methodist and area businesses, will be in the space next to Bruno's in Gulf Breeze proper from 4 to 9 p.m. Free food and photos will be provided.

FEMA Trailers (con't)

Following up NPR's first-in-a-series reports on FEMA's statewide plans to move hurricane victims into mobile home parks, Friday's Pensacola News Journal affirms that FEMA is setting up full-sized mobile homes in the Pensacola area.

Derek Pivnick reports:
In the coming days and weeks, several hundred families displaced by Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 16 will move into the mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We've got a lot of them coming on line real quickly," said Brad Gair, deputy federal coordinating officer for recovery, who oversees FEMA's emergency temporary housing in Florida.

FEMA reports 2,029 families in Escambia County and 1,177 families in Santa Rosa County are in temporary housing, mostly travel trailers.

Now the agency is working to place more people in mobile homes, Gair said.

The travel trailers were offered as short-term emergency housing for as long as 90 days. Mobile homes will accommodate families for as long as 18 months.
"FEMA mobile homes," Pivnick adds, "are being set up on existing slabs as much as possible."

Utilities will be set up before move-in but residents will be responsible for paying the utility bills.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

NPR's Hurricane Series

Reporter Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio is in Florida, working on what NPR says will be a "series on [the] long term effects" of the four hurricanes that struck Florida.

The series is airing on Morning Edition, the early morning weekday news program, although not every day. In the Pensacola area, you can catch it on WUWF-FM (88.1) from 4 am to 8 am CST or on WHIL-FM (91.3) in Mobile from 5 to 7 am. With a computer sound card, it's also possible to hear an archived version on the NPR web site at any time.

Thursday, Shapiro filed his first dispatch from high above the shores of Lake Okeechobee in a "rickety 6-seat airplane" proceeding east to "near Ft. Pierce" on the Atlantic coast.

It wasn't much more than an introduction for the national audience to the concept of "bright blue squares on nearly every other building" and "temporary homes" stretching "nearly a thousand miles" across Florida. One FEMA manager told Shapiro that FEMA itself installed 135,000 blue roofs and "gave away another half million smaller tarps that people put onto their own homes."

He also said FEMA right now is seeing "a second wave of people [that] has only recently started to ask for housing." They come from those who are discovering emerging mold problems, "people [who] have been waiting a long time for insurance settlements," recalcitrant landlords who won't make repairs, and the trickle of evacuees returning home for the first time.

FEMA, we also learn, "in communities all over the state" is looking for sites to build "long term" mobile home parks that will be able to withstand hurricane force winds up to 140 mph.

"This is all part of a strategy," Shapiro reports, "for preparing for what could be a series of intense hurricane seasons."

NPR doesn't say when the next segment will be broadcast, although one supposes it will probably be within the next few days.

Florida Facing Chilly 'Dollar Daze'?

Just a couple of weeks ago, the estimable Florida blog South of the Suwannee called attention to an alarming report from The Economist on the implications of the falling U.S. dollar.

Plunging Dollar

The article, titled The Disappearing Dollar, essentially points out that over the past 12 months the dollar has lost nearly a quarter of its value measured against the Euro and other world currencies. In a sidebar to the main article, The Economist explains:
"The Bush administration's apparent shift from a "strong dollar policy" in September 2003 touched off a steep slide that has continued in fits and starts. * * * While a gradual fall could help worldwide economic recovery... a sudden plunge would be bad for everyone."
A few days earlier, David Francis explained in The Christian Science Monitor that the dollar's plunge is good news for exporters and tourist destinations like "U.S. national parks" but --
... the downside could be significant. America, the world's leading importer of goods, is now buying them at higher prices. And if the dollar's dive makes foreign investors wary, U.S. interest rates may have to rise to attract buyers of federal debt.

More broadly, it's a shock to the global economy. Sunday in Germany, officials from the Group of 20 industrial and major developing countries called for the United States to cut its federal deficit, which is seen as a key factor in the dollar's fall.
* * *
The dollar is now down 50 percent against the euro since October 2000, and hit its lowest level since 1995 against a basket of foreign currencies [in mid-November].
Cheap Dollars Buy Florida Real Estate

If all of this seems like dry, uninteresting stuff too distant for those of us living under blue roofs in the Ivan War Zone to worry about, consider today's news from South Florida. The Miami Herald reports a wealthy British family has purchased all of Fisher Island, chiefly because they'll be paying for it with U.S. dollars that seem so cheap. As the Herald's business reporter, Matthew Haggman, explains, the island is an "exclusive" hideaway with 621 multi-million homes:
Located immediately south of Miami Beach's South Pointe, Fisher Island has long been home to the famous and super-rich. Earlier this month a five-bedroom condo sold for $8.7 million, considered the biggest condo resale price in Miami-Dade County. * * * Accessible by ferry or helicopter, Fisher Island's famous residents have included the likes of Oprah Winfrey and former tennis star Boris Becker.

The deal may signal heightened European interest in an already hot South Florida real estate market because of the weak dollar.

Under current exchange rates, one euro buys $1.33 in the United States. By comparison, in October 2000, one euro bought 83 cents.

Snowbirds 'Buck' the Trend, Too

Today, too, the Canadian News Broadcasting Corporation reports that snowbirds north of the border are planning to wing south in record numbers, enticed by the exchange rate between the "loonie" and the "buck":
"The Canadian dollar is just an overwhelmingly positive story," enthused Colin Ellis, research officer at the Canadian Snowbird Association.

He predicts Canadian visits to Florida will rise to two million this winter from 1.7 million last year.

For Canadians in the United States, everything from the all-you-can-eat buffet to medical insurance is cheaper.

The effect is particularly beneficial for retired people, Ellis said.

"If you're 65 years old, you know how much money you have to live on for the next year," he said. "So say you have $40,000 and the Canadian dollar goes up 10 per cent - that's a $4,000 windfall; it's huge to these people."
Normally, for areas like Pensacola that depend on tourism, a falling dollar might be a welcome development in the short run. More tourists mean more profits for the tourist industry, right?

But these aren't normal times, thanks to Hurricane Ivan. On Pensacola Beach, only three full service restaurants and two hotels have managed to open. Despite the brave face placed on things by local tourist promoters, most beach businesses remain closed. Several which are listed as having a 'target' opening date but they're likely to be months away from any semblance of normality. Even some so-called 'open' shops are operating out of a fraction of their usual quarters, under blue plastic roofs, or with limited inventory.

In the longer run, moreover, a falling dollar will fuel inflation in Florida, too. It is bound to drive up prices for everything from food to clothes to souveniers. Wages of the working poor, already devastated by Florida's four hurricanes, will come under added pressure as well. (As the Miami Herald reminded us the other day, in a hurricane "economists say the affluent lose their deductibles, but the poor lose everything.")

So, "What ails the dollar?" as Robert Kuttner asked recently upon returning from an expensive European trip. Kuttner, a columnist for the conservative Business Week and co-founder of the Economic Policy Institute, joins a growing number of economists who are worrying that --
Our trade deficit grows bigger every year, as does our budget deficit. Both deficits require foreigners to supply capital. The more capital they have to supply, the more nervous they get about the dollar * * * leaving the United States precariously dependent on two foreign central banks -- China and Japan -- to finance its twin deficits.
* * *
By continuing to increase the federal budget deficit, most recently with a plan to privatize Social Security, the Bush administration only worsens the problem. And there is a growing risk of a financial meltdown with the following elements:

First, as foreign confidence in the dollar keeps shrinking, so does the dollar. The Federal Reserve then has to raise interest rates defensively to make investments in U.S. securities more attractive to foreigners.

But high interest rates slow U.S. economic growth, hurt the stock market, and could contribute to a long-anticipated crash of housing prices.
House Sales

And that was written before today's news that "U.S. new home sales fell 12 percent in November."

To be sure, the Southeast was the only region in the nation that escaped November's decline. According to Bloomberg News home sales "declined 39.4 percent in the Midwest ... 28 percent in the West... and 7.1 percent in the Northeast." They rose 14 percent in the Southeast.

Overall, however, it looks like the nation saw the start of the biggest housing sales slump in more than a decade -- and it's not likely to stop any time soon. The prospect of "steadily rising rates has already begun to chill the housing sector," as Bloomberg quotes economist Anthony Chan saying.

Today's 'chilly' news should be a wake up call to the high-spending, tax-cutting Bush administration and Republican Congress. The nation can't long prosper by continuing to borrow from our own children's future -- or our increasingly "nervous" competitors in Asia.

The Last County (Not) Standing

"A Very FEMA Christmas" is the headline for Patrick Whittle's report today in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. It's mostly about how Charlotte County victims of Hurricane Charley will be celebrating Christmas by losing their FEMA trailers.
After Hurricane Charley destroyed their homes, hundreds of people like North Fort Myers' Vanessa Hallman moved into travel trailers, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in private commercial parks.

Four and a half months after Charley, FEMA's leases at some of the parks are expiring, leaving the agency to find more trailers and move residents to other parks.

Starting the day after Christmas, hurricane victims will move to other short-term parks or to a 551-unit long-term park on Airport Road, FEMA spokesman Brad Gair said.
Here's the interesting part for Pensacola area citizens: at the very end of Whittle's article, the FEMA spokesman acknowledges that, "Most of families who are just now moving into FEMA housing are in the Panhandle... ."

"Really, Escambia County is the last remaining county that has a significant amount of need," Gair said. "The other counties are in very good shape. That doesn't mean everybody has a place yet."

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More Agenda Items

A few days ago, I suggested some agenda items for improving hurricane insurance law during next year's state legislative session. Today's news points to a couple more.

* * *

Beatrice E. Garcia reports in the Miami Herald that state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty told the Florida Cabinet yesterday, "81 percent of the 1.5 million claims filed with insurers have been closed and homeowners have collected funds to repair their homes."

However,"291,406 claims remain unfinished." The cabinet also was told "the process of settling claims had been bogged down in recent weeks" as more citizens complain "about delayed adjustments, payments and disputed settlements."

So, if a "settlement" is "disputed" does it still get counted in the 81 percent of claim cases that are counted as "closed"? Apparently so. And what percentage of those "closed cases" in fact are being "disputed"? Your guess is as good as mine. No one at the Department of Financial Services is saying.

Garcia's dispatch also includes news that most other newspapers seem to have overlooked. The state cabinet was told 50 out of 226 licensed property insurance companies have failed to submit required affidavits to the Florida Financial Services Dept.

That's a non-compliance rate of over 22 percent!

Two months ago, state CFO Tom Gallagher required all Florida property insurers to affirm in writing that "they were paying additional living expenses to qualified policyholders and had made at least an initial assessment of all the storm damage."

So, who are the companies that failed to obide by Gallagher's order? According to reporter Garcia, unnamed "regulators" assert that state law prohibits them from publicly identifying them.

If that's true, there's another reform for the legislature to enact next year. What kind of law allows state government to shield the names of licensed insurance companies who don't obey state law?

* * *

The Palm Beach Post is carrying what looks like a re-write of wire service reports on yesterday's Florida state cabinet decision to extend "until March 31 a moratorium that prevents insurance companies from canceling policies on homeowners with outstanding hurricane damage claims."
Under the rule, companies can't cancel or not renew policies for at least 60 days after the hurricane-related repairs are completed.

The moratorium, which was [administratively ordered] last month, would have ended Dec. 31 if the Cabinet had not acted.

Florida Department of Financial Services spokeswoman Tami Torres said it isn't known how many homeowners are awaiting repairs, but the number of blue tarps adorning roofs throughout the state gives some indication of the need for the rule.

"Even though the insurance company might cut the check, we don't know the number of people on lists waiting for contractors," Torres said. "We do know there are still people waiting."
Here in Pensacola, published estimates are that it may take roofers two years or more to finish repairs to hurricane damaged homes. Either the cabinet will have to extend the moratorium again and again and again. Or, better yet, as CFO Gallagher himself suggested during the recently-concluded special legislative session, the legislature should step up to the plate and pass an act prohibiting all insurers from "canceling policies on homeowners with outstanding hurricane damage claims."

There also should be a ban against canceling or refusing to renew a homeowner's policy for at least one year after a hurricane claim has been paid and repairs completed. For many, the fear of cancellation hangs so heavy that it can tempt them to forego their rights in hopes of avoiding retaliation.

I'd guess at least 22 percent of the insurance companies in Florida aren't above taking advantage of that situation. But I can't tell you who they are. Apparently, it's against the law to identify them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Beach Leaseholders' Lawsuit Filed

"WHEREAS, Santa Rosa Island Authority on behalf of Escambia County represented to the general public and all parties dealing with them, that the said properties on Santa Rosa Island owned by Escambia County were not subject to ad valorem taxes... ."
-- 1976 Laws of Florida, chap. 76-361
The widely anticipated litigation challenging last summer's decision by county government to impose ad valorem taxes on Pensacola Beach leaseholders has begun, according to a lead article in today's Pensacola News Journal.

Four Lawsuits Filed

Amber Bolman reports in today's Pensacola News Journal that over the last week:
four suits contesting property taxes that were levied on beach leaseholders for the first time this year have been filed against Property Appraiser Chris Jones and Tax Collector Janet Holley. Thousands of Santa Rosa Island residents, along with some of Pensacola Beach's biggest businesses, are plaintiffs in the lawsuits alleging that the ad valorem taxes should be voided.

Beach residents have argued they should not pay taxes because they lease, rather than own, property. An ad valorem tax is based on the assessed value of real estate or personal property.

"We believe the property appraiser has carried out a void and illegal act in imposing the taxes, and the tax collector has followed suit by collecting them," said attorney Danny Kepner, who is representing about 3,400 beach residents in one lawsuit and about 40 businesses or management groups in another.
The largest number of plaintiffs filed the lawsuit under the caption, "1108 Ariola, LLC, et al. vs. Chris Jones." A list of the 3,409 plaintiffs and 2,232 property addresses involved was posted yesterday on the Internet. The web site was created and is maintained by an ad hoc committtee of residential and commercial leaseholders who are opposing the county tax initiative.

Among the beach businesses filing suit are island restaurants Jubilee, Capt'n Fun Beach Club, Hooters, Flounder's Chowder House, Hemingway's Island Grill, and Peg Leg Pete's. Hotels joining the suit include the Hilton Garden Inn, Springhill Suites, Clarion Suites, and the Hampton Inn.

Bolman identifies Alvin's Island as the only souvenir shop contesting the taxes. Many others are known to be mere sublessees of the restaurant owners or newer businesses with leases less than 99 years in duration.

Bolman also writes that separate lawsuits were filed in the last week in behalf of leaseholders at two Portofino towers:
The other two lawsuits were filed by Ed Fleming of the firm McDonald, Fleming, Moorhead. Fleming is representing homeowners associations from Portofino's first and second towers in two lawsuits.

The suits allege that the beach properties actually are owned by the county and should be exempt from property taxes.

The lawsuits also argue that even if the taxes are deemed legal, they are excessive. They accuse Jones of improperly including "the value of the land itself into the valuation."

"The property appraiser made assessments at an amount nearly twice the cost to rebuild these units," the suits state. "The amount of the appraisals is grossly excessive and does not represent just value."
At widely attended leaseholders meetings over the past two months, attorneys also have mentioned that the Portofino development leases approved by the Santa Rosa Island Authority contain unique language that might be construed as offering additional guarantees against county real estate taxes.

History of Beach Taxes: Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice

This is the third time in four decades Escambia County officials have tried to impose real estate taxes on Pensacola Beach property. The island originally was donated by the U.S. Department of Interior to Escambia County in 1947. The Federal deed expressly authorized the lease, but not sale, of island property.

Over much of the succeeding fifty years, the county was slow to develop island infrastructure, eradicate pestilent mosquitos, or build schools and other amenities that would attract private investment. Instead of spending public funds to develop Pensacola Beach, it settled on a strategy of enticing developers, residents, and businesses to spend their own money in exchange for a promise that leaseholds would be ad valorem tax-free.

Escambia County produced and widely distributed pamphlets that promised "no county or state taxes on the lot or structure." It also embarked on an aggressive nation-wide advertising campaign promising "tax free" 99-year lot leases with "no ad valorem assessments." Full-page ads promising "tax free beach lots" ran for many years in newspapers and magazines from Seattle to New York and Detroit to Dallas.

The Santa Rosa Island Authority maintains an extensive archive of those pamphlets, advertisements, letters, memos, and other evidence of the county's long-standing promises.

Still, for many years Escambia County found it difficult to attract anyone to invest in its sand-blown, undeveloped island. On occasion, the county even gave away 99-year leases as door prizes. In those days, the 'good news' was you'd just won a long term beach lot lease. The 'bad news' was that the fine print in your door prize lease required you to spend your own money building a house within two years -- or the lease would be forfeited. [Edit - A house, moreover, to which Escambia County would have title.]

Some of this history was later memorialized by the state legislature in the preamble to House Bill No. 3913, 1976 Laws of Florida, chap. 76-361. That bill was passed to bring an end to an earlier, similar, county effort to impose real estate taxes on Pensacola Beach property. In pertinent part, the legislation states:
"WHEREAS, in the year of 1949, the Legislature enacted a law... exempting the lands owned by Escambia County on Santa Rosa Island and all interests therein from all ad valorem and other forms of taxation, and

WHEREAS, [the law] was determined on April 17, 1951, to be valid and constitutional by the Supreme Court of Florida ... , and

WHEREAS, Santa Rosa Island Authority on behalf of Escambia County represented to the general public and all parties dealing with them, that the said properties on Santa Rosa Island owned by Escambia County were not subject to ad valorem taxes, and

WHEREAS, said governmental authorities induced hundreds of persons, who relied upon the representations and the decision of the Supreme Court to enter into long term leases providing for rentals and which contained many onerous provisions, among them the requirement that all utilities be purchased from such authorities, the requirement that lessees at their expense construct improvements on the leased land within a specified time which...became...the property of the county and were not subject to removal, and 21 provisions wherein the lease could be forfeited and the entire investment of the lessee lost, and
* * *
WHEREAS, the functions and representations of said governmental authority were performed for and made on behalf of Escambia County and are binding upon them... ."
Escambia County officials have chafed under the yoke of being required to keep their past promises. According to Bolman, county officials expect taxes on leasehold interests might generate about $5.2 million in revenue annually. Over the years, county politicians also have found it useful to demagogue among mainland voters by using the island's tax-free status as a wedge issue.

Bolman's news report adds that earlier this Fall, anticipating litigation over its latest effort to impose taxes, Escambia county commissioners "voted to hold those funds in reserve until legal challenges are resolved."

Commissioners may have hoped by that move to encourage more islanders to pay the disputed taxes in the expectation that the county would return the money if the leaseholders' lawsuit is successful. Given the county's history of breaking its word, however, many have scoffed at the commissioners' latest move.

"Why should we believe the county now?" one resident asked at an informationl meeting of leaseholders about a month ago. "You know what they say. 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.' Why should we fall for it a third time?"

County Attorney Janet Lander told reporter Bolman that she expects it could take up to two years for the lawsuits to be settled in court. A similar suit brought by Navarre Beach residents and leaseholders is now on appeal.

Some attorneys have said they expect the Navarre Beach appeal to be decided within the next six or eight months. However, attorneys meeting with Pensacola Beach residents have said there may be important differences between the Santa Rosa County leases at Navarre Beach and those written by Escambia County covering Pensacola Beach property.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Show Us Some Warmth

"Handling of insurance claims affects the greatest number of Floridians and carries the biggest immediate financial need. Yet it remains largely un-addressed in Florida."-- Paige St. John
Paige St. John, writing from Tallahassee for Gannett's Florida Today, reported late last evening that the Department of Financial Services has admitted 170,000 hurricane insurance claims still are unresolved. St. John's investigative report strongly suggests some of the blame belongs on state legislators, including our own Charlie Clary, who preferred to "talk" last week rather than act on a proposal to impose settlement deadlines on insurance companies.
Nearly one in five Floridians whose homes were damaged by hurricanes up to four months ago have yet to come to a settlement with their insurers.

Information released by the state Office of Insurance Regulation shows more than 170,000 claims remain open. The policyholders who filed them are increasingly frustrated.

* * *
Handling of insurance claims affects the greatest number of Floridians and carries the biggest immediate financial need. Yet it remains largely un-addressed in Florida.

Lawmakers in special session last week failed to take up the topic.

An emergency rule sought by CFO Tom Gallagher to impose claims deadlines resulted only in a requirement that insurance CEO's acknowledge they may be judged by how well they meet target dates: Nov. 22 for hurricanes Charley and Frances, and Dec. 8 for hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne.
The intrepid St. John, who has an admirable knack for grabbing the money quote, hauled in this gem from a prominent state senator, sounding a little like David Simon's street-wise character Bunk ("Feel the love") Moreland:
Insurance coverage should be a quilt against cold times, said Sen. Rudy Garcia, chairman of the Senate banking and insurance committee.

"I don't think the people of Florida feel the warmth," Garcia said.
St. John also unearths some rarely reported facts:
  • Hartford Fire Insurance has reported 72 percent claims closed.
  • Mobile USA, an insurer of mobile homes, reports 59 percent closed.
  • Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer, has closed 58 percent of its claims.
  • As she has done before, the capital bureau reporter deftly adds context -- in this case, the context of state insurance law -- to her investigative report and anecdotal tales of woe from individual policy holders still shivering throughout the Blue Roof State.
    In Florida, there is no law requiring claims to be settled within a certain time, a point state regulators note when reviewing late claims complaints against insurance companies even during ordinary times.

    Senate President Tom Lee said it is worth scrutiny when the Legislature takes on hurricane-related issues in its March session.

    "I have no illusions about the behavior of big corporations when they see an opportunity to frustrate the public with the way they conduct their business operations," Lee said. "There's no doubt that the more difficult you make it for people to collect their money, the more likely it is they will go away."
    For those of us in Northwest Florida whose insurance companies surely have made us among the 'coldest' insured citizens in the state, it may be of interest to know that our own District 4 state senator, Charlie Clary, told St. John that he thinks legislators "should talk about it" next year. "It is worth study," St. John quotes Clary as saying. But, she adds --
    Some lawmakers don't think the issue needs to wait.

    "If you're sitting without your home repaired, a legislative session next year doesn't give you much comfort," said Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island. "I would like to see the insurance director and the Cabinet go ahead and give emergency authority to get the claims wrapped up."
    Perhaps most surprising is the reaction of state financial officer Tom Gallagher. Gallagher has been talking tough, but it seems he is following essentially a hands-off policy when it comes to Citizens Property Insurance Co., the high-risk insurer under his own command.
    Gallagher said it would do no good to impose a statutory deadline. Insurance companies face "an almost impossible situation" of finding enough adjusters to move any faster.

    "What good does (a legal deadline) do?" Gallagher asked. "People do as much as they can possibly do.

    "Believe me, Citizens would do anything they could do (to close more claims). They do not need nor want my aggravation," he said. "They're doing everything they can."
    Indeed, St. John's latest interview with Florida CEO Tom Gallagher is real news. After speaking with the CEO of Mobile USA, who explained why all the 'closed case' statistics may be misleading, St. John writes:
    Mobile USA President Dan Eldridge said closure rates are misleading, because his company holds claims open even after it has sent checks, "in case there is a supplemental payment."

    Eldridge said other insurance companies might look better because they are reporting claims "closed" even when policyholders contest the amount paid, or believe they are owed much more.
    But here's a surprise: Florida's chief financial officer told Paige St. John that he expects it:
    Gallagher agreed. "A lot of these 'closed' cases are going to get opened again," he said.
    That may not come as shock to those of us who have been paying attention, but it does confirm our suspicions. As Gallagher surely has known all along, the only way Citizens Insurance Co. can come close to fulfilling the promise it made to him recently is to close all open claims prematurely by New Year's Eve -- and re-open them the next week.

    But if that's the case, why did Gallagher bother talking tough to Citizens in the first place? Is the "aggravation" he claims to be causing them just a publicity stunt to distract hurricane victims from the cold?

    It is past time for Gallagher to turn up the heat. Show us some warmth, Tom.

    Saturday, December 18, 2004

    Agenda for Insurance Reform

    "As Gannett's own series shows, state legislators have to be thrown off the insurance industry gravy train."
    After praising Gannett's four-part series on the Florida Insurance Storm, I wrote a mild rebuke to the effect that the media chain's "investigative report" seemed to end with a whimper, not a bang.

    Yesterday, Gannett's Florida Today, based in Brevard County, followed up both the series and the recently-concluded special legislative session with somewhat sterner stuff. The editorial, 'Far From Finished', tries to connect all the dots by warning state officials that they have to do better in the coming 2005 legislative session. Here are the guts of it:
    [T]he results of the regular session will prove whether the visits to hard-hit areas by Gov. Jeb Bush and lawmakers showed a new dedication to public needs -- or were just a cover for continued kowtowing to the insurance lobby.

    Any state official planning to stay in that lobby's pocket better understand the public is on to them.

    As a recent investigation by Florida Today and other Gannett newspapers and TV stations in Florida showed, insurers who 'cry poor' as they lobby for higher rates sing a different song when it comes to Wall Street.

    With analysts and investors, they stress they can pay the claims and still pull in a nice profit.

    Some major insurers even have formed Florida subsidiaries that are very useful when seeking rate boosts.

    As the Gannett report said, the subsidiaries can show a bleak profit picture. But any legislator worth his paycheck knows much of, if not most of, the claims are paid through parent companies that have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in dividends and other payments.
    The editorial calls for law reforms requiring that --
  • insurance policies "clearly disclose the dollar amount of deductibles"
  • toughen penalties for insurers companies that don't meet claim-handling deadlines
  • clear the confusion over so-called 'hurricane polices' that don't "cover the damage caused by storm surge"
  • reform the "disastrously run" Citizens Property Insurance Corp., and
  • "be rock-hard in demanding any rate hikes be based on costs and true market conditions, not insurance-company spin."
  • That's a reasonably impressive agenda. But there is plenty of room -- and a compelling need -- to expand it.

    For starters, the Insurance consumer advocate needs to be un-embedded from the Financial Services Department, as he himself has argued in the past. Anyone trying to voice the interests of insurance consumers should be truly independent of the agency that oversees insurance merchants.

    Tougher ethics laws should be enacted requiring divestiture of all insurance-related investments privately held by regulators. Filing the usual annual disclosure form just isn't enough. State officers and administrators flat-out shouldn't be investing in the same industry they regulate.

    Officials who leave government service should be prohibited for at least two years from representing before any state agency or department a company or industry they regulated while employed by the state. The current state constitution at Article II and ethics statute at Fla. Stat. sec. 112.313, only prohibit state officers from appearing before the same "government body or agency of which the individual was an officer or member."

    An insurance company could drive a convoy of Brinks trucks loaded with cash through that hole. (And it's likely some have!)

    For example, not to pick on any particular person, under current state law Florida CFO Tom Gallager couldn't lobby his old agency after he leaves office, but nothing in the law would appear to stop him from lobbying the legislature in exchange for a hefty salary and bonus. Or vice versa: state Senator Rudy Garcia, now chairman of a powerful legislative committee that oversees insurance matters, arguably is free to take a paid lobbist job to influence the Office of Insurance Regulation the moment he gives up his elective seat.

    Most important of all, as Gannett's own series shows, state legislators have to be thrown off the insurance industry gravy train. As reporter Paige St. John detailed in one of the Gannett articles, lawmakers in Tallahassee are showered with insurance industry money that is intended to buy political influence and, incredibly, under current Florida law almost all of that money is hidden from public view:
    Insurers invested $18.7 million in Florida's state campaigns during the 2002 and 2004 election cycles. They helped seat many of the top officials and lawmakers who will ... decide rate hikes or limits on relief in the future.

    The biggest recipients are state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, followed by Gov. Jeb Bush and the lawmakers who sit on insurance regulation committees.

    There is more -- money spent on drinks, dinners and trips, checks directed to favorite charities and the salaries for a slew of high-priced lobbyists. Most of that is not disclosed.

    Insurers paid more than $739,000 in 2003 to entertain and feed lawmakers debating legislation meant to help the industry. They are not required to say who they spent it on.

    They donated millions more to the pet causes of those with whom they want to curry favor, gifts that usually go unreported.
    As long as our lawmakers feed themselves at the insurance industry trough, you can be sure that any 'reforms' they enact will be temporary band-aids at best.

    What is needed at least as much as immediate hurricane relief is institutional reform of a system that allows the regulated to buy the regulators.

    Friday, December 17, 2004

    Exploding a Santa Claus Myth

    "The special interests... [will] lurk in the shadows until the deal is done and then they'll lob hand grenades into it because they never wanted a bill to begin with."

    Newspapers around the nation, today, are running wrap-ups of the Florida state legislature's four-day session on emergency hurricane relief. Sad to say, most of the news accounts amount to not much more than generic gift lists of what the lawmakers did, as if our elected representatives assembled in a locked room in Tallahasee and quietly contemplated nothing more than how best to play 'Santa Claus' to we hurricane victims.

    For example, you can read the Pensacola News Journal's lead account by Gannett's Tallahasse-based capital correspondent Paul Flemming. Like a loyal myth-maker, in both his main article and a sidebar, he focusses almost exclusively on the cash presents legislators wrapped up and put beneath our tree:
    The Legislature ended a four-day special session Thursday by providing money to help rebuild schools, restore beach dunes, pay people's insurance deductibles and cut property taxes on ruined homes.

    Including federal money triggered by their actions, lawmakers directed about $1 billion to Florida's storm-stricken communities.
    Flemming does acknowledge -- but only barely -- the deep divisions over how to handle hurricane relief that opened up during the legislative session. He quotes Northwest Florida's own Dave Murzin as saying, "We're trying to help as many segments as we can, and yeah, there's probably going to be some criticism."

    And Fleming adds this, from House Speaker Allan Beame: "Not everyone got what they wanted. That's how this process is."

    What proces is that? Why, the legislative process of handing out holiday gifts, of course. Regrettably, Fleming's account is about as helpful as explaining to your child that Santa Claus can't possibly make all the presents one might wish for because there are so many other children in the world who need presents, too.

    For a little more detail on the actual legislative "process" behind the headlines, you could turn to Abby Goodnough's somewhat livelier article in the New York Times. At least she adds a few elfs to the cast of characters in the Florida Legislature's Christmas play, starting with state CEO Tom Gallagher:
    Some lawmakers... complained that the relief package did not provide nearly enough money for people who desperately needed it.

    * * *
    But Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, said he thought the package sufficed.

    "I think the money is pretty close to right," Mr. Gallagher said of the deductible reimbursement plan. "It won't take care of everybody, but it will take care of 75 to 90 percent, maybe even higher."
    What really distinguishes reporter Goodnough's dispatch is how she places what happened in Tallahasee in a broader national context and why that is drawing the interest of the insurance lobby:
    Florida has often been a trendsetter on insurance. In 1996, it became the first state to establish hurricane deductibles based on a percentage of the insured value of houses and condominiums. Now, many states along the Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Hawaii, have such deductibles.

    Robert P. Hartwig, the chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group in New York, said he did not think other states would follow Florida's lead on applying only one deductible per hurricane season. The general practice in insurance, he said, is that a deductible is applied for each damage claim.

    "If someone has ice damage in a Northern state in January and a similar claim in March, it is going to be two deductibles," Mr. Hartwig said.
    Few of the news accounts you can see, however, give the reader a real sense of the blood-and-guts politicking between legislators and insurance industry lobbyists that went on over the past four days. For that kind of context, you have to turn to Mary Ellen Klas' superb report in the Miami Herald.

    Klas paints a real-world picture that isn't from your 6th grade civics textbook:
    Legislators said Thursday that hefty increases in insurance for condominium associations may be one of the unintended consequences to their fast-track approval of an insurance relief bill and vowed to address the issue when they return next year.

    * * *
    [A]s legislators rushed headlong into the complicated realm of insurance law, they left many questions unanswered. The largest of them is what impact this will have on residential commercial property, a niche market that provides the master insurance policies of condominium associations.

    Under those plans, the insurance costs are paid through the monthly fees to the association. So if the insurance rates rise, the burden on residents increases as well.

    * * *
    [Insurance company] executives told legislators that because the value of the properties they insure is so large, the deductibles to the condominium associations is often in the millions of dollars.

    They warned that a switch to a single seasonal deductible, as required in the relief bill, could force them to seek rate increases of up to 37 percent or to stop renewing policies.

    "Most of the condo associations that we deal with are already at the breaking point when it comes to insurance costs," said Phil Lyons, a vice president with InSource, a Miami insurance agency. "It's going to get ugly."
    Klas manages to peel back the curtain on the legislative "process" so vaguely referred to by other reporters with this money quote from a key legislative leader:
    Some legislators wanted to heed the warnings and exempt the condo insurers from the bill legislators passed Thursday, while others, chiefly Senate President Tom Lee, wondered whether industry speculation about rate hikes was a bluff.

    "One of the great tactics of the special interests in the process is they'll lurk in the shadows until the deal is done and then they'll lob hand grenades into it because they never wanted a bill to begin with," Lee said.

    He also suggested that the companies were also interested in "protecting market share" by being excluded from the ban on multiple deductibles.
    Not all legislators were happy about the White Elephant Christmas gifts they handed out, either.
    However, [Senator Skip] Campbell, the Tamarac Democrat, warned that if the insurers are correct, "you're going to have a lot of constituents in the state of Florida that are going to be pretty angry at us. ... We're between a rock and a hard place."
    It's always terrific to see a journalist at work trying to educate the public about the real legislative process, instead of reaffirming childish myths we were raised on.

    After all, in a reality-based world, someone has to say it. Santa Claus doesn't exist. Insurance industry lobbyists do.

    Thursday, December 16, 2004

    Standards for Adjusters

    Maybe it was there all the time; or maybe it just popped up on the web.

    Either way, there is on-line at the Citizens Property Insurance web site a document titled the CITIZENS/NFIP COMBINED WIND/FLOOD STANDARDS AND PROCEDURES.

    [Web Note: If, like many, you sometimes have trouble viewing successive .pdf documents in your browser, try right-clicking on the link, choose "open in a new window" and in the next screen select "download" to save to your hard drive, then view the document off-line.]

    It is a must-read for anyone who's wondering if their adjuster knows what he's doing or is treating them fairly -- although I have some cautions you should read (below) before you assume too much.

    Essentially, these "standards and procedures" describe the minimum professional duties an adjuster must perform when adjusting property loss claims for both Wind and Flood. It covers the waterfront, so to speak, from first contact with the insured to how the adjuster submits his receipts to be paid.

    More importantly, the manual, in effect, describes minimum standards that Florida insurance adjusters must obey as they inspect property for damage, record their observations, report those observations, calculate the monetary losses, etc. etc. The standards are fairly specific, too. They range from minutae like "Photographs must be mounted, no more than two to a page" when compiling a report -- to hugely important standards of professionalism such as,
    "The SAP adjuster is required to make immediate insured contact by phone within 24 hours... ."
    and --
    "The adjuster will determine what, if any, temporary repairs have been made or are necessary to protect the property from further damage. The reasonable costs of temporary repairs that mitigate damage are a proper item of the claim... ."
    Another that may be a favorite for some is --
    "A maximum amount of 20% of the building estimate is available to the insured for the overhead and profit of a general contractor [emphasis in original] employed to oversee the repair of the insured’s property."
    There are a great many more like that. The practice areas covered are listed in the table of contents. They include such timely subjects for Pensacolians, among others, as --
    and so on.

    I'm not going to list all of the standards here. The document runs to 23 pages. Instead, you should download and save a copy for yourself by clicking here while the manual is still accessible on the Internet.


    Be aware of a three caveats. First, embedded in the document itself is some indication it was last updated on September 9, 2002 -- more than two years ago. That doesn't mean this isn't the most up-to-date "SAP" manual Citizens has produced. But it is possible it has been revised or updated.

    Second, after spending a few minutes on the Citizens Property Insurance web site I couldn't find a more current manual. But that doesn't mean there isn't one. Maybe it's buried somewhere in Citizens' Adjuster Training Library and I overlooked it. Or, maybe there is a newer version of the manual and Citizens just doesn't want to publish it on the web.

    Third, indications are that the Google robot that scans the web came across this document yesterday, December 15. That doesn't mean a whole lot, except that Google's amazing technology found it there yesterday, I saw it today, and maybe it still will be there tomorrow -- and maybe not.

    My guess is that the "Standards and Procedures" for hurricane loss adjusters is not a document Citizens would want hurricane victims to know about or to have access to. It tells us too much.

    That's why you should snag a copy while you can.

    Wednesday, December 15, 2004

    FEMA'S Catch 22

    Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.
    Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
    "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
    "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

    -- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    Reporter Derek Pivnick of the Pensacola News Journal covered last night's post-Ivan "Town Hall" meeting at Oriole Beach Elementary School in Gulf Breeze. Someone slapped the apt title Meeting Flooded With Queries on the article.

    There were plenty of questions, to judge from Pivnick's piece, but darn few answers. According to Pivnick:
    [T]here was no shortage of questions from the audience at the first of two planned town hall meetings to discuss issues related to Hurricane Ivan recovery.

    About 100 people jammed into the music room Tuesday night at Oriole Beach Elementary School to ask county, state and federal officials in attendance about applying for financial assistance, dealing with insurance claims and rebuilding tattered homes.

    * * *
    Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration, National Flood Insurance Program, Florida Department of Financial Services and Santa Rosa County attended the meeting.
    Pivnick more or less relies on Santa Rosa Shores resident Armando Sarasua as his tentmate 'Orr' to voice the now-familiar complaints.
    Sarasua expressed frustration with his insurance adjusters. He's had a problem getting a fair damage estimate for the flood damage, and he hasn't heard from the adjuster in two weeks. Sarasua has heard even less from his wind-storm insurance adjuster.

    "It's getting to the end of the line. I need to know what these guys are going to do, so I know what to ask FEMA for," he said.
    One answer Pivnick heard was that the deadline for applying to FEMA for assistance is December 31 and the deadline to ask for a Small Business Administration loan is January 3. Yet, "call volume...remains high" FEMA public information officer Jeni Goevelinger told Pivnick.

    Get it? Two different Government deadlines falling right in the middle of the holiday season, and many hurricane victims still waiting on word from their insurance companies before they register with FEMA.

    "That's kind of the confusing part, unfortunately," Pivnick quotes SBA loan officer John Bates as saying. "There's money there for everybody. I want to encourage everybody to apply and not disqualify themselves."

    To be sure, the agencies are accepting "registrations" and "applications" for assistance even if you have insurance. But many ordinary folk -- applying common sense and what they've been taught by politicians over the years -- know that Government won't help unless they've exhausted their own resources first. And many won't know what those 'resources" are until the Government deadlines have passed.

    Anyway, how can a hurricane victim judge the amount of help to ask for until he knows how much of his losses will be covered by insurance? As Sarasua told Pivnick, "I need to know what these guys are going to do, so I know what to ask FEMA for."

    Meanwhile, insurance companies like Citizens keep making seductive promises that all insurance claims will be resolved by the end of the year. By the time it sinks in that Citizens can't make good on its promise to resolve all claims by the end of the year, it will be too late for many.

    It's time for FEMA and SBA to extend their deadlines. Without an extension, it's a perfect Catch-22: As Yossarian might put it, "You'd be crazy to apply for assistance and crazy if you don't."

    Tuesday, December 14, 2004

    Adding Up the Numbers

    Glenn Singer of the Sun-Sentinel today follows up with some hard numbers on the reported promise of Citizens Insurance to resolve all outstanding hurricane damage claims by December 31.

    "Overall," she writes, "Citizens received 112,000 claims from the four hurricanes that struck Florida this year." This is out of "882,000 policies in force."

    Earlier, the Florida Financial Services Department reported receiving 4,100 complaints by the first week of December. Assuming each complaint represents an unresolved claim -- a reasonable assumption -- with 17 days to year's end that works out to more than 241 claims that need to be resolved every single day.

    Or, to put it another way, one claim needs to be resolved every two minutes. And that's based on the usual 8-hour state work day for 17 straight days, weekends and Christmas Day included.

    If you think that seems formidable, consider the fact that many of the 108,000 remaining customers probably have not yet come to the point of filing a formal complaint although their claims remain unresolved. Certainly, some of them must have been settled by now. Even if only a quarter of the total of 112,000 claims are still open (no sure thing it's so low), that still leaves 28,000 unresolved cases.

    If that's about right, Citizens' promised claim-closing rate would have to increase to 1,647 per day, or a rate of 3.4 claim resolutions per minute per day for 17 straight 8-hour days.

    On second thought, maybe not. Maybe all Citizens really has to do is keep making those promises until the legislature goes home at the end of this week.