Monday, November 28, 2005

Little Matchstick Girls

"This is business as usual for the insurance companies, only it has come to Pensacola in a very big way. It may not be you today, but it could be you tomorrow."
-- Attorney Matt Schultz, Pensacola News Journal
November 27, 2005

A major portion of the news section in yesterday's Pensacola News Journal was devoted to the travails and tragedies of "hundreds of Escambia and Santa Rosa homeowners whose hurricane recovery is on hold while they sue their insurance companies over disputed settlements."

Lesley Conn provided the centerpiece: "Burden of Proof: The future for many homeowners hinges on a 2004 court ruling". Around Conn's article, sidebars in the print edition and on the web tell the true-life stories of local residents like Patty and Frank Liberato (Grande Lagoon), Gaynelle and Dan Brannon (also Grande Lagoon), Lillie Johnson (Montclair), and Christina and Patrick Monahan (Gulf Breeze).

It's a timely update about the human misery and still-visible property wreckage brought about by obdurate insurance companies -- and aggravated by the most recent change in state law which the insurance industry bought from our legislators in Tallahassee by a combination of lobbying and campaign contributions.

Many insurance companies still are trying to avoid paying fair compensation to area customers who, uncontestably, suffered substantial losses in last year's Hurricane Ivan. The insurance companies singled out by name for criticism by Conn's informants are Citizens Property, Allstate, Universal Property & Casualty, and Lloyd's of London.

From what we hear locally, several others could have been named as well. On Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key, Grande Lagoon, Villa Venice, Oriole Beach, Tiger Point, and other near-coast neighborhoods the homes and businesses of many people remain exactly as Hurricane Ivan left them fourteen months ago.

Conn grabbed two quotes yesterday that particularly stand out. In the first one, local attorney Matt Schultz told her that seeing insurance companies try to avoid paying benefits is "business as usual." He adds --
"Only it has come to Pensacola in a very big way. It may not be you today, but it could be you tomorrow."
The second quote comes from the narration of a 4-minute videotape showing the cement slab that once was the home of Gaynelle and Dan Brannon. In the video, which is available on the PNJ web site, the narrator gives vent to his emotions after more than a year of negotiations with his insurance companies:
"Our governor, Bush, and Gallagher, which [sic] is in charge of Financial Services for the state, and the insurance commissioner is under him, is also violating the law by not asking for and calling -- and demanding -- an indictment of these people for criminal wrong doing, criminal charges. So I just think that... I hope people from Katrina hear about this and read this response, because they're in for a really big, eye-opening experience. It hasn't hit yet, it's too early. They're still under the stall tactics and so forth. But they need to wake up and realize -- they need to be paid promptly for their claims."
It is something of a newspaper tradition to run stories around the holiday season that describe the desperate circumstances of the poor, the sick, the homeless, orphans, and others. Such 'Little Matchstick Girl' stories, as an editor of the Toledo Blade we know used to call them, are very much in the true spirit of Christmas. Yet, one suspects that the eyes of a lot of readers just skim over those headlines and quickly turn to the glitzy department store ads.

Deep down, too many of us suppose that the poor and dispossessed really aren't our brothers -- and that we aren't their keepers. Their poverty makes us feel uncomfortable. Their illnesses disgust us. The apparent hopelessness of their lives scares us. And, perhaps most of all, we are affronted by the implication that the economic, political, and legal systems we helped to create somehow contribute to and prolong their misery.

As Leslie Conn's article, attorney Schultz's words, and the videotape narration of the Brannon's home site remind us, they can become us. If not this year, then next -- or the year after.

So, we should all be paying close attention to what our elected officials are doing with the insurance mess they created. Because we are all Little Matchstick Girls now.

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